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Food for the Poor Godspy.com: Faith at the Edge


Ron Wall | 03.04.08


HBO’s The Wire: Dignity or Despair?

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.

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By Romanowsky AT 03.05.08 04:39AM Not Rated


I’m no Ivy league scholar with street cred, and I haven’t even seen the fifth season, but as a close watcher and die-hard fan of the first four seasons, I can’t help but defend Simon the angry man’s realism.

To take just the fourth season: instead of formulaic “God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people,” Simon gives us, for example, Prez, Bunny, and Cutty. Who would argue that these characters aren’t “decent people”? Seems to me, they’re exactly the kind of folks you’d want to invite over for drinks on Friday night. I think angry man has the decency base covered here.

But these characters aren’t just “decent people” either; they’re more than the sum of their good deeds. They’re nuanced, fascinating, well-developed characters in their own right; and this is what makes The Wire not only “realistic” but deeply compelling TV.

What makes any portrayal of human reality “realistic” anyway? It’s definitely more than just giving an “objective” picture of what’s there. It also has to include the whole mysterious drama of subjective experience. In other words, it has to be deeply personal. That’s why it takes real insight and creative genius to make “realism” ring true.

By Ron Wall AT 03.05.08 06:41AM Not Rated

Ron Wall

No Yale street cred here either. I too think The Wire is nothing short of brilliant and I’m totally on Simon’s side. The only real hope - in fact, grace - in the fifth season is to be found in Bubbles and the people who surround him. Everyone is else is caught in the big lie and looking for the scapegoat in the Girardian sense.

By DeYoung AT 03.07.08 12:46AM Not Rated


Thank you for starting this discussion on what I believe is the best television series ever created in terms of writing, directing, and just raw storytelling power. After my roommate introduced me to the first episode of the first season, I dropped everything besides work, and spent the next ten days plowing through the first three seasons (I’ve yet to see any of season four or five). During that gluttonous week and a half, I found myself responding to everyday questions with words and phrases like “believe” and “mos def.” I even had to catch myself from blurting out McNulty’s mainstay, “what the puck did I do?” when I was called into my boss’s office after a late-night Wire binge.

Now, more to the point, I think you are both right. What made The Wire so powerful for me is the compelling interplay of personal decisions and institutional/cultural pressures. What makes so many of these characters so human is the goodness and evil that resides in all of them, and the cultural influences that compel (could one even dare say “force”) all of them to live as less than integrated individuals. We all live in our own little worlds where we balance between the exercise of virtue and vice (with the sins and virtues expressing themselves in more muted situations and choices, of course).

This show could definitely use some more redemption and hope, for sure, but what I found interesting is that when small acts/expressions of goodness showed themselves, they came through with a great deal of beauty, and offered refreshing nuggets of hope (in the characters of Cutty and D’Angelo, for instance, not having the benefit of viewing the later seasons). And I agree with Romanowsky that Cutty would be an extremely interesting person to have a drink with.

What I’m curious about is whether a show of such power can be created about a world occupied by holy, virtuous people?

And can artistic virtuous people, once reaching a certain level of holiness, create shows like The Wire?

For now, I will join Ron and look for hope somewhere else (my hopes for The Wire were dashed when the arch of D’Angelo’s character was bluntly ended with his prison offing.)

By Romanowsky AT 03.08.08 06:25AM Not Rated


To the question can a saint, i.e. holy, virtuous person create powerful The Wire-like TV and/or do so about a world occupied by holy, virtuous people: yes and no, in my opinion.

First, no: because powerful drama never deals with abstractions, and real people can’t be captured by any preconceived notions of holiness and virtue (which we all have to greater and lesser degrees). When you start with an abstraction, you get the sort of “saintly” non-characters that populate the plethora of bad Christian and Catholic films, in which they turn even the rare “sins” of the saints into nothing but opportunities to prove their virtue.

Second, yes: as long as abstract ideas and concepts about holiness and virtue aren’t smuggled in and/or allowed to filter reality (which is the opposite of seeing with the eyes of faith, of course). I’d love to see a drama, compelling in itself, that has characters who reveal what real holiness and virtue might look like with a realism that resonates with the same authenticity as The Wire’s.

By panther97 AT 03.12.08 04:44AM Not Rated


The show was brilliant. Probably the best show of the 00s that nobody watched.

I believe that the show was definitely realistic. The reality is one full of despair in our inner cities where politicians and community leaders place band-aids on the symptoms and never go after the overarching problem—poverty. It is a shame.

Check out this week’s Time for an article written by Simon, Burns, Price, Lehane and Pelecanos about a form of civil disobedience we can partake in to get the govt and community leaders to act.


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