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Greek Gods in Baltimore: Greek Tragedy and The Wire

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 487-507 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0052

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

The gods will not save you.

Ervin H. Burrell, The Wire

[I]t's the Postmodern institutions that are the gods. And they are gods. And no one is bigger.

David Simon, "Behind The Wire"

Although a television series about drug dealers and police investigators in Baltimore might seem an unlikely candidate for a modern adaptation of ancient Greek tragedy, David Simon has made repeated claims for just such a dramatic pedigree. Simon has often and publicly stated that he intended his show as a "Greek tragedy" for our contemporary era. In a representative interview with the New Yorker, Simon outlines his ambition:

[We've] ripped off the Greeks: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides. Not funny boy—not Aristophanes. We've basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy, and applied it to the modern city-state. [. . .] What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no good reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it's the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.

During the entire filming of The Wire's first two seasons, and as he wrote the remaining three, Simon read through the entire canon of ancient Greek tragedy, starting with Aeschylus and continuing on through Sophocles and Euripides. Simon's notion of a "rigged game" echoes the articulated concerns and observations of the show's characters, who comprehend the fact, if not the implication, of its deistic fatalism.

But their understanding of this "game" is demonstrably complicated by their own desires, emotions, quirks, and choices. Simon has also claimed that he distinguishes his "Greek" tragedy from the Shakespearean and Chekhovian works, which he claims are dominated by individualized personalities and free will. Through all five seasons of The Wire, we witness an all-powerful, all-pervasive free market that enervates and corrupts governmental and media institutions. Political aspirants receive cash contributions from drug organizations. Excluded from the mainstream marketplace, adolescents join these drug organizations. Crushed by Reaganite antilabor policies, the stevedores union is forced to support itself through smuggling. Sabotaged by the No Child Left Behind Act, the middle schools fail the children in their charge. Barraged by corporate buyouts and media consolidation, the fourth estate can no longer provide its salutary check on abuses of power. In analogizing these pernicious market forces with the Olympian deities, Simon makes a number of subsidiary claims. Arguing outright that capitalism enjoys a power similar to that of Zeus, Simon asserts that The Wire's protagonists are as tethered to their fates as Antigone and Medea; that postmodern institutions such as the police department and school bureaucracy constitute contemporary iterations of the Olympian pantheon; that these gods and institutions are equally powerful and equally indifferent to the mortals whose lives they sway; that the "fundamentals of Greek tragedy" are replicated in capitalism's triumph over labor; and that The Wire also shares structural similarities with tragic novels such as Moby-Dick. Of all these many claims, Simon draws structural or formal comparison only when he discusses the nineteenth-century novel. When he likens his show to Greek tragedy, Simon alludes almost exclusively to fate, gods, and characters, as though his purpose were to cleave out such content from ancient drama and inject it into the genre of the novel.

Episodic television creates a different tragic spectator. In form and practice, a television audience member might engage the screen in ways similar to both a novel's reader or a play's spectators. Sitting at home alone or with a few friends, a television spectator might view a particular drama as a partially atomized and private experience, and yet share the experience with thousands if not millions of other viewers. Nicole Loraux, in her study of fifth-century Athenian theater, describes "the specifically theatrical experience of being a spectator, understanding the singular definite article 'a' not as the designation of a singularity but as the expression of a neutral identity." Cable television combines the plural "a" of ancient Greek tragