Margaret Talbot has an excellent profile on David Simon, the creator of HBO’s drama The Wire for the October 22 Arts Issue of The New Yorker. Over its first four seasons, The Wire has established a reputation as a critical darling—more than one reviewer has spoken of it in terms of among the best dramas in television history—even as its audience (in the four million range) is modest compared to intra-network shows The Sopranos and even Big Love. Talbot demonstrates how much of this success traces back to Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun with a tenaciously realistic/cynical view of life and a confidence that borders on hubris. Additionally, Talbot writes that he “is an authenticity freak,” and his attention to detail, from the filming that takes place throughout Baltimore to the “ghetto dialogue” of the characters helps set the show apart from its contemporaries:
“ ‘The Wire’ débuted in June, 2002, looking more or less like a cop show. But the differences were important. It spent as much time with the lawbreakers as it did with the law enforcers. And you didn’t see the suspects through the cops’ eyes only—you saw them through their own as well. The drug trade emerged as its own intricate bureaucracy, a hierarchy that subtly mirrored that of the police department. Moreover, ‘The Wire’ did not rely on the jumpy handheld-camera shots and the blurry ‘swish pans’ that a lot of network cop shows had adopted. The camera remained locked, for minutes at a time, on people talking. And the story unfolded at a slower pace, too, which meant that many of the scenes elaborated on the characters and the power structures they moved within, rather than lay the pipe of plot.”
All of these aspects are notable, but having watched the first three seasons (and preparing to soon watch the fourth), I find the second half of the last sentence to be especially important. As each season concentrates upon a different aspect of Baltimore—first the street-level drug trade, then struggling longshoremen, individuals seeking power to make city-level changes, and finally the failings of the school system—it allows the viewer more context than one would ever imagine on a television show. As Talbot writes, this “sociological precision” allows Simon to present larger themes about how America’s transition to a service and technology-oriented economy continues to, in his words, “ ‘devalue human beings.’ ” The show’s storylines vividly convey this bleakness—its characters often make bad decisions that affect their lives, but their surrounding environment negatively affects them as well.
The result of this complexity is that there aren’t easy emotionally payoffs or neatly resolved morality tales in The Wire; on more than one occasion, I’ve spoken aloud in surprise or frustration even though I watch the show alone. Yet if we believe Picasso’s famous quote that “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” then The Wire presents a particularly useful form of storytelling that challenges us to reconsider our views on several topics—the effectiveness of social institutions, the circumstances of the urban poor, the impact of the War on Drugs—while also rewarding us with remarkable acting and narratives. That it does so is largely a testament to David Simon’s artistic vision.