The Wire as High Art

Consider the following sentence from Margaret Talbot’s excellent profile of HBO’s The Wire

Sometimes the fan base of “The Wire” seems like the demographics of many American cities—mainly the urban poor and the affluent élite, with the middle class hollowed out.

Which of course explains a lot about the tremendous appeal of the show’s intelligent cynicism. The Wire is, without question, the smartest and most compelling show on television, and I say this as someone who holds Lost in fanatically high esteem. The Wire is on an entirely different level. And yet it’s written by people with a noteworthily limited understanding of politics and economics. It is a sophisticated understanding, in a sense; by weaving an incredibly dense web of cynicism, it becomes immune to contradictory evidence. The problem, for David Simon and Ed Burns and thus The Wire, is unbridled capitalism and the transition to a post-industrial society. We are all captive to this tragic “system,” and anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a knave.

So in that case, I guess there’s not really much to say …

Now, this is a worldview that of course appeals to the native-born urban poor, who have good reason to believe that the deck is stacked against them: that’s because it is. A combination of the prison-industrial complex, the devaluation of low-skill labor, and massive family disruption, which is closely related to the first two phenomena, mean a lot of poor families have a hard time ever getting on the escalator to middle-class stability. And of course middle-class stability isn’t what it used to be. It is better in some mostly unimportant ways: we consume more housing and better stuff. And it is worse in the most important way: children are less likely to grow up with two parents, and social isolation is more common.

These patterns can be disrupted. Predictably, I think the solution lies in some combination of targeted redistribution and paternalism. But it is easy to think that these patterns can’t be disrupted, or more to the point that they won’t thanks to the indifference of the vast majority of (white) Americans.

This leads us to the affluent élite, or rather the the small liberal slice affluent élite that embraces high-brow television and that clusters in the gentrified and gentrifying districts of the great American cities: here we have a group that is comfortable with redistribution and deeply uncomfortable with paternalism. Our experience with redistribution minus paternalism has been, to put it charitably, mixed. (I say mixed to emphasize that there have been real Great Society successes that we shouldn’t overlook. Conservatives make this mistake too often, and it undermines their credibility.) But because paternalism is so culturally distasteful, it is better to throw up one’s hands, or to make “the problem” so overbroad as to seem impossible and intractable, and thus almost attractive.

By telling us that we are all complicit in the crime that is capitalism, The Wire tells us that none of us are complicit. There are some exceptions to this.

“As cynically as the rest of this stuff is ending, it will validate the one place we put any of our sincerity, which is individual action.” It’s hard to classify Simon politically, but anytime you start thinking of him as some sort of bleeding-heart socialist you’re brought up short by his unremitting skepticism about institutions.

Perhaps, but my sense is that Simon’s “unremitting skepticism” enables him to indulge in his high-minded politics without taking any responsibility for the failures of urban liberalism, which, to be fair, have been to my mind exacerbated if not surpassed by the suburban conservatism of lock-‘em-up. Mayor Carcetti fails because he is a poseur. But would a Mayor Simon do any better? And if not, what does that say about Simon’s sophisticated diagnosis or urban ills?

So yes, I like the show. It is supremely entertaining, and it rings true. But I think it’s not quite the challenging fare it’s creators imagine it to be.

To tell you the truth, I feel odd writing this. I can’t understate that The Wire is truly important. If I ever had children, I’d want them to watch it. (Once they were old enough, that is.) Still, I worry about how comfortable and smug a cerebral urbanite, thoroughly insulated from the real dangers vividly portrayed in the show, must feel after watching it. I do think a show like The Wire can do good simply by expanding our ambit of moral concern, what Rorty called “learned empathy.” But does it really do that? I’m not sure.