The television show The Wire resurrects the classical Greek vision: some conflicts are beyond resolutionby John Gray / June 8, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Wire is unsettling because it presents “doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality”
When asked earlier this year which of the characters in The Wire was his favourite, President Obama chose Omar Little, a shotgun-wielding gay man who makes a living by robbing drug dealers. Holding to a code that bars any assault on people not directly involved in crime, Omar testifies to the persistence of a kind of honour in the struggle for urban survival. A politician whose career has been founded on projecting an inspirational image, it is not surprising that Obama is drawn to an authentically inspiring fictional creation.
But among many high-placed fans of The Wire, it may be the current US attorney general who deserves special note. Speaking in May 2011, Eric Holder made a personal plea to the writers David Simon and Ed Burns to do another season of the series, or better yet a movie. Created by Simon using his experience as a police reporter and Burns’ work as a homicide detective, and first shown ten years ago on June 2nd, 2002, The Wire gained a following—never very large, but passionately loyal—for its unsparing depiction of life in the city of Baltimore, primarily seen through the eyes of its police, drug dealers and politicians. Holder’s plea may have been a jokey public relations exercise designed to display his media awareness. Simon’s response was in deadly earnest. He and Burns were ready to go to work on a sixth season, he replied, “if the department of justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.”
That the president and attorney general are so familiar with the series underlines its enormous resonance. But while much of the debate surrounding The Wire has focused on the concrete political issues it addresses (such as America’s drugs policy), one of the show’s greatest achievements has been widely overlooked. The Wire presents a damning portrait of inner-city life in America without the prospect of redemption. It has none of the faith in the ultimate triumph of justice and the saving power of goodness that shows through many of the most hard-boiled thrillers. Taken seriously—as the series was undoubtedly meant to be, though it contains many scenes of black comedy—The Wire plants a compelling question mark over the creed of nearly all of those today who insist they have no religion: the belief that the intractable conflicts that are the stuff of tragedy are slowly being left behind.