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October 17, 2007


Jones, one of the Jones boys

Ah well, spare a thought for us poor saps still waiting for season 4 on DVD...

While I'm here among the Wire-wonks: I've been wondering lately how typical political conservatives respond to the show? On the one hand (a) it emphasizes the social determinants of crime--chiefly, poverty, and lack of education and opportunity; (b) it's scathing about "traditional" law-enforcement and the "war on drugs"; (c) it advocates pretty strongly in the third season for harm-minimization; and (d) it treats dealers and users as sympathetically as it does police and citizens. Oh, also (e) it's pretty left economically, at least as you Americans parse the political landscape.

But on the other hand, (f) it hardly presents drug use in a glamorous light--Hamsterdam was repeatedly shown to be utterly squalid; (g) it highlights the importance of individual moral responsibility; and (h) it's just about the most moral show on television. I don't know any other show where characters are so consistently faced with moral dilemmas. At least in seasons 1 & 2, in every single episode, one (or more) character(s) is faced with a choice between what is right and what is merely expedient.

So there's plenty for conservatives to dislike, but also plenty to like. But I'm guessing that most wouldn't get past the surface "immorality" to see that it is, ultimately, a *deeply* moral show.


I haven't read any conservative commentators who focus on The Wire, but when I read TV blogs I sometimes come across comments that are coded in conservative language. Mostly they ignore (a) through (f) and focus on (g), with the addition of (i)--The Wire shows a lot of black criminals and black addicts and incompetent or self-serving black bureaucrats, and this reconfirms their view of American society. And there's also (j), the show's depiction of failing schools and corrupt unions. (Of course, it also shows many dedicated and honest and compassionate cops and politicians and teachers and union members, many of them black, but they rarely work their way into the comments.)

The show is about the decline of liberal institutions, so there's a lot for conservatives to latch onto--although it sometimes puts them in the position of rooting for the very things the show indicts.

By the way, I've been meaning to mention that The Corner pretty much demolishes your Freamon/Morgan Freeman theory--he's named after a real-life Baltimore woman Simon and Burns met while they were researching the book. I believe she even had a cameo in one of the early seasons of The Wire.

Ken Lowery

The show is about the decline of liberal institutions, so there's a lot for conservatives to latch onto--although it sometimes puts them in the position of rooting for the very things the show indicts.

I've just now started watching the first season (5 episodes in, thanks OnDemand!) and I have to say I'm completely fascinated. I naturally tend toward larger "tapestry" works that show a variety of characters whose actions intersect but don't necessarily parallel each other, so it's like crack.

Seeing, too, how the promise of institutionalized this-or-that fails in so many ways is also a fascinating thing for me. I've come to call The Wire "a cop show for grown ups," which is a bit simplistic but seems to get the point across.

And yet, I am a flaming liberal, and think a corruptible system is preferable to no system at all. Are my tastes contradictory to my leanings, I wonder?

Ken Lowery

To clarify the last question: I mean my tastes in fiction, and my leanings politically.


Not in this case, at least, since Simon and company are clearly coming at all these failing institutions from a left-wing perspective (albeit one they usually keep muted, speaking through action rather than dialogue). That Pelecanos quote sums it up nicely.

Jones, one of the Jones boys

You're probably being too generous in calling it a "theory"...

Jeff R

There are more than a few of us on the right with enough residual libertarianism to be more than happy with the show based on (b), (c), and (j) [in the broader, 'failing liberal institutions' sense.]

There's also [k] (mind, I haven't seen season 4 yet), the fact that most of the various petty injustices that are shown as at least partially responsible for those failures are in the form of politics (macro- or micro-) thwarting the ideal, meritocractic solutions.

Greg Morrow

Dude, you got a shout-out: http://cissie-king.livejournal.com/13838.html

Missing footnote, though.


Oh, there's plenty for libertarians to root for in The Wire, beginning with the show's scorched-earth criticism of the war on drugs and its honest thought-experiment about drug legalization. But that kind of civil-liberties focused libertarianism is becoming increasingly alienated from modern conservatism, isn't it?

Season four will do nothing to contradict (k), although the politics that sabotage Tilghman Middle School are as likely to be conservative, federally-imposed policies about standardized testing as they are local failures.

Greg: no footnote is necessary. You can tell where she's citing me when the witty Chick parody and the powerful Kirby and Morrison dialogue come grinding to a halt, replaced by clunky sentences that waffle between academic theory and fan discourse.

Jones, one of the Jones boys

Yeah, what Marc said. I was definitely thinking about modern (American) conservatism, not libertarianism.

Jeff R.

But that kind of civil-liberties focused libertarianism is becoming increasingly alienated from modern conservatism, isn't it?

(Shrug.) If the economic/self-ownership side is non-negotiable, then it's (to steal an appropriate phrase) the only game in town.


That's interesting--I would have thought that's one of the facets of conservatism that would least find purchase in The Wire, right behind the national greatness conservatives and the war hawks. The show holds unrestrained capitalism (from drug markets to deindustrialization to campaign fundraising) accountable, though not solely accountable, for the dehumanizations inflicted on the people it represents. I can see that appealing to people who come to libertarianism from a civil liberties and human rights angle, but it's completely at odds with the economic side. But then, I find libertarianism completely at odds with itself over those same conflicting priorities.

(None of this is to say that I expect people to enjoy only those shows that reflect their beliefs to the letter.)

Looking back over the comments, I see a couple of things that I have to question. To Jones's features (g) and (h), I don't see anything innately conservative about moral responsibility. Conservatives may have talked a bigger game on morality for the last couple of decades, but liberalism is also about asserting moral responsibility. I wouldn't classify those features of The Wire as tilting conservative--not what you were saying, Jones, but I don't want to leave that interpretation out there unchallenged.

Jeff, your feature (k) is a tricky one. You're absolutely right about the failures; I could see that being an indictment of liberal government (the creators are too honest and too cynical to give us any easy answers) if we'd had any for the last thirty years. Since the politics and policies that shaped the world shown in The Wire are largely conservative ones--no matter which party was in power--I'm not sure pointing out the shortcomings of politics is consonant with conservatism anymore. More consonant with libertarianism, definitely, which has the luxury of condemning the entire system from afar since it's never had to run it.

Jones, one of the Jones boys

D'oh. In hindsight, I see that that's a possible reading. But, yeah, all I meant was that conservatives could at least like (g) and (h) (without meaning to imply that liberals couldn't, too).


Hey, your long wait is over--season four on DVD December 4, season five on HBO January 6!

alex orzeck-byrnes

this week i'm cat-sitting for a woman who is one of the wire editors. i pleaded with her to let me watch season 5 but she said it wouldn't be ethical. stupid ethics!


Has The Wire taught her nothing about the fate of people in large organizations who follow their own ethical codes?

At least you only have to wait nine more days!

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