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The Wire - Far More Than a Cop Show

A book extract from Professor Stephen Shapiro, English and Comparative Literary Studies and Professor Liam Kennedy, University College Dublin

Published October 2012

From drug trafficking to the city bureaucracy of Baltimore, The Wire took the formula of the American police drama and re-appropriated it for an analysis of the modern American city. In this extract from their book, The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre, Professors Liam Kennedy and Stephen Shapiro delve into the 'multiple meanings and arguments' of the hit US show.

In an early draft outline of his ideas for The Wire, the producer David Simon clearly expressed his ambitions for the show:“The Wire is a drama that offers multiple meanings and arguments. It will be, in the strictest sense, a police procedural set in the drug culture of an American rust-belt city, a cops-and-players story that exists within the same vernacular as other television fare.But as with the best HBO series, The Wire will be far more than a cop show, and to the extent that it breaks new ground, it will do so because of larger, universal themes that have more to do with the human condition, the nature of the American city and, indeed, the national culture.”

Scene from The Wire

Neither in this early projection nor in later commentaries on the show is Simon modest about stating his aims and achievements in reinventing the police procedural ‘as a vehicle for making statements about the American city and even the American experiment.’ Much of the commentary the show has generated – among fans, reviewers and scholars – would seem to endorse Simon’s chutzpah. Since its initial run (HBO, 2002-08) ended and it took on a productive afterlife in DVD sales and internet piracy, the show has been routinely acclaimed as the best drama television series of the past decade.

There is much to admire in the innovations of The Wire. It is an unusual and ambitious urban crime show in the perspectives and layers it brings to characterization and plotting, and in the nuanced portrayal of race conflict, city politics, and the moralities of urban criminality and policing. It references many other urban crime narratives - literary, cinematic and televisual - yet develops its own distinctive sub-genre, the urban procedural, a fabrication of urban spatial relations that intercuts worlds usually unrelated in political and social studies never mind television cop shows. More consistently than any other crime show of its generation, The Wire challenges viewers’ perceptions of the racialization of urban space and the media conventions which support this. It reminds us just how remarkably restricted the grammar of race is on American television and related media, and of the normative codings of race—as identity, as landscape—across urban narratives, from documentary to entertainment media. The typical mise-en-scene, of black kids dealing drugs on ghetto corners, is an everyday snapshot of the structural impoverishment and isolation of an underclass whose hypervisibilty in other media frames (including gaming) is either manifestly exoticized and pathologized or only momentarily made visible through instances of spectacular disaster, like Katrina, rather than as a long-standing, structural presence.

While recognising the originality and progressive features of The Wire, this volume of essays also offers a cooler assessment, posing critical questions about its design, message and appeal. In particular, we set out to examine in what ways and with what effects the show uses the genre of the police procedural to comment on ‘the nature of the American city’ and ‘the American experiment’. That these two concepts are conjoined in Simon’s perspective is suggestive of a particular view of the city as a crucible and laboratory of national concerns. It is a view that is laced with contradictory perspectives on the meanings of citizenship, capital-labor relations, and justice, and on the sources and workings of power in the urban order. Simon’s ambition to cognitively map the city as a totality promises to illuminate this urban order afresh, but the urge to make it legible – ‘It’s all connected’ is a key motif of the show – glosses the limitations of left-liberal critique enveloped in established genres and narrative forms. Like any cultural production, The Wire is caught up in the conditions and contradictions of its own powerful social critique.

This more critical framing is not intended to gainsay the remarkable reception the show has received. Few other television dramatic series have received the mixture of academic and media adulation as The Wire. When David Simon won the MacArthur 'genius' grant in 2010, he was the first television show creator and executive producer ever to have been laureled with an accolade otherwise given to more traditional form artists, social policy administrators, or academics. While David Chase’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) is often seen as breaking ground for academic interest outside of television studies, its skills remained, more or less, safely within the conventions of the organized crime film genre, perhaps allowing for its almost immediate popular and industry award success. The Wire, on the other hand, manipulates the urban police procedural form as an instrument to push forward a number of social critiques about race, drug war policing, de-industrialization, and the failure of American civic, educational, and political institutions. Consequently, The Wire’s reception history is conspicuous for its lack of industry recognition in the shape of awards, audience numbers, and even initial television journalistic support. Even after its third season, The Wire was at risk of being cancelled due to its small audience. Yet after season four, The Wire’s profile swiftly changed, especially among those who would have otherwise spent little energy on a television series. The eminent sociologist, William Julius Wilson spoke for many when he explained his appreciation for The Wire’s narrative power in giving the lie to official statistics about urban poverty, “the devaluation of labor, the often shady world of urban politics, the troubled urban education system, and the negligence of the mainstream media in coverage of important local issues.”

With its return to an effort to represent a social totality through a panorama of a contemporary city and ethnographic dedication to realism through research, rather than cinema verite camerawork, The Wire’s success seems based not simply on its ability to immerse viewers within an unfamiliar world and train them in an otherwise foreign slang and Weltanschauung, but to touch an elective affinity among viewers that the subject of their show is also about their own experience, even while the narrative of petit bourgeois ethnic whites and inner-city African Americans is not. The Wire’s achievement is not simply within its high value narrative vision, but its promise to change the viewer’s own pre-existing perception about the urban social ecology within twentieth-first century America. In this collection, we have arranged essays that look to combine both enthusiasm for and critical evaluation of The Wire, the latter being the rarer move in discussions of the series. The essays here attempt to give readers a chance to further develop their critical appreciation and reflection on The Wire. Our aim is not to place the show on a medallion platform, but to see it as an opportunity for discussions that will outlast the short time-span that television commentary often receives.

The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre, edited by Liam Kennedy and Stephen Shapiro, is published by The University of Michigan Press.

Professor Stephen Shapiro was born and raised in New York State and received his first degree, in Chemistry, from Williams College. He then moved to the UK and studied at the University of Birmingham’s Department of Cultural Studies. He taught at Harvard University, the New School and John Jay College for Criminal Justice (CU NY). Professor Shapiro was also a Fulbright scholar at the University of Saarland and a visiting Professor at the University of California, Irvine. Research interests focus on writing and culture of the United States, particularly the pre-twentieth century period; Cultural Studies; literary theory; marxism, world-systems analyses; urban and spatial studies, sociology of religion, television studies. He is also a member of WReC (Warwick Research Collective), a group interested in moving beyond older models for literary and cultural studies.

Professor Liam Kennedy is Director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin. He has diverse research interests and teaching experiences, spanning the fields of American urban studies, visual culture, globalisation and transatlantic relations. He is the author of Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (1995) and Race and Urban Space in American Culture (2000). He is co-editor of Urban Space and Representation (1999) and City Sites: An Electronic Book (2000), and editor of Remaking Birmingham: The Visual Culture of Urban Regeneration (2004). He is currently researching a monograph on photography and international conflict, and preparing two edited books - on urban photography and on cultural diplomacy and US foreign policy.