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Carlo Rotella

‘The Wire’: Why it still matters

Omar Little, right, played by Michael K. Williams, robbed and killed drug dealers in ‘The Wire.’ Omar Little, right, played by Michael K. Williams, robbed and killed drug dealers in ‘The Wire.’ (Larry Riley/HBO)
By Carlo Rotella
October 14, 2011

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WHY ARE people still talking about “The Wire’’? The final episode of HBO’s celebrated crime series aired in 2008 - ancient history in TV time, but not far enough in the past to qualify for nostalgic revival. And yet the show, created by David Simon and Ed Burns, comes up all the time, especially on campus. It’s on the syllabi of courses in the humanities and social sciences, and the first round of “Wire’’ scholarship is already out, with much more on the way. When I met recently with a group of doctoral students in American literature at Harvard, one of them said, “Well, since this is Harvard, I suppose it’s my duty to ask a question about ‘The Wire.’ ’’

And, in defiance of the view that watching TV is the antithesis of reading a book, this year’s Boston Book Festival kicks off tonight with a panel discussion, “The Art of ‘The Wire,’ ’’ featuring the writer and producer George Pelecanos, Donnie Andrews (the inspiration for the character Omar Little), Fran Boyd (the protagonist of “The Corner,’’ a book and HBO series by Simon and Burns set in the same Baltimore milieu as “The Wire’’), Robert Chew (who played Prop Joe), Tray Chaney (Poot), and Jamie Hector (Marlo).

Some find it surprising, even amusing, that intellectuals are so besotted with a TV show about cops and drug dealers. (Slate ran a piece about it under the headline “This Will Be on the Midterm. You Feel Me?’’) But the infatuation persists, and even grows. Why are educated people, in particular, still talking about “The Wire’’?

Yes, it was an engrossing drama with an enormous cast of compelling characters. Yes, the writers and actors and others who worked on it have gone on to do other interesting things. And yes, people with advanced degrees like to pick up street talk so they can say things like, “Honey, did you re-up on arugula?’’ But none of those reasons seems sufficient to account for the sustained attention to the show.

The key, I think, is that “The Wire’’ was a very rare thing in popular culture: a first-class piece of genre fiction that succeeded as entertainment and also advanced a coherent analysis. And, crucially, the main concerns of that analysis grow ever more timely as we descend into a new decade.

In a time when our government’s ability to act effectively to safeguard and improve the lives of citizens - especially poor people - is questioned, dismissed, and assailed in ways we haven’t seen since before the New Deal, “The Wire’’ feels like a necessary parable.

The failure of the war on drugs as a response to what’s wrong with our cities, one of the show’s main themes, stands for a larger failure of institutional power and the political system that’s supposed to provide us with leaders. Our political culture has put policy makers, even those with the best intentions, in a self-defeating trap. They have to prove that they’re “tough on crime’’ to earn the right to use governmental power to do anything at all in places like West Baltimore, but the acceptable ways to establish their bona fides - supporting “zero tolerance’’ measures like mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and the drastic expansion of the prison system - oblige them to pursue policies that degrade the welfare state.

Simon, Burns, Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and other writers who helped create “The Wire’’ are self-conscious defenders of the New Deal’s legacy - “liberals,’’ if that term still means anything. They identified the trap and thought their way around it, something that two generations of urban Democrats and moderate Republicans (remember them?) have found it nearly impossible to do. And “The Wire’’ accomplished this feat by telling a good story, by showing how people worth caring about, people who happen to be fictional, live the consequences of the mess we’ve made.

So why are bookish types still talking about “The Wire’’? Because, as upcoming election seasons will make painfully clear again and again, when it comes to thinking about complex problems involving cities, crime, class, race, and our badly damaged political system, this TV show is a lot smarter than our political culture.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.