I believe that one of the biggest misconceptions about The Wire is that it is a pessimistic show. I know this is an odd statement to make about a show whose creator named his blog “The Audacity of Despair.” It is also an odd statement to make about a show filled with violence and institutional gridlock. It is a show which presents us with not one but two quartets of young inner city men who end up with a total survival rate of 25% (more or less). But I still believe that it is ultimately hopeful and life-affirming.
Here are my arguments:
- When you look behind all of the violence and tragedy, The Wire is a show that revels in the vitality of urban life (Treme, with all of its exuberant music and energy, does this in a different way).The Wire abounds in humor, and it focuses on how marginalized and specialized social groups end up creating a language and reality of their own. Just look at the makeshift Pit family of Season 1, the stevedore community in Season 2, or the insular police culture of all five seasons. These worlds manage to thrive even as they stand outside of the American mainstream.
- There is a heavy theme of education throughoutThe Wire, not only in the obvious school plotline of Season Four, but also in the show’s numerous characters who take on the role of teacher and mentor (Freamon, Daniels, Bubbles, D’Angelo, Prop Joe, Chris and Snoop, Gus, Walon, Frank, and so on). This focus on education suggests a belief that passing on knowledge is the key to a better future.
- This same hope lies at the heart of any work of art that strives to cast a spotlight on the shattered fragments of our world, fragments that have been carefully hidden from sight. The point of exposing social flaws is not to wallow in misery. It is to challenge people to improve the world. Even David Simon’s aforementioned web site has a hint of this. Next to the title, with its satirical twist on Obama’s famous phrase, there is an image of a crow. Another symbol for death, sure, but I also read it as a subtle literary reference. It is Kafka, whose name is the Czech word for “crow.” I will address the many connections between Kafka and The Wire in future posts, but for now I will just say that Kafka is another writer whose work is often mistaken for being depressing. Like The Wire, Kafka’s work is essentially a comedic attempt to draw meaning from an absurd world that consistently rejects meaning. “There is hope,” Kafka once told his friend Max Brod, “but not for us.”
You could argue against this. In fact, Simon himself seems to see it quite differently. Yesterday, he did a podcast with Jason Whitlock in which he said “On a practical level you might look at The Wire and say it had no impact on the issue we cared about the most.” He is referring to the War on Drugs, and his frustration that the same disastrous policies have continued unabated since the show began. While this may be true, there also exists some middle ground between “no impact” and the ambitious goal of forcing the nation to completely revise its drug policies.
The best evidence that I can offer to illustrate this is the work that many of the cast members of The Wire have done in the four years since the final episode aired. There is no better example of this than Sonja Sohn’s interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air from last March.
In this wide-ranging 25-minute interview, Sohn speaks candidly about her difficult childhood, her first career as a spoken-word artist, her experiences on the set of The Wire, and what she has been up to since. She details the challenges she had filming Season 1, and how she nearly quit the show because it brought back so many memories of her childhood and her conflicted relationship with the police.
She then starts to open up about everything she had to overcome in her life: an abusive family life, years of drug abuse, and her brother’s tragic murder. These are devastating stories, but Sohn shows that she was able to transform this into art in the form of the slam poetry that eventually paved the road to her acting career.
In what has to be the best moment of the interview, Gross asks Sohn to recite one of her poems. Sohn says that it has been a long time since she has performed a full poem, but she tentatively speaks the first few lines of “Run Free,” the poem that launched her acting career. She stops, saying she can’t remember any more of it, but suddenly she says the next line, and the next, and before you know it, the words all flow out of her, and she recites the rest of this incredibly personal poem as if on pure emotion and muscle memory.
In the way she retrieves this seemingly-lost poem from the recesses of her memory banks, Sohn shows how to turn the dark into the light. This is exactly what she did when she transformed all of the tragedies of her youth into her work as an actress and poet. And now, she is doing it in another way: ReWired for Change. After her years of shooting The Wire, she developed this community development organization in Baltimore, where she works to develop real life solutions to many of the problems that were addressed on The Wire.
In fact, many of The Wire’s former cast members have gone on to pursue this type of change in other ways, from Wendell Pierce’s food chain, Sterling Farms, which brings nutritious foods to the low-income neighborhoods of New Orleans, to Jamie Hector’s Moving Mountains, which helps inner-city youths develop their artistic talents.
The impact of an artistic work can be hard to measure, and is sometimes incremental, if it is even perceptible. This impact is often hidden behind the more public ideas of reviews and ratings and awards and entertainment value. But the work done by The Wire’s cast members shows the unique ability that art has to begin healing problems both individual and social in real and lasting ways.
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