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The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television by Tiffany Potter and C. W. Marshall (eds.)

by Jonathan Stewart
16 Mar 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

the wireReview of: Tiffany Potter and C. W. Marshall (eds) (2009) The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, London: Continuum

HBO TV’s The Wire ran for five seasons from 2002 to 2008.  Each series focussed on a different aspect of social structures (the police, the unions, city government, public education and local print news media) in the troubled inner-city of Baltimore, Maryland.  Widely celebrated for its attempt to portray complex urban problems in a realistic and responsible manner, The Wire has become a genuine television phenomenon – in part due to the popularity and convenience of the DVD box sets as a means of accessing quality broadcasting.  The number of published works relating to The Wire has steadily expanded as the series’ significance has grown.  They include an episode-by-episode breakdown of the show,[1] a Guardian Guide,[2] a memoir by actress and Baltimore resident Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson[3] and several high level online collections including ‘What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire’ on the Freakonomics website,[4] and large scale coverage in a Guardian blog.[5]

Potter and Marshall’s edited collection examines The Wire from a distinctly scholarly position, as such it stands alongside DarkMatter Journal’s own timely Special Issue[6] (which contained an essay by the editors of this volume[7]), and a detailed article on the programme’s perceived social realism in the journal Criticism by no less an authority than Fredric Jameson.[8]  There are other papers in at least two philosophy journals[9][10] while other full-length forthcoming academic publications include The Wire & Philosophy from Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy collection.[11] The ongoing popularity of this series among the academy seems assured, at least according to my own anecdotal evidence.  In rejecting my proposal for a chapter on the minimalist use of music in The Wire, the editors at Open Court informed me that they had been overwhelmed by submissions for the volume and “could have done a complete volume on Omar & Philosophy alone”.

The essays in The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television concentrate on the importance of place and space to the series.  It has become a cliché to describe the city of Baltimore as one of the leading characters in The Wire, a pitfall that this collection neatly sidesteps.  Instead, contributions are divided according to three thematically coherent and thoughtfully structured categories: ‘Baltimore and its Institutions’ (urban regeneration, the police, the school system), ‘On the Corner’ (drug lords, their family members, soldiers and corner boys), and ‘21st Century Television’ (melodrama, narrative complexity and audience reception).  I was pleased to see that six of the sixteen contributors were PhD candidates, which suggests strong potential for the ongoing analysis of this and other forms of interesting contemporary television.

The work opens with an excellent essay by the volume’s editors on the etymology of “the American Dream” and its place in The Wire as personified by key characters and their particular struggles in the series.  This is followed by a more reflective and personalised framing device in the form of a memoir from a resident of Baltimore’s row houses that effectively grounds the collection in the actuality of life on the streets of East Baltimore. Here Afaa Weaver looks beyond the standard scholarly booklist and DVD commentary references toward one of the more unusual sources available on The Wire, online “prequels” released by HBO during the hiatus between the last two seasons (currently available on YouTube).[12]

Marxist geographer David Harvey’s seminal study of Baltimore[13] in the 1980s is perhaps the most apt reference material for the subject matter of this volume.  It is extensively quoted in one of the book’s most effective essays, Peter Clandfield’s discussion of crime and urban development.  Clandfield shows how themes in The Wire connect with Harvey’s model of the urban problems created under globalised capitalism. The most poignant depiction of space is the absent other: the former residents of the up to 50,000 row houses that now stand vacant in the city.  Clandfield offers an abstract theorised account that compliments Weaver’s personal memoir by articulating the points of contact between these two contributions, with reference to important historicised themes like the media misrepresentation of the inner city and the uneven distribution of recreational space Baltimore.

The Wire’s actors and production team made no compromise on their strong Baltimore accents, which dedicated viewers soon learned to accommodate and even appreciate as the series began to generate its own internet memes. (Type “Sheeeeeeeit” into a Google image search and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about in a variation on Shepard Fairey’s famous Obama campaign graphic.)  As Clandfield reveals, however, one form of this word play (the Poe Houses, named after former Baltimore resident Edgar Allen…) reveals more fundamental connections between the relationship between the depiction of real world space in The Wire and the concrete, complex concerns held by of the residents of this dystopian municipality.

The Wire was originally conceived by David Simon as a “police procedural”, and Alasdair Mcmillan’s perceptive essay examines the work of three of Baltimore’s finest (Jimmy McNulty, Cedric Daniels, Bunny Colvin) in the context of the genealogy of power outlined in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.[14] In so-doing he offers an insight into the iconoclasm of the series, a world where the Platonic ideal of a triumphant moralistic individual seems absent, and where the subject is subsumed by the wants and needs of dysfunctional unscrupulous institutions.

As a corollary, Lynne Viti’s essay on lawyering and ethics focuses on two hitherto overlooked characters in Baltimore’s criminal justice system: Rhonda Pearlman and Maurice Levy.  Where others have concentrated on The Wire’s distinctive portrayal of urban neglect, Viti discusses the machinations of the justice system through the contrasting ambitions and experiences of two conspicuously white middle class Jewish practitioners – both of whom are pulled away from the ethical and professional ideals that they have sworn to uphold.  Pearlman is an undeniably positive force, Levy a mercenary amoral consigliere for ruthless organised criminals.  The ethical demands placed on each character propel them to the opposite ends of a distinctly Freudian dialectic: while Pearlman exemplifies the superego, Levy is pure id.  Given the huge number and range of characters in The Wire it is entirely appropriate that less well studied supporting roles should receive detailed examination in this work.

