I fanatically loved HBO’s Baltimore-based television drama, The Wire. It’s difficult to even imagine my pop-cultural brain without the presence of Omar Little, Stringer Bell, Bunk, and “McNutty.” When I started doing my sports radio show eight years ago, I scheduled interviews with as many of the actors as I could for no other reason than I wanted to breathe their air. Talking to Michael K. Williams about the method of Omar’s “long game” while he aggressively chewed on a sandwich will forever remain a career highlight. In every interview, I would always ask the same question: I wanted the cast to tell me whether working on this program was just another acting gig or if they all knew that they were doing something utterly unique in television history. When I asked this of Seth Gilliam, who played Officer Ellis Carver, he said, “It felt to us more like we were a movement, on a mission, in an army to bring awareness.” What really stoked me back then was the bracingly original political message that ran through The Wire compared to a typical Hollywood production. Most assembly-line entertainment is a variation on the shopworn theme of lone heroes confronting obstacles and then overcoming them. The connective thread of every Wire season, as described by show co-creator David Simon was that when individuals, no matter how heroic, fight to change entrenched power structures and bureaucracies—whether in the form of City Hall politics, police, or organized crime—the individual is going to lose.
That’s why I always shoved it to the back of my mind when my friends in Baltimore—I live about 45 minutes from the city—almost uniformly would tell me they either did not like or would not watch the show. People were hostile toward The Wire for a multiplicity of reasons. Some felt it was like gangster rap for a more sophisticated audience, glorifying black-on-black hyper-masculine street violence while selling itself as somehow more literate and ennobling to consume. My friend Mark once pissed me off fiercely when he told me that my favorite show was “NWA for people who read The New Yorker.”
My Baltimore friends who had seen the show also believed, given the police violence in their town, that The Wire’s view of Baltimore’s finest was almost comically kind. The one policeman who accidentally shoots someone (a fellow officer) not only isn’t prosecuted but gets reintroduced later in the series as a big-hearted public school teacher. And then other people just said to me that living in Baltimore was a struggle and the idea of anyone making commerce out of their pain was simply not their idea of entertainment.
I would casually dismiss these concerns, thinking people were being overly sensitive, overly critical, or just not “seeing” the brilliance in front of them. I also politically defended the show as one of the few spaces on television that, through its brilliant multiracial cast, looked at issues of crime, corruption, and urban blight in a systemic manner. The fact that it actually cared about the hopes, dreams, and lives of street criminals and not just cops felt more than radical. It felt revolutionary.
The events of the last two weeks, however, have changed my view of The Wire in a very fundamental way. I have spent most of my time listening to people in Baltimore speak about how this uprising came to be and why the anger runs so deep. I’ve been primarily speaking to black Baltimoreans in grassroots organizations who have, in a state of MSM invisibility, been building movements for years to fight poverty, end street violence, and challenge police brutality. This is humbling to admit, but this experience has made me reassess my favorite show, as if a very dim light bulb was being switched on above my head. I am now seeing what the The Wire was missing, despite its much lauded, painstaking verisimilitude: the voices of people organizing together for change. Everyone on The Wire seeks individual solutions for social problems: the lone cop, the lone criminal, the lone teacher, the lone newspaper reporter. Yes, it is certainly true that when entrenched bureaucracies battle individuals, individuals lose. But when bureaucracies battle social movements, the results can be quite different.