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Walking in Someone Else's City: The Wire and the Limits of Empathy

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 509-528 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0042

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Their intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together.

—Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

How do you get from here to the rest of the world?

—Duquan Weems, The Wire (5.5.3)

In January 2005, investigators in Queens, New York, closed a tedious, three-year investigation of a local drug ring responsible for distributing nearly fifteen million dollars worth of cocaine annually. They seized forty-three kilograms of cocaine, eighteen handguns, and nearly one million dollars in cash from the ring, which included a city correction officer and a sanitation worker. This in itself was not particularly noteworthy. What caught the attention of many, however, was that the drug ring had been imitating the fictional, Baltimore-based Barksdale drug ring of The Wire, the highly regarded television series that was, at the time of the investigation, wrapping up its third season. "Believe it or not, these guys copy The Wire. They were constantly dumping their phones," Sergeant Felipe Rodriguez explained to the New York Times, referring to the Barksdale gang's use of disposable mobile phones. "It made our job so much harder." A related occupational hazard: several members of the gang would chatter incessantly about the actions of characters on the show, occasionally spoiling any surprises for investigators eavesdropping on their conversations. "If we missed anything," Rodriguez continued, "we got it from them Monday morning."

A light, bemused tone runs through the New York Times report about a drug gang borrowing plays from their favorite television show, and there is certainly a neat circularity to this story. A series acclaimed for its painstaking attempts at verisimilitude somehow inspiring real-life mimicry? It only confirms what most followers of the series already feel: that The Wire is somehow realer than other attempts to represent crime and punishment, hope and despair, the halls of power and the dreary mazes of the invisible city. During the series' run from 2002 to 2008, it was often described as accurate, authentic, or uncompromising, a break from television's usual tendencies toward shallow escapism. It was held up as mirror of our real-life urban negligence. During the series' fourth season, for example, Slate magazine invited documentarian Steve James and journalist Alex Kot-lowitz—both famed for their work reporting on the struggles faced by young African Americans in the inner city—to comment on the crumbling Baltimore public schools of The Wire. The following year, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh convened a series of meetings with real-life drug dealers to watch the series' fifth and final season—Venkatesh's dispatches were posted on the New York Times website under the heading "What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire?" (2008-10). And much has been made of the series' use of former police officers, local politicians, and criminals to essentially play fictionalized versions of themselves. The most fevered criticism suggests that The Wire transcends entertainment; it becomes a sort of pop ethnography.

Whether The Wire truly approaches some sense of what life is really like in the streets of Baltimore is beside the point—it is still television, just as The Battle of Algiers is a film and not a documentary and Ragtime is a novel and not, by most measures, history writing. Of course, these divisions between fiction and nonfiction are provisional in their own way. But to deny The Wire's status as television is to ignore its unusual ambitions as television. Like many notable series of the 2000s, The Wire's rich narrative complexity is built on narrative and conversational digressions, extended periods of seeming stasis, and an affection for the quotidian. It goes further than most other series, however, by invoking these strategies of narrative slowness not for the sake of an enriched drama; rather, The Wire seems to aspire toward some condition of documentary truth. By offering itself as a gritty, meticulous, and therefore more realistic alternative to traditional televisual representations police work and urban turmoil—the series rewards its most careful viewers with access to what we presume to be a trustworthy, unfiltered experience of life in Baltimore. We not only understand The Wire, then, as somehow more authentic in its representation...

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