The second section of the book, ‘On The Corner’, is perhaps more directly relevant to the concerns of DarkMatter.  James Braxton Peterson juxtaposes Mark Anthony Neal’s theoretical conceptions of black masculinity as they are articulated through two of The Wire’s corner boy characters: Namond Brice and Michael Lee.  Jason Reed examines how the relentless drive for accumulation in illicit drug distribution functions as a sustained allegory for capitalism, concentrating on two characters at either end of the trade: Stringer Bell and Bubbles.  He employs a Marxian critique to compare the morality of Bell and Bubbles’ struggle for legitimacy, setting Stringer’s property deals against Bubbles’ attempt at small scale private enterprise, “Bubble’s Depo” [sic].  This is perhaps a missed opportunity to engage with Marxian economic theory on a more fulsome level, and I wondered how the division of labour, the labour theory of value and Marx’s deployment of his C-M-C / M-C-M formula might have applied to this comparative study.

Stephen Lucasi’s chapter on black and white familialism and anti-corporatism compares realignments in the Barksdale/Bell clan with those of Frank Sobotka’s family in Season 2.  It compliments Jason Reed’s essay well and demonstrates the editors’ thoughtful synchronisation of submissions within and between the three sections of this compilation.  Courtney D Marshall’s essay argues effectively for a feminist interpretation of motherhood and criminality among women associated with the Barksdale organisation (Donette, Brianna Barksdale and De’Londa Brice) and presents another laudable example of a writer prepared to look beyond the Stringer Bell / Omar Little axis of more popular characters commonly found in work outside this volume.

Amanda Ann Klein contributes one of the strongest essays in the final section, “21st Century Television”, in which she challenges the show’s much overused trope of verisimilitude by demonstrating how Dickensian codes of melodrama were employed in The Wire as a means of generating empathy and engagement in the audience.  Ted Nanicelli follows this with an examination of the interrelationships between narrative complexity, characterisation and social commentary that (again) effectively compliment the proceeding essay’s discussion of the show’s extended struggle with moral uncertainty.

This thoughtfully structured compilation is a detailed and worthwhile exploration of the particular issues of place and time that shape the ethical boundaries and narrative possibilities of The Wire.  By concentrating on the more interesting yet hitherto neglected supporting characters it provides further evidence of the great leap forward that this series made in long form television drama.  It will soon be half a decade since The Wire’s final episode, and the truths it embodies about life in Baltimore hints at a much broader sweep of African American life that is still entirely under-represented.  Debra Granik[15][16] has shown how other stories are waiting to be told in towns and cities like Wilmington, Delaware; Camden, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; Miami Gardens, Florida; or Stockton, California.  Perhaps The Wire will, eventually, be just one among many TV series that use social realism to illuminate the dark side of the American Dream.


1. Rafael Alvarez, The Wire: Truth Be Told, (Edinburgh, Canongate Press, 2009) [↑]

2. Steve Busfield & Paul Owen The Wire: Re-Up (London: Guardian Books, 2009) [↑]

3. David Ritz & Felicia “Snoop” Pearson Grace After Midnight: A Memoir (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007) [↑]

4. Sudhir Venkatesh ‘What Do Real Thugs Think Of The Wire?’ Freakonomics (Dec 2011) [↑]

5. The Wire, (Dec 2011) [↑]

6. The Wire Files, (May 2009) [↑]

7. C. W. Marshall & Tiffany Potter, ‘The Life and Times of Fuzzy Dunlop: Herc and the Modern Urban Crime Environment’, The Wire Files, (May 2009) [↑]

8. Fredric Jameson ‘Realism and Utopia in The WireCriticism 52.3-4 (2010): 359-372  [↑]

9. Thomas Warternburg, ‘The Wire’, Philosophy Now 70, (Dec 2008) [↑]

10. John Kraniauskas, ‘Elasticity of Demand: Reflections on The Wire’, Radical Philosophy 174 (2009): 25-34 [↑]

11. Joanna Crosby, David Bzdak & Seth Vannatta, ed. The Wire and Philosophy, (Chicago: Open Court Popular Culture and Philosophy Series, 2012) [↑]

12. The Wire: The Chronicles 2009) [↑]

13. David Harvey, The Urban Experience, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989) [↑]

14. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage, 1995) [↑]

15. Debra Granik, Director, Close to the Bone, 2004 [↑]

16. Debra Granik, Director, Winter’s Bone, 2010 [↑]

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Jon Stewart was founder member, guitarist and co-songwriter for platinum-selling Britpop band Sleeper (1993-1998). He is Senior Academic Lecturer at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music on a BA (Hons) Professional Musicianship validated and awarded by University of Sussex, and an MPhil/PhD Music candidate at University of Southampton. Publications include ‘What’s Going On? Anti-War Music from Vietnam to the War on Terror’, in Gibson, S. ed. (2012) Repertoires of Violence London: Palgrave and ‘“Oh Blessed Holy Caffeine Tree”: Popular Music and Coffee’, M/C Journal Vol. 15 No. 2 (May 2012)
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