When interviewed about The Wire on The Culture Show in 2008, David Simon said: ‘fuck the average viewer’, boldly commenting on the programme’s intelligence. But does what the show reveals completely normalise us? Arguably, it turns us into the familiar Roman-esque mob member: shouting for another kill, another overdose, another drug case intended to expose the immorality thriving in Baltimore, but actually shows how it’s everywhere else. This may be concealed behind the quality of the writing, the resourcefulness of the programming, the genius of the casting; but is there something far more base, raw and even animalistic about The Wire?
Admittedly, the divergent narratives, epic season-long storylines and deep socio-political analysis turn off the “average” viewer, but the core action does the opposite. In that sense, everything is either superficial or auxiliary, second to the key elements of gritty, upfront drama. One argument could suggest that its intelligence is a smokescreen which shields a simply competent cop show; it invites us to judge the modern world with all the half-raised eyebrows we do when we watch BBC or Sky News. Ultimately, where would we be without chaos? The Wire reminds us of how, given a fourth wall, we are just as quick to complain when it all goes away as we are when it flares up. If the aim of The Wire is to exhibit the very real gruesomeness of the Baltimore drug trade, the daily violence, the inadequacy of the Justice and journalism systems – the purpose of which is for us to critique and reflect – could it do the opposite as we end up demanding more? We may be able to reflect intelligently and still crave it, as brain food, but can Simon offer this by merely exposing our pressing voyeurism? On the one hand, he may be a smart pseudo-documentarist, on the other, a shrewd fiction programmer. Can The Wire truly occupy both spaces?
Undoubtedly, the hyper-reality of The Wire plays a key role in its success, contributing to the authenticity, the sense of research and the approach taken by Simon which said: “this is as close as you’re gonna get to the real thing”. Even the product placement in The Wire ties it to the real world, as the characters sip on cans of Coke or pause to eat some McDonald’s chips. Clearly, this realism appealed to the geeky community, Sopranos fans who felt the end of history had arrived when the final blackout occurred or TV nerds who celebrated the political, social and economic avenues The Wire so seamlessly overlapped.
And yet, the more it stepped towards reality the more it, ironically, fictionalised the environment. The artistic decisions which affect how real the show is display an attention to detail which embraces as many tactics as possible. How verbatim the dialogue is, how “normal” the costumes are, how believable the characters act all unify dramatic and cinematic schemes which trick us into thinking this is how Baltimore actually is. To confess, it is largely accurate and that fourth wall does protect us, but it’s this everyday replication on screen which primarily attracts us to it. In that regard, doesn’t the average viewer identify with it more than the exceptional viewer does? The truth is: the seductive aspects of The Wire are the exact themes which resound with an audience Simon is willing to exclude. He’s simply saying they can’t understand the way it’s all unravelled.
The problem though is that The Wire has fallen in with the academic community, promoted as a valid tool for anthropologists and sociologists to evaluate contemporary urbanism with. That doesn’t mean to say it can’t be used for inner-city demography, but it should be handled with care in scholarly circles. This temptation to suggest that it isn’t for the average viewer automatically elevates it into the realm of academia; perched somewhere above all the other shitty TV dramas which clog up our screens, it alienates everyone else. Though Simon is happy to do this, the reason for its progress from cult to semi-mainstream is because how, against all odds, it has captured the interest of the average viewer.
In a way, The Wire did nothing new. It simply revealed a facet of modern culture: we love corruption. It just did it slowly, wholly, and over five seasons. Whether it’s drug trafficking, political fraud, broadsheet waffle, financial embezzlement – it ultimately makes for engrossing drama on screen. Are we the same as the leeches flaunted across the episodes? Do we live off violence like Omar does, feed off courtroom controversy like Levy and relish in the same scoops that the Baltimore Sun does? It is this identification with the ordinary which ultimately sexes up the subject matter of The Wire, material which speaks more clearly to the majority than the minority.
Ten years on, The Wire still stands unmatched in programming terms (Homeland poses no threat), although in the fantasy genre, Game of Thrones may challenge it. Many feel it is a once-in-a-generation creation and the kudos it received from the critical world heightened its impact as it broke into a musty TV market which only had a handful of productions sustaining it. Though it has generally lost its cult status, a matter which some feel has damaged its coolness (as with any trendy item, the loss of exclusivity suddenly renders it stale), it remains a true paradox. Journalists and fans have argued its case as a drama which everyone simply must see, but in doing so, will dilute its many layers which can seemingly only appeal to a select following who truly appreciate it. Comparing it to an expensive onion is probably a step too far.
Perhaps that’s the beauty of The Wire; it’s a programme for the everyman, fuelled by sex and drugs, yet at the same time rewards the intelligentsia and those TV loyalists who re-watch it again and again. Like a giant yarn spiralling into the depths of our heated political sub-culture, which is trapped in the media limelight yet manages to make all the crucial decisions backdoor, The Wire teaches us the most profound functions of modern government and policing. That being said, it also caters for our more immediate need for violence. Therein lies the brilliance, attempting to cover complete modern culture while including phrases like ‘I’m gonna get that son of a bitch’. Sorry David, you might hate the average viewer, but you’re inviting them in all the same.
The Wire celebrates its ten year US broadcasting anniversary on Sat 2 Jun.