The Wire, created by David Simon (HBO, 2002-2008)
The language, violence, and sexuality in the five seasons of David Simon’s sprawling urban novel about Baltimore cops and drug dealers made it too rough for network TV and could turn many viewers away. But for those who stay to watch, Simon has fashioned a modern Dickensian tale of a city in decline, if not in its death throes. His unblinking critique of urban decay and desperation as well as political folly and corruption produces a rich and complex narrative that introduces us to sometimes mesmerizing characters.
At the heart of Simon’s drama, homicide detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon and their not-so-merry band of cops, district attorneys, and judges pursue violent drug dealers warring for control of Baltimore’s heroin and cocaine traffic. When these two “natural police” are allowed to do their work, they can catch felons with the best of them. But in a crumbling and corrupt city, dozens of bureaucratic and political forces conspire to impede good police work—as well as good teaching, good politics, and good newspaper reporting.
And this is the story The Wire tells so well—a story of police departments, public schools, city councils, unions, and newspapers overwhelmed by budget problems and cutbacks and run by a series of ambitious, corrupt, or inept bureaucrats interested only in protecting their turf or advancing their personal agendas. Here is the free market stripped of any sense of the neighborhood, citizenship, common good, or common sense.
But it is a lush tale, populated with Horatio Alger drug lords who study Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, bow-tied assassins who must have the latest copy of Harper’s to go with their Qur’an, and Lone Ranger Robin Hoods who shut down more dealers than the cops. And it is full of heroic cops trying to be real police, courageous teachers showing up in the worst schools to do the impossible, and recovering addicts trying to make it one day at a time. It is a Dickens of a story.—