Few television shows impact the way viewers think about their place in
society; the critically acclaimed HBO drama “The Wire,” which ended its
five-season run last month, was one.
Although the series never found the high ratings enjoyed by some of the cable network’s other flagship programming, the multifaceted drama developed a devoted audience that included many critics, who frequently called it “the best show on television no one is watching.”
“The Wire” gained its notoriety for its realistic portrayals of the major players in the war on drugs. While the show took place in Baltimore, many of its recurring themes — substance abuse, poverty, crime, unemployment and the declining state of education in the black community — sounded a familiar note to residents of inner cities around the country.
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, community leaders, activists and academics joined “Wire” creator David Simon at Harvard University last Friday for a panel discussion about how much — or how little — social and economic injustices among African Americans have changed since King’s death.
Before a packed house at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Simon said that the inspiration for the show came from his years working as a crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun, a position that gave him a first-hand look at these complex problems.
“It was hard to sell this show to HBO at first because the media doesn’t talk about these issues,” he said. “Eventually, HBO signed us on and we went about spending each season slicing off a different part of the city. We got the ball rolling, and here we are today.”
During its five-year run, the show explored the roles that the drug dealers, police authorities, politicians, educators and the media play in the seemingly endless drug cycle.
“The show treated the characters as human beings,” said Columbia University Professor Sudhir Venkatesh, and author of the new book, “Gang Leader for a Day.” “There is decency in these characters, and in a way, there is inspiration.”
Venkatesh compared the show’s true-to-life depictions to the experiences he wrote about in his book, drawn from seven years spent tagging along with gang leaders in Chicago. One comparison he said he noticed was how black gang leaders who wanted the respect of the corporate world wore business suits. This phenomenon was exemplified on “The Wire” in the character of Stringer Bell, played by actor Idris Elba, who tried unsuccessfully to reform the “drug game” by getting involved in Baltimore’s development projects.
Another member of the panel, Harlem Children’s Zone President and CEO Geoffrey Canada, agreed with Venkatesh’s assessment that a dysfunctional educational system and a dearth of job opportunities in American inner cities have led black youth to a point where they can’t see a better life for themselves beyond the drug world.
In Boston, the statistics are grim. Nearly 50 percent of high school students in the Boston Public Schools system don’t graduate in four years, and black and Latino males drop out of school at higher rates than any other ethnic or demographic group. Unemployment rates among black men in Boston are comparable to national rates, as 40 percent of black men in Boston are without jobs — in fact, the joblessness rate is higher now than it was at the time of Dr. King’s death.
The sense of desperation permeating “The Wire” was palpable for many viewers, including Canada.
“The show was too real,” Canada said. “I felt like the kids had no chance. A lot of people watched this show to see a happy ending, but it didn’t happen.”
Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston agreed that sometimes life on the streets doesn’t have a happy ending. She said that the Boston Police Department is working with community leaders to address problems stemming from drugs and violence in Boston streets, with particular attention to the issue of reform to the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) laws.
“The Boston Police realizes that CORI is a problem when it comes to people who want to change their lives,” she said. “Everyone needs a job. We are trying to work with community groups on this issue.”
However, Simon has serious doubts that socioeconomic problems in the inner city are ever going to change — particularly if political and business leaders fail to realize how they are contributing to the problem, he said, citing the number of American jobs going overseas due to free trade agreements and the government’s recent bailout of Wall Street giant Bear Stearns.
With opportunities dwindling and the number of black men in prison growing, Simon added, the system is now designed to hold African Americans back.
“The drug war has accomplished nothing, but no one says anything about it,” he said. “The drug war destroyed quality police work. Many of the drug laws restrict police from doing their jobs right. If we wanted to figure out a way to drive kids into drugs, put less money into education. People who control the budgets don’t care about these problems. This is not a democracy, it’s an oligarchy.”
As for the lasting impact of “The Wire,” Simon said he believes there probably will not be another show like it because network executives want to “appease and entertain” audiences, rather than bog them down with the kinds of serious topics “The Wire” covered. However, he is happy with what he and his colleagues accomplished, and hopes a conversation will continue on the subjects brought up in the show.
“It’s a show about something,” he said. “We may have gotten some things wrong, but I think we were doing something right.”