Not long ago, I announced in these very pages that a TV show like Breaking Bad will never come again. Well, I have to eat humble pie and say that there is a show just as good as Breaking Bad, if not better.
I am talking of The Wire.
I came late to this acclaimed show, partly because it was created before the advent of online streaming and partly because the show’s use of African American street slang made it somewhat inaccessible. But this summer, I discovered that it did not take more than a couple of episodes to get hooked.
The world of The Wire, unlike that of the Sopranos or Breaking Bad, is one that we all live in. This is a show, not just about kids dealing drugs on the streets, but about the social and political system that makes it necessary. David Simon, creator, producer, and writer, does not deliver his message through preachy rants delivered by self-righteous characters, but through a suspenseful, tightly woven mystery that keeps the viewer on the edge of her seat.
Apart from the excellent writing, the wonderful directing, and the realistic locations of Baltimore, what hooked me onto the show was the acting by its young African American cast. Never have I seen a major production give so much opportunity to black actors. From the young kids who start selling “packages” at street corners at ages as young as ten, to the police officers, church ministers, politicians, boxing coaches, petty thieves, thugs, drug addicts and drug lords, the show captures the non-Cosby-show like reality of black inner-city life in America in the new millennium. For Indian Americans, who mostly live in suburbs, the show should be an education.
David Simon does something rare in The Wire. Instead of limiting himself to the riveting tale of drug lords, their child soldiers, and the cops who chase them, he expands the circle to include the dockworkers, the schools, the politicians, and the media, while keeping some of the main characters weaving in and out of the story. He has said that he wanted to build a city, but what Simon has developed instead is a mini America itself. When you remember that these stories are not simply products of his fertile imagination, but based on real events that Simon, as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and his co-writer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop, witnessed, your blood chills.
What takes your breath away is the complexity of the plot and the characters. No one person is the bad guy here, rather, everyone, from the drug boss to the street dealer to the corrupt dockworker to the police chief to the politician, is a victim of his or her own circumstance. The kids grow up in the ghetto, attending poorly funded schools where the teachers are unable to remedy the lack of parenting at home, and become drug kingpins or pawns in the game, falling casualties to gang violence. The cops, who are instructed not to target the big culprits, but to round up petty dealers at street corners in America’s so-called war on drugs, drown their stress in alcohol; a few are corrupt but most are just following orders. Their chiefs are asked one minute to bring down the stats—as in statistics on homicides —the next, asked to ignore them to avoid bad publicity. The politicians, who come into office with good intentions, are persuaded by strategists to please the voters during election cycles, and often drop the pursuit of real perpetrators who fund their campaigns.
What moved me the most was Season Four, in which, focusing on the inner lives of four kids, the show made the viewer root for them. One kid looks after a younger sibling and an addicted mother and is driven to become a hit man in order to earn a living; another is pushed to deal drugs by his materialistic mother while his father serves life in prison. The third one is a social outcast whose only friend is the hit man, a fourth a foster child who unwittingly becomes witness to a murder. The scenes with the kids and their caring teachers who wash their clothes or take them into their homes are heartbreaking; so is the cop who tries to protect the witness.
Ironically, in the middle of watching Season Four, I attended a political fundraiser and was proudly informed by an East Bay mayor that the murder rate in her city had fallen from sixty to sixteen. That was when I realized how brilliantly realistic The Wire really is.
What makes the show bearable is the wry humor sprinkled in with the blood and gore. Take the scene with Stringer Bell, played by Idris Elba, for example, who adheres to Roberts Rules to conduct a business meeting with his gangster underlings, but exclaims, “Are you effing taking notes of a criminal conspiracy,” when his associate begins to take minutes.
The show begs the question as to why white drug users are left off the hook while small time black dealers are targeted. I also wondered who is sheltering the white drug lords and their downtown lawyers like the fictional Levy.
During this election season, which will start with the midterms and continue onto the presidential contest, you should watch The Wire. But don’t expect pat happy endings like in Hollywood.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.