At Last: TV With Meaning

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The word”gritty” is thrown around in reference to almost any cop drama today. But”gritty” isn’t gritty enough to capture the essence of HBO’s cop drama “The Wire.” More than reflecting the real life of cops and the criminals they chase, the show depicts all facets of city life, including race, education, politics, unions, and the justice system. What emerges is a microcosm of the struggles that urban America has faced since the War on Drugs kicked into high gear and the “white flight” into suburbia deprived cities of their tax base.

The show is the brainchild of David Simon, who is also the creator of the show “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” This one also takes place in Baltimore, a city that has been struggling for decades with a very high rate of drug addiction, property crime, and violent crime. It is not uncommon for the city to see nearly 300 homicides a year; with a population of just 650,000, this is frighteningly high, as is the over- all crime rate. Indeed Baltimore, with its blue-collar roots, is the perfect case study for urban decline.

In its first season “The Wire” used a drug investigation as a backdrop to an even more intense struggle taking place within the police department itself. High ranking police officials worried more about how the investigation was making them look than about how successful they were in breaking up a well- organized drug ring.

The investigation leads into a world with a parallel government, economy, and system of justice. The drug dealers in this network have a well-honed survival instinct that keeps them one step ahead of the police. Unlike most crime shows, “The Wire” does not simply chase the bad guys and throw them in jail; it examines the economics and col- lateral damage of the drug trade and even experiments with legalization.

At one point the dealers discuss how much simpler the drug game would be if murdering was not necessary to maintain the territories, each understanding that one day he may be killed for access to the corner where he makes his living. It is just this sort of argument that screams out for legalization. Eliminate the black-market features of the drug trade, and all that’s left are people getting high, a pastime that is as old as mankind.

The show’s writers are not content with a purely theoretical argument. In season 3, rogue District Major Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom) legalizes drugs in a small section of his territory, determined to provide a way for law-abiding people to live their lives free of drug- related violence. He tells all the dealers and addicts that they are free to deal and use in an area of vacant row houses dubbed “Hamsterdam,” on one condition: there will be no murders.

This experiment does not portray legalization as a panacea for happy drug use; the legalized area encounters problems of its own. In a revealing exchange, the major defends his position by saying that none of the dealers and users are worse off than they were before: “Now they’re just in one place.” His friend replies, “and that place is hell.” The Hamsterdam experiment shows that people must live with the consequences of their own choices. If you want to deal or use drugs, you will have to associate with other people who have made that choice. Meanwhile, with the drug trade contained in one area, the rest of the district can relax. Children play outside, the elderly walk around at night, and those who have made the choice not to use narcotics can finally live in peace.

The viewer sees what a world with legalized drugs would be like and con- templates such issues as: Where would the drugs be bought? How would they be taxed? Would just anyone be able to buy them? Sell them? Would there be an age limit? Would there be specific drug use districts? How would public health concerns be handled in these districts? Would dealers be licensed, and if so, what sort of purity control would you have to guarantee in order to get a license?

This is but one facet of the drug war that the show explores. The dealers also struggle with a weak supply chain that forces them to dilute the quality of the heroin they sell. They use marketing gimmicks, such as changing the color of the vial top or giving a new package a snappier nickname, like WMD. How to launder the money is also a concern; the show meticulously details how to uncover front companies and properties bought with illicit money.

The drug war is not the only reason that “The Wire” provides for the decline of Baltimore. Unions are a problem, too. In season 2 the show explores the long- shoremen’s union that works the cargo ships coming in and out of the city’s port. The port has long been in decline, and the union’s membership and hours have dwindled. Now the union president has hired lobbyists to push the state government in Annapolis for improvements to the docks. reveals corruption among the union lobbyists who get into bed with unsavory characters who, in addition to stealing from the docks, attempt to smuggle in women for the sex trade.

When the women end up dead inside a cargo container, the rest of the season focuses on the investigation, illustrating the decline of the port and its union. A decent living can no longer be made working the few ships that come in. Developers continue to lobby for access to the port for residential development, new technologies are introduced that replace manpower with computers, and the union dies a slow death – its members the last of a breed of organized blue-collar workers in an economy that has passed them by.

In its recently completed fourth sea- son the show depicts the struggles of children in an inner-city middle school. It becomes apparent, early on, that edu- cation is not a high priority. Faced with a huge budget shortfall, a new mayor has to choose between two options: taking state money and losing local control of the schools, or keeping control and letting the schools operate in the red for the foreseeable future. Not surprisingly, the mayor decides to go with the option that is least likely to endanger his chances in a statewide race for governor.

At the end of the season the viewer is left with a pretty clear understanding of why the students cannot read at a level even two grades behind their year in school. The school system is regulated from the top with the interests of the unions and the administrators more at issue than education. An innovative classroom study, overseen in part by the

Unlike most crime shows, “The Wire” examines the economics and collateral damage of the drug trade and even experiments with legalization.


now retired officer who tried to legalize drugs, is shut down for failing to submit to the orthodoxy demanded by the school board. Instead of teaching children in a manner that speaks to their world and the challenges they face, a one-size-fits-all standard is applied that is guaranteed to leave more than a few far behind.

“The Wire’s” fifth season will be its last. It is rumored that it will feature a subplot examining the media’s role in inner-city life. My hope is that the show will be able to go out with the same unsentimental portrayal of urban decay and struggle that has been its hallmark for the past four seasons. Unlike “The Sopranos,” it does not have a larger-than-life character whose final act would inevitably disappoint. What it does have is the sort of inconclusive narrative in which no action is truly independent, no decision ends up affecting only those whom the decision maker intended to affect, and every move is calculated to have the best possible impact on career prospects. That’s not gritty, that’s everyday life in the big city.

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