Is The Wire Too Cynical?

Is The Wire Too Cynical?

This is a part of a debate on The Wire. To read Anmol Chaddha, Sudhir Venkatesh, and William Julius Wilson, click here. To read, Atlas and Dreier’s response, click here.


The Wire, the television drama about Baltimore that ended its fifth and final season this spring, was a huge hit with critics who applauded its gritty depiction of urban life. From the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, from the liberal American Prospect to the libertarian Reason magazine, plaudits were unanimous for the HBO show, whose large, primarily African American, ensemble cast portrayed cops, teachers, reporters, drug dealers, dockworkers, politicians, and other characters in the real dramas of a major American city.

With its unpredictable plot twists and deft foreshadowing, the show juggled more than sixty-five characters and kept them vividly evil, sad, or humane. Like most great stories, the main characters were morally ambiguous, but so finely etched that we cared about them.

The writers attended to detail. Police detectives drank “Natty Boh”—National Bohemian—a beer originally brewed in Baltimore. And the dialogue rang true. Snoop, second in command to drug thug Marlo, explains to a hesitant gang member how she’ll retaliate if he doesn’t cooperate: “We will be brief with all you motherfuckers—I think you know.”

Anyone who’s worked or lived in America’s inner-city neighborhoods could recognize the reality of the show’s characters and the issues of crime, poverty, drugs, and family stress presented with a combination of sympathy and outrage. But the show’s version of reality was only partly right. The Wire reinforced white middle-class stereotypes of inner-city life. The show’s writers, producers, and directors portray most of the characters—clergy and cops, teachers and principals, reporters and editors, union members and leaders, politicians and city employees—as corrupt, cynical, and ineffective. Viewers may have thought they were seeing the whole picture, but the show’s unrelentingly bleak portrayal missed what’s hopeful in Baltimore and, indeed, in other major American cities. In that way, it did the opposite of what its creator, David Simon, said he wanted the show to do: spur our country to end the plight of the poor and minorities who live in America’s inner-cities.

In 1994, a community group known as BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) led a campaign that mobilized ordinary people to fight for higher wages for the working poor. One of those people was Valerie Bell, a high school graduate working for a private, nonunion custodial firm that contracted with the city to scrub floors and take out the garbage at Southern High School. Baltimore was trying to cut costs by o...