“The Wire” is currently available via HBO’s demand platforms, but as a public service, the pay channel should repeat the acclaimed drama before the city of Baltimore fades from the headlines. Indeed, one would hope some of the politicians and pundits weighing in on the rioting there would take a long, sober look.
Yes, it’s a fictional series. But having worked as a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun, the show’s creator David Simon clearly recognized the intractable problems that plague the city, layering them upon each other from season to season and building toward one inexorable conclusion: Despite the inevitable posturing and pronouncements, nothing was going to get done.
The program began with the drug dealers and cops, two warring tribes, each caught up in its own intramural squabbles and bureaucracy. Subsequent seasons then proceeded to encompass struggling blue-collar workers and lost jobs; the corruption and myopia of the political class; under-funded and ill-equipped schools, failing students who fall through the cracks; and finally, a media strafed by its own slashed staffs and cutbacks, leaving a major metropolitan newspaper that wound up — as Simon acerbically noted at the time — “missing the whole story.”
Written as the great American novel for television, “The Wire” played as a tragedy, where cycles of poverty and inaction weren’t broken because, with few exceptions, nobody had the combination of will and resources to do so. The depressing nature of that vision no doubt helps explain why the series generated more rave reviews than viewers, striking a little too close to home. (HBO fared better with programs featuring mobsters, vampires and dragons.)
Simon has been blogging about what’s happening in Baltimore, and was interviewed by former New York Times editor Bill Keller about the roots of the issues. Those news outlets training a camera on the rioting and looting on continuous loop would be well advised to take the time to peruse these thoughts, which placed the unrest and other outbreaks in necessary context. By contrast, as “The Daily Show” documented, there was the image of CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer expressing disbelief this could be happening — ignoring not just recent events but the fact Baltimore’s eruption comes almost exactly 23 years after the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict, and a half-century after the Watts riots, to name just two.
At their best, great dramas can produce serious conversations, holding up a mirror to reality. As for whether a deeper look from media that goes beyond the harrowing pictures is likely to emerge, consider this: The big “get” interview out of Baltimore — by CBS and CNN — has been a human-interest story about a mother caught on camera physically disciplining her son.
“Did you worry about embarrassing him?” CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked the woman, Toya Graham, during an on-the-street interview televised Wednesday night — presumably because the graphic on the screen, “MOTHER, SON, SPEAK OUT ON RIOTING SMACKDOWN,” surely wouldn’t.
CNN, its excesses notwithstanding, is just one part of the media ecosystem. Yet absorbing the reactive nature of the coverage and knee-jerk analysis from politicians and cable-news talking heads, one can see why Simon titled his blog “The Audacity of Despair.”