Violence, sex, money and drugs — these are the ingredients that ooze from the twice-baked cake that is “The Wire.” But the show does much more than try to sell itself as a treat for leisurely consumption, as the junk food of television does. This show’s business is compelling the viewer into reexamination — and for this, we might consider it a vegetable in the meal of pop culture.
The first season of Ed Burns’ and David Simon’s HBO series takes the audience to the front lines of the War on Drugs, fought between the Baltimore City Police and a drug-dealing organization known as the Barksdale crew.
This, however, is not your typical detective show, as it doesn’t retain the good-evil dichotomy that is promulgated by most.
The cops, for instance, aren’t motivated to protect and serve. Rather, evidenced by their constant whitewashing of police malpractice and their fetish with surveillance technology, they are driven by either achieving career prominence within the department or the vain intellectual affirmation associated with outsmarting the “bad guys.”
What’s more, the so-called “bad guys” are merely motivated by the entrepreneurial, capitalist drive to turn a profit and support their families.
The obfuscation of good and evil is epitomized by the brutal and infamous, yet incredibly amiable, Omar Little. Omar, wielding a large shotgun and dawning a dark trench coat, makes his living by robbing drug dealers. And despite his intimidating reputation, he has a rather strict moral code, as he never preys on those not involved in drug dealing.
But other than that, as he tells his last victim in Season 1, “It’s all in the game.”
In short, the viewer is never satisfied rooting for a so-called good guy, or against a bad guy. This seems to be a tactic in the broader project of humanizing those most marginalized, chastised and moralized within the American experience.
This humanization is best achieved in D’Angelo, a recently-released from prison drug slinger within the Barksdale crew. Despite his life-long involvement in the game, D’Angelo is constantly struggling with the consequences of his participation in it. He even considers flipping on his cousin — the kingpin of the Barksdale organization — after learning that one of his mentees was murdered. But he simply can’t pull the trigger.
“I grew up in this shit,” D’Angelo tells the detectives. “My people, my father, my uncles — this is just what we do.”
D’Angelo’s claim, in fact, seems to be the case the show is making for all the characters involved. The cops, corrupt politicians and junkies simply can’t escape the circumstances and institutions that have made them who they are.
In making this structuralist claim, the show is afforded the latitude to make broad critiques. Most notably, it indicts the racist nature of the War on Drugs, the pervasive corruption in political institutions and the brutal exploitation apparent in unfettered capitalism.
Despite these progressive critiques, the season manages to marginalize women. The audience sees women in power, and one — Kima Greggs — is even presented as complex. But they are never developed as independent of the male characters.
Paradoxically enough, in spite of its radical politics, the show is only available on HBO, a cable and satellite television network that charges an expensive monthly rate on top of traditional cable packages. One would assume that this leaves the show inaccessible to the same demographics it aims to shed light on.
But, as Omar would say, “It’s all in the game.”
Nonetheless, it’s indeed a shame that such a show can’t be celebrated en masse.