“The Wire” is a highly acclaimed HBO series about cops, longshoremen, teachers, and journalists. Working people, maybe moving up the class ladder. So? It’s not glamorous, there’s not that much sex, it’s written by people who KNOW and step outside the stereotypes, so it doesn’t win the big prizes which always go to the stereotype du jour. I came to love it.
Why? Because it is written by my kind of people. Not that smart or educated in an academic way or any of that stuff, but people who work at the interface between worlds. When I was first making educational materials about animal control, I said animal control is “at the interface between people and animals.” I’ve tried to make the distinction between humane society people, who usually work out of shelters for unwanted animals, and animal control people, who work in the streets, like the other emergency responders and keepers of community order.
The best explanation of the series, what motivated it and how it achieved what it did, is this interview by Terry Gross with Ed Burns:
Here are quotes from each of the partner originators. David Simon has said that despite its presentation as a crime drama, the show is "really about the American city, and about how we live together. It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution they are committed to."
When Burns was teaching, he “saw his primary role as instilling caring behavior in his pupils.” He felt his major impact was in giving the children an example of an "adult who's consistent, who's always there, who always comes through with what he said, then that's a new world for them.”
Institutions arise to address needs: governments, hospitals, schools, police, building inspectors, “dog catchers”, and drug networks. Need drives, shapes, and sometimes destroys the institutions. With the institution comes what I call the “interstitials,” the corner boys, the truant officers, the cooks, the snitches, the shelter attendants, all the backstage invisible stuff. What is legal or not, what is evil or not, is negotiable. Simon and Burns saw this.
It’s not different from the discussion in brain theory contexts about how people develop categories in childhood (Burns calls them “certitudes”) about how the world is organized and then work their way through their lives by making adjustments and getting tough. Even the institutions are constantly adjusting -- this is the twenty-first century way of understanding society, VERY different from the Victorian and colonial givens. This is the impact of both science as it perceives forces imperceptible and unaccountable without modern technology, and of our intense media access to so much -- other cultures, other creatures. Also, we begin to understand that we cannot survive if war is the only solution we have and the idiocy of framing everything as war.
“The Wire” is organized around the idea of voyeurism: there is as much surveillance photography as wire-tapping. The chief use of interface people is to gather information and convert it into understanding. So you have pictures of clock faces being sent -- what does it mean? So you have no bodies in spite of inevitable enforcement killings -- what does it mean? Not just “what’s happening,” but “what does it mean?” The killings are rarely sensationalized: people are popped in the head and simply no longer there. What does it mean?
Next come the “what if” questions, like the police chief who tries the “Hamsterdam” experiment of confining drug biz to a certain area. Going back to my animal control experience, Mike -- very much like the Bob Wisdom character -- was always trying something. But, just like the Wisdom character, he was shut down. We were using a hypobaric chamber to kill dogs -- which is inevitable. (A big tank pumps out the air until the dogs don’t have enough oxygen to survive. The guy who invented it crawled in and experienced it as far as unconsciousness and said it was like being drunk. Alcohol chemically prevents oxygen from reaching the brain.) It looks scary and is easily misunderstood as suffocation where airways are closed by force.
So whatever force it is (sentimentalism?) in our society that denies death and suffering, insisted that this form of killing be removed and drugs (medicalization) be substituted. They are very desirable drugs. Mike became aware that someone was stealing and selling drugs. He set a trap, caught the culprit, and reported him to the bosses. He was fired for that, just like Bob Wisdom’s character. This sort of thing happens again and again.
Omar, says Burns, was deliberately defined as the one person who stands against all institutions. The many real stickup artists were less colorful, but just as much voyeurs, information gatherers. Omar was given a shotgun, an Aussie duster, and outsider status as a gay, but Michael K. Williams added an actor’s ability to make objects part of his character, his own scar, and his willingness to open-mouth kiss a guy (not in the script) or rise from a bed naked. Soon he was mythic. Others, like the actors who played Stringer, Chris-and-Snoop, Bubbles, and the four boys whom we see grow before our very eyes, inhabited their parts to the level of realer-than-real.
But the ultimate interface roles were those of the writers. They were the ones who knew they were making a long-form filmed story that was exactly a novel in the sense that a novel is always a moral investigation. They were the ones who knew the material culture of Baltimore and loved it. They made the Edwardian rowhouses that stand solidly together into both symbol and reality as beautiful tombstones of a city destroyed. Maybe someone else will show their renovation and re-inhabitation as a new way of living in the city, old bodies (bottles) for new lives (wines). Or maybe they will be rubble.
What happens to people who do this work of understanding and explaining in images and interactions? What preparation brought them to this? For whom are they writing? I can only conclude that they write for people like me and maybe the Peace Corps and Headstart generations. Idealists who have worked in rat-ridden trenches that challenged their certitudes and abilities. There are a lot of these people -- more than anyone realizes, I think. They are always watching and looking for ways to get the word out to people who have power, or maybe ways of empowering those trapped among the tombstones. On “The Wire” the word is out.