HBO’s The Wire: Dignity or Despair?

By Ron Wall

Posted 3/4/08 at 6:50 AM

HBO’s The Wire finales this Sunday at 9 p.m.., and the themes of this fifth and final season—centered around the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun, where the show’s creator David Simon once worked as an editor— have been integrity and honesty, or as Simon says—“just how far you can go on a lie.” A Sun reporter who fakes quotes, a cop who drinks too much and fabricates evidence about a serial killer so he can get the resources he needs to go after drug dealing, a mayor fighting for his political life, a senator accused of misappropriating funds, and gang-bangers avenging some trumped up diss. Simon’s known for creating characters that are complex; shades of grey instead of black and white. But still, these aren’t exactly the folks you want over for drinks on Friday night.

But, as Simon asks himself here: “Does that mean The Wire is without humanist affection for its characters? Or that it doesn’t admire characters who act in a selfless or benign fashion? Camus rightly argues that to commit to a just cause against overwhelming odds is absurd. He further argues that not to commit is equally absurd. Only one choice, however, offers the slightest chance for dignity. And dignity matters.”

To see how much it matters, go to your TIVO and watch this season’s Episode 2 again. On the streets struggling with his demons, is Bubbles, a recovering addict who is challenged by his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor (played by singer/songwriter Steve Earle) to step up and be honest about his feelings. With no place to stay during the day, he eats at the Baltimore Catholic Worker house. The clamor at lunch is punctuated by a mother threatening to beat her child if she doesn’t quiet down. One of the Workers (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dorothy Day) steps in and reprimands the mother, saying there will be none of that in this place. This is a place of peace, she says—the only place, it seems, of quiet, calm and honesty in the west side of Baltimore, at least according to The Wire.

Which isn’t a surprise, since Simon is “the angriest man in television,” according to the title of Mark Bowden’s profile in last month’s The Atlantic. In that article, Simon is quoted as saying that The Wire is about “the very simple idea that, in this postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We’re worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. “

Sounds right. But whose fault is that?

“It’s the triumph of capitalism…” 

Maybe, but we’ve been down that road before. Simon’s Das Kapital redux is much less interesting than the series, which, Bowden agrees, is “the best TV show ever broadcast in America.” The Wire, Bowden says, “does for turn-of-the-millennium Baltimore what Dickens’s Bleak House does for mid-19th-century London.”

Yet despite its “brilliance” Bowden believes there’s a flaw in The Wire. He brings in Elijah Anderson, a Yale sociologist with street cred, to explain. ‘The show is very good,’ Anderson says. ‘It resonates. It is powerful in its depiction of the codes of the streets, but it is an exaggeration. I get frustrated watching it, because it gives such a powerful appearance of reality, but it always seems to leave something important out. What they have left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.’”

Bowden, a former newspaperman himself, questions the authenticity of Simon’s angry, self-righteous new editor persona, and wonders whether the ultra-realism of his fiction is, well, real.

“It is true that the more true stories you tell, the more acquainted you are with suffering, stupidity, venality, and vice. But you’re also more acquainted with selflessness, courage, and decency. Old reporters and editors are softened by knowledge and experience. If anything, they become less inclined to suspect or condemn. They encounter incompetence more often than evil, and they see that very few people who screw up do so in ways that are indefensible. After years of drumming up the other side of the story, old reporters are likely to grow less angry and opinionated, not more…”

It’s interesting that Bowden’s portrait of a wise reporter resembles that of a saint. But can a saint create powerful television? I don’t know. But in the meantime I’ll take the brilliance of David Simon and The Wire, and look for hope elsewhere.