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tv ‘The Wire,’ the burning of Baltimore and the limits of art

Pleas from Simon, Andre Royo and Wendell Pierce, among others, are an acknowledgement of the real-world authority we’ve granted to “The Wire,” one of the most venerated shows ever to air on American television.

As clashes between the police and Baltimore citizens escalated Monday following the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died on April 19 after a spinal cord injury he seems to have suffered while in police custody, I kept one eye on broadcasts from the city and another looking out for something that seemed inevitable: the first mention of “The Wire,” David Simon’s HBO drama about crime and corruption in Charm City, to scroll across my social media. By my count, it came at 4:49 on Monday afternoon, when a friend retweeted the sour sentiment “Season 6 of The Wire is awesome so far.”
Soon after, other sites started circulating a call from Simon himself, asking readers to back down from throwing rocks, looting convenience stores and burning cars. “If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore,” he wrote. “Turn around. Go home. Please.” A number of actors from the show joined him.
Pleas from Simon, Andre Royo and Wendell Pierce, among others, are an acknowledgement of the real-world authority we’ve granted to “The Wire,” one of the most venerated shows ever to air on American television. But while I believe passionately that culture alters the way we see the world and what we expect from it — that idea is literally the foundation of my writing — the conflagration in Baltimore is a reminder that art’s power can work both in service of change and against it. Watching a fictional story is not precisely the same thing as bearing witness. And when consuming that story becomes a substitute for action or an argument that action is futile, fiction can paralyze us just as surely as it can inspire us.
Plenty of shows from the new Golden Age of Television have won obsessive fans: People are still trying to figure out whether Tony Soprano is dead. But it’s hard to think of a series that has become a fetish object and a signalling device in quite the way “The Wire” has. In 2008 when Barack Obama was running for president, he named Omar Little, the gay stickup man played by Michael K. Williams, as his favorite character on the show; earlier this year, President Obama called Simon and asked to talk drug policy with him. ESPN’s Jason Whitlock even told Simon in 2012 that “The Wire” had helped cleanse him of his former homophobia, claiming that “Nobody has more influenced me and brought me to a healthier understanding of homosexuality and just the character of homosexual people than the character Omar.”
Part of what’s funny about this tendency to treat Simon like some sort of Pope of Urban Policy, and about his own call to organize yesterday, is the profound pessimism of the work that earned him that stature. His blog is called “The Audacity of Despair,” a thrown elbow at the president who seeks his affirmation (though it’s true that when Obama called, Simon came; a real nihilist might have rejected the invitation).
“We undertook to tell those stories as best we could in the hope that they would be honest and relevant to the whole of our city, to our divided American society and to the fundamental necessity that is our shared future,” he wrote in a post last year, addressing a charge that his work reflected poorly on Baltimore. “We even operated with some hope that such storytelling might help lead to redress and reconsideration of certain policies and priorities.” But that hope often flickers dimly in Simon’s work; it’s not that he would be pleased to see the world careening on toward disaster but that he’d be surprised if it truly changed course in any substantial, sustainable way.
“The Wire” is a show that steadfastly rejects any hope its audience might have about the possibility of reform. Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), who begins the series as a dangerous, abusive cop, reinvents himself as a caring teacher. But if his removal from the streets is a net benefit, there’s little he can do as a teacher: One of his students descends into addiction, while another drifts into crime. When Major “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom) experiments with a free zone, where cops promise not to arrest residents for the sale, possession or use of drugs, his freelancing costs him not just his job, but also a position he’d been offered in campus security at Johns Hopkins University. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who suffers from a severe allergy to authority, becomes so disgusted by the established order in Baltimore that he commits an act of grave malpractice that ends up denying the city his talents as a police detective and discrediting his arguments for change. The Greek (Bill Raymond), Simon’s version of a super-villain, is operating with relative impunity at the end of the series: The characters have been so preoccupied by more pressing threats that they generally failed to even notice how the Greek’s far-flung organization was driving crime in Baltimore.
Part of Simon’s appeal is that he’s a gifted diagnostician, a dark and funny analyst of how failed sets of public policies lock together and create greater human misery together than they ever could separately. But as a physician, his prognoses are almost unfailingly terminal, and his prescriptions are palliative rather than curative. People like former convict Cutty Wise (Chad L. Coleman), who manages to found a modest boxing gym, may carve out small accomplishments in Baltimore. But their efforts are small pockets of healthy flesh in a necrotic body.
It might be heresy for a critic to say this, but as Baltimore tries to recover from Monday’s convulsions, I wonder if the fundamental fatalism of “The Wire” might be part of its appeal to some part of Simon’s audience.
Television allows us to look without either letting us touch or requiring us to touch, and “The Wire” has a particular ability to sell a sense of enlightenment without a program for change or engagement. As Christian Lander, who wrote the scabrous, very funny blog Stuff White People Like, noted on the occasion of the series finale of “The Wire” in 2008, “It all comes down to authenticity.” “The Wire” indeed pays obsessive attention to detail: Brett Martin, author of the television history “Difficult Men,” noted that Simon and his colleagues incorporated traditional rituals of gang assassinations into one scene and recreated a police wake in another.
But while plenty of self-guided tours of relevant locations from “The Wire” have been published online since the show’s debut, and a tour company that focuses on African American history incorporates some shooting locations into its itinerary, there’s no “Wire” equivalent of the infamous “Sex and the City” tour. It’s one thing to want to observe and judge Baltimore through glass and another to actually visit the city that is the basis for such powerful and appealing fiction.
When “The Wire” was still airing, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who studies the economics of drug dealing and sex work, wrote a series for Freakonomics about watching episodes of the show with gang members from New York, giving readers the transgressive thrill of sharing an enthusiasm with people they’d never invite over for a Sunday-night viewing party. In an Internet-age twist on radical chic, fans of “The Wire” could claim credibility from loving the show without actually having to socialize with the criminals or addicts they had become so interested in.
Tellingly, more privileged fans of the show actually stuck with it longer; the show’s grinding perspective was entertainment, rather than added burden. Shine, one of Venkatesh’s sources, ultimately dropped out of the series, telling Venkatesh that “This is fun if you work all day behind a desk, or you’re sitting in some suburb. But for us, it’s like watching somebody make a movie about you — someone who doesn’t really know all that much about your life.”
None of this makes me enjoy the show any less, though it is a useful check against the impulse to succumb to the lure of clickbait and wave my box set like a set of credentials while typing headlines about Five Ways “The Wire” Explains the Freddie Gray Protests.
“The Wire” doesn’t explain Baltimore. Enthusiasm for “The Wire” helps explain how fans of the show would like to feel about Baltimore, cities like it, and the people who inhabit them. We want to believe we have deep sympathy for and understanding of people whose lives bear the marks of institutional racism, decades of dreadful criminal justice policy, hopelessly inadequate educational systems and a profound lack of legitimate economic opportunity. And then we’d like to feel like there’s nothing we really can do, and so there’s nothing we are required to do.
Focusing on looping footage of impudent looters and burning cars lets us feel hopeless, while a less-circulated picture of a little boy handing out bottles of water to Baltimore police officers might actually compel us to act in his defense and in support of his hopeful attitude. And “The Wire” helped prepare us for this, to feel that our own sense of surrender is actually sophistication. The Greek and global capitalism will never die, but at least there will be Jameson at the bar.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.