It’s easy now to forget that The Wire began in the shadow of 9/11; the first episode includes complaints that the war on drugs has lost resources to the war on terror “since those towers fell”. It seems a long time ago, although the war on terror continues and Donald Trump seems intent on restarting the war on drugs with his “just say no” attitude towards opioids.
Ten years ago today, David Simon’s intricate portrait of Baltimore’s streets, docks, schools and politicians concluded with a circular 90-minute episode that went some way towards redeeming a disappointing final season widely seen as having jumped the shark with its implausible fake serial killer and dull newspaper plotline. In what seemed to me at the time a bad sign, even the “real thugs” taking part in sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s excellent blog What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire? gave up watching before the end.
Nonetheless, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that a number of Guardian staff went into mourning following the demise of the show. As a paper, we were frequently accused of having an obsession with The Wire, which ticked many of our favourite boxes: drugs, race, politics, education, post-industrial economics.
We liveblogged it one and a half times, we interviewed the creators and many of the cast, and we collected much of our coverage into a book, which one Amazon reviewer appraised, probably fairly: “The worst thing about the book are the reviews by Paul Owen which really drag the other reviews down, I found his reviews pretentious, very politically correct, looking for issues that really aren’t there and against everything the Wire is about.” At one stage we even streamed the first episode for nothing on our site.
Ten years later, the show’s reputation has weathered the waves of overwrought praise from us and others. It is often placed at or near the top of lists of the all-time greatest TV shows, and Simon has cemented his place as ornery critical darling, to the extent that Barack Obama was willing to take a break from running the country to interview him in 2015. He continues to make high-minded television shows like The Deuce, Show Me a Hero and Treme, although for me none of them have quite recaptured that combination of sociological insight, joie de vivre, fatalism and gripping character study that made The Wire unmissable.
When the show ended, Simon suggested that his team could have made another season focusing on Central American immigration to Baltimore, but “none of us is fluent in Spanish; none of us is intimately connected to the lives of Hispanics in Baltimore”. Given the years of research that had already gone into The Wire and the project that preceded it, The Corner, this did not seem like a total deal-breaker – Simon was clearly keen to move on.
But what would The Wire have looked like had it continued to build up its picture of a 21st-century American city, layer by layer? It’s sobering to think that not only does the programme predate Donald Trump’s presidency, it predates Obama’s. How would Simon and co have got to grips with the death of Freddie Gray after his harrowing ride in the back of a Baltimore police van, the riots of 2015, and the rise of Black Lives Matter? Perhaps not with their usual sure touch and evenhandedness; Simon was criticised for telling the rioters: “If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore. Turn around. Go home. Please.”
At the time, my colleague Lanre Bakare wrote: “It doesn’t get much more out of touch or tone deaf than a successful, white, middle-aged man telling disenfranchised young black people who are routinely victimised by the police to stop being angry and selfish after another young man was killed in police custody and his spine was almost severed.”
Which brings us to another cultural moment The Wire predates: the increasingly vocal objections by some minorities in the US to white people attempting to tell their stories – whether expressed through the protests at the Whitney gallery in New York against white artist Dana Schutz’s painting of black teenage murder victim Emmett Till or Native Americans balking at JK Rowling’s use of a Navajo legend.
For a show that focused on African American life in such depth, The Wire had surprisingly few black scriptwriters, Joy Lusco, Kia Cothron and the late David Mills being the exceptions. And the issue of whether Simon was the right person to tell the story of black Baltimore had reared its head before, during the filming of The Corner, The Wire’s smaller-scale predecessor.
“I know that David Simon can visit and sit with as many black folks in this city as he wants to,” black director Charles S Dutton, who clashed with Simon on the shoot, said in 2000. “They can pay the families to get the stories. They can listen and walk around with dope fiends. They can write about murders, and they still won’t know a damn thing about black people.” It’s hard to believe that this issue would not have been raised again had The Wire continued.
It’s tempting, though, to fantasise, for a moment at least, about the show taking on Trump’s America: neo-Nazis on the march, working-class whites hoping they have found their champion, women standing up against predatory men, the FBI and the intelligence services at war with the president, Republicans abandoning their principles to fall in line, and Democrats flailing ineffectively despite the chaos at the top.
Game the same … just got more fierce.