Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"The Wire" is part of the problem

A few years ago, I watched several seasons of "The Wire." At first it was very entertaining, but I soon realized that it presented an insidious, conventional perspective. However, those around me love the show so much that they have neglected their usual critical views and refuse to recognize how the show might be rather problematic and conventional.

Why does my social world love "The Wire"? The show is smart and intelligent, exploring the way that problems today -- poverty, deindustrialization, crime, corruption, substandard schools, and so on -- are not only systemic but also interrelated. This incisive critical analysis works well with the gritty realism of a cop show drama. At the same time, the show moves beyond the cop show genre to play with other genres and play with various stereotypes. It also has authenticity through the incorporation of local actors and local Baltimore scenes.

Sounds good so far. So, what is the problem?

"The Wire" presents a conventional narrative about the decline of the city, not necessarily conventional in television but conventional in cities today. Who is to blame for this decline? The show smartly posits that institutions like government, the media, unionized shipyards, schools, and the police play by their own corrupt rules, which in interaction have brought the decline of the American working class and of American cities. Who is not to blame for this decline? The supposed viewer of the show. Those who watch high-quality cable television are generally upmarket, well-educated, urban professionals, maybe also predominantly white and "unmarked" by any obvious ethnicity (unlike the Polish shipyard worker, for example). This viewer can observe the true excitement of the show, knowing that they are not to blame for the situation but, possibly, they might be the solution. 

"The Wire" has an underlying structure of meaning. On the one hand, it examines the institutions of the New Deal welfare state (also called the Keynesian welfare state in the sociological literature) -- government, police, public education, and unions -- and finds them corrupt, stagnating, and decaying. In opposition, it explores the criminal world of Stringer Bell and Omar, finding it innovative, creative, and flexible. Now, of course, the show does not advocate either one of these options, but this opposition structures the meaning of the show:

The show, however, has another structure of meaning that is less overt. Looking at the show, what might the show suggest as a positive alternative to the Stagnant New Deal Welfare State? In sociology, we often see this alternative as the Neoliberal State, a form of government that presents itself as transparent, non-corrupt, good at technocratic tasks, and committed to serving the public, if the public is responsible and entrepreneurial (thus it is exclusionary):

Now, given that the show presents the media and corporations as close to crime, we can understand the show as criticizing the entire capitalist economy as a kind of free-market crime economy. So, the show could be presenting Socialism as a potential alternative:

This opposition -- socialism versus neoliberalism -- structures the show in a much deeper and more meaningful way. However, the show never defines socialism (though it would be neither the stagnant welfare state nor the crime economy) or neoliberalism and never suggests any pathway to either, rather we are stuck in the cynical world of both the stagnant welfare state and the innovative crime economy. In contrast to the show, sociologists and many other scholars have demonstrated that we have, in fact, moved to a Neoliberal State.

"The Wire" tellingly appeared at a time (2002-2008) when American cities were being, and continue to be, substantially redeveloped with escalating housing prices, worldwide investors pouring money into restaurants and housing developments; the city was and is not declining. The show performs an ideological function because it reflects the perspective, in an very intelligent and highly entertaining way, of the gentrifiers, the primary viewers of the show. It repeats the narrative that the city was destroyed, but now it is finally recovered and vibrant. So, why tell a story of past decline today? Maybe because the conventional narrative about the city posits that decline threatens to return. Or maybe it posits that corrupt institutions and individuals live amongst us now and we, the supposed viewers, should remain vigilant and vote for those with the gentrifiers' perspective.

The problem is the perspective of "The Wire" then provides a way to see the city. When I talked with a Capitol Hill neighbor about the show, she declared that she lived in the ghetto just like the one portrayed in "The Wire." People might think that they can use what they saw in "The Wire" to understand any city (and probably not suburbs or rural areas). The show can be used to (mis)understand what DC was really like in the past, what it is like to live in or nearby public housing today, and what threatens DC today. Yet, this is a television show with writers of fictional crime novels like George Pelicanos working within (and sometimes against) the conventions of crime drama that make "The Wire" appear real. As my literature colleague wrote me: "Not to excuse it, of course; genre structures how we think about real life." I hope that Sociology in My Neighborhood can provide other ways to think about the city. 


  1. This is a thoughtful analysis. I really enjoyed "The Wire" and made it through all five seasons, but I also had a few lingering questions that made me not as eager to regard it as a sociological work (or at least a resource for sociological analysis) as many urban sociologists have. I wonder how much of the problem you describe comes generally from the intellectual relationship that's framed by "studying down" the social hierarchy. Even the most critical research has difficulties not being warped by focusing consistent attention to marginal groups, no matter whether their marginality is viewed relationally or intrinsically, as oppression or deviance. "The Wire" sidesteps much of the pathologization of its underclass neighborhoods and characters by highlighting their interconnections to and organizational/moral parallels with 'overclass' Baltimore groups and institutions — this is of course its distinctive narrative quality — but then it never really escapes Baltimore, which itself is located on the lower side of various urban hierarchies. I suppose this reflects the decision of the show's creators to tell a global story through a local lens (David Simon was a reporter, after all), but does that allow the viewer to escape their own, non-local connections/culpability to the urban hierarchies that we're all implicated in?

  2. Love your posts but this one is a real reach. I've watched every episode of the Wire several times, and I can say with some degree of certainty that at no point does it repeat the "narrative that the city was destroyed, but now it is finally recovered and vibrant". Nor does it posit any alternative; not socialism, not gentrification, not anything. The Wire is simply a relentless (and entertaining) chronicle of the decline of the industrial American city and its institutions.That's all. There is no redemption (with the possible exception of Bubbles) and no uplifting story arc. Simon has repeatedly said this is intentional; he never intended for The Wire to offer solutions or fit into a conventional narrative.
    I don't really understand how the wire "does not blame" the gentrifier for the problems of the city. First, gentrifiers are rarely mentioned (though when they are, it isn't good- see the episode in the second season where Nicky tries to purchase his aunt's former home but cannot afford it, even though he's dealing heroin). Second, the blame is most assuredly fixed throughout the series on the powerful elite- the Clay Davises, the Mayor Royces, etc. It is very explicitly stated throughout the series where the fault lies- with corrupt individuals who have created corrupt institutions.
    The most legitimate criticism I have heard regard The Wire comes from Elijah Anderson, who notes the lack of "regular folk" in the show. Nearly everyone in the show is a cop, drug dealer, or corrupt in some way; you very rarely see the "average" person living in the neighborhood, working, and trying to make it through. There are a few exceptions- a witness who gets murdered, the neighborhood improving when Bunny tries a drug legalization program. I suspect Simon would say that's because it is, at the end of the day, a TV show, and average people aren't all that interesting.


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