By David Beilstein
THE first episode of HBO’s seminal cinematic television show The Wire opens with a lone black man cloaked under wintery darkness and strafing emergency lights, seated on the corner of a crime scene in West Baltimore. The black man, glancing across ribbons of light at the gunned down glassy-eyed body of a neighborhood acquaintance – known forever as “Snot Boogie” – is our entry point into the tale of an American tragedy.
Season one of The Wire introduces us to drug king Avon Barksdale, who lords over his turf with ruthless violence. The Wire’s unique point of view concerns two sides of a police wiretap – from Barksdale henchmen and low-level drug pawns hustling on pay phones on one side – and police officers and detectives ‘listening in’ on the other.
Great art is timeless. And it remains true for generations past, present, and future. In America, great art concerns the realizations of character’s actions regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation; illuminating for better or worse our own epoch’s concerned views of democratic perceptions. Great dramatic television, like great literature, concerns two spheres summarizing all human expressions in art – of paradise lost and the search for paradise regained. The primordial underpinnings of The Wire war against cliché – community isn’t built on racial alliances – but cultural alliances. While race is central to The Wire’s thematic intentions, it brims with unconventional nuances. Nuances and the complexity of our democratic stirrings – racial and otherwise – are central to dramatic art forms according to American cultural critic Stanley Crouch:
It is also true in my mind that ethnic identity, however slippery it can be, should not remove complexity from the natural history of Americana but add more distinctions, a greater variety of nuance, some perspectives that allow the insider and the outsider to be seen more clearly” (Crouch, 2004, p. 6).
Created as a cinematic and literary mosaic by David Simon, The Wire examines the complexities of life from high to low, and traverses through the nuances of duplicity at the core of the human heart. As a former Baltimore Sun reporter, David Simon covered the cops, City Hall, the schools, the murders, drug wars and drug arrests – he took a long sight seeing journey through the bowels of an American city in atrophy. Mr. Simon filled his notepad with the perennial aspects of twenty-first century urban life, and from that, Mr. Simon designed a show based on the natural machinations of human life.
The previous reporting experience of show creator David Simon was at the core of The Wire’s ability to capture the variations central to characters inhabiting the show’s universe, both dramatically and thematically. Reportage, often neglected as the technique of the journalist, or the news reporter, reveal the rich textures of fictional worlds populated by characters pregnant with vast human complexities. What appears new is an old insight. American novelist and New Journalism pioneer Tom Wolfe, who desired to promote reporting techniques as a basis for literary fiction described the importance of reporting in fictional writing in his 1989 essay, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,
“That task as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage.” (Wolfe, 1990, p. xxi)
Violence permeates The Wire. But David Simon was not a punk nor was he simply a crass exploiter given to surface level entertainment. Violence is central to literary and cinematic essence, and foundational to all human intercourse. Cultural critic and Jazz aficionado Albert Murray wrote insightfully of Ernest Hemingway’s rugged oeuvre and it’s import in literature:
It [violence] was something he [Ernest Hemingway] wanted to write about because he had come to believe that it had fundamental literary significance; and his response to it in bullfighting was entirely consistent with the long-established notions of epic poetry and tragic fiction and drama. Violence is not indispensable to literature, to be sure, but no one can deny that without it the tragic heroism in Medea and Macbeth and the epic heroism of the Iliad, the Nibelungenlied, and Beowulf would be something else altogether” (Murray, 1996, p. 147).
Character is action, violent action is central to tragic heroism. From the large impact of Hemingway – no stranger to using reporting for fictional insights – David Simon realized the cinematic version of the epic, the tragic, and the poetic.
American life is a story. And like the individual’s story, it teems with variations upon variations. Great dramatic stories like The Wire imitate our own everyday stories to form a representative image of our idiomatic times. Reporting was foundational to Mr. Simon getting people right even in fictional spaces. In Mr. Simon’s The Wire, life is about degrees, good and bad and ugly. So is real life. And by degrees The Wire illustrates a dramatic window into human complexities, illustrating the enigmatic imperfections inherent in all of life.