Thursday, June 11, 2009

You Gotta Keep The Devil Way Down In The Hole

(The following may contain spoilers of the HBO series "The Wire." If, like me, you're only now getting to this excellent program on DVD, you may not want to read ahead.)

The third season of the Wire ends in the same manner it began ... With a loud boom and a cascade of steel and concrete. Three season's in, it's become abundantly clear that the physical destruction of neighborhoods is the only solution to problems of poverty, drugs, and crime offered by the powers that be. The Wire is powerful, dark television, more honest than virtually anything that's come before it about the realities of urban poverty. As a television viewer, I've enjoyed the Wire for it's incredible writing, wonderful acting, and compelling story lines and as a libertarian, I've enjoyed the show for it's portrayal of the dysfunctional institutions that fail individuals so miserably. The Wire may not be the most fun show on television, but I don't think I'm stepping out on a limb when I say it may well be the best television program ever. Despite it's gritty subject matter, the Wire ultimately succeeds because of the way it's characters are dealt with on such human terms. It doesn't matter if you're not familiar with the streets or urban culture because the show immerses you into that world, in the form of the people who live it, the police who seek to maintain order, and the reformers who say they care to do something about it.

There's oh-so much to discuss when it comes to the Wire, but I'd like to focus this post on the characters and the politics. Like many other HBO dramas, the Wire succeeds at creating a wide array of complex characters whose lives intersect at various important plot points. But unlike other dark programs that thrive in the supposedly complex nature of their characters, the Wire has literally dozens of characters who are actually likable. Shows like Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica seem to be all to willing to sacrifice their characters humanity in attempts to be edgy, driving viewers mad wondering why characters continue to make such fucked up choices. But perhaps unique to television, the Wire crafts a tapestry more akin to a Shakespearean tragedy, where the tragedy is about the human condition. It's not just about highlighting the various shades of gray amongst the characters, but about the humanity in all of us. As dark as the Wire is, it's much more hopeful than other dark shows. Drug dealers and crooked cops are portrayed as people, no more and no less, and even Omar, the gay stick-up man who quickly became a fan favorite, shows us that even the most seemingly dangerous among us can still live by a code. The tragedy of the Wire is the circumstances we create for ourselves and the circumstances that society creates for us, not merely our own fucked up decisions.

Other fans of the show have asked me time and time again who my favorite character is and it's tough to say. There are the characters everyone loves, McNulty, Stringer Bell, and Omar, but beyond the fan favorites there were a few others I've found intriguing. I loved D'Angelo in the show's first season and his contemplative reactions to the violence of the drug war. Carver has been an under-the-radar great character as season three finally sees him evolving into the sort of community policy officer who works for the community rather than warrior who fights against it. And then there's Bunny Colvin, who emerges in the third season as perhaps the quintessential individual standings against the system. The one man who's truly brave enough to try something different winds up the most fucked.

Creator David Simon has called himself a liberal, but the ideas presented in the show are explicitly libertarian. Delving into "the root causes" of crime may seem to be an explicitly liberal endeavor, but failing to recognize the intersection of culture, politics, and social policy that creates not the individual criminals, but the backdrop against which the drug trade occurs, would be a major intellectual oversight. What "The Wire" showcases are broken institutions at all levels: Communities captured by the drug dealers and gangs that work the street corners, a police force that cares more about numbers than protecting the public, and a political class that is consistently trapped playing politics at the expense of any hope of real change. "The Wire" is a libertarian show because it highlights the failures of government at all levels and because of it's all too blunt portrayal of the failure of the war on drugs.


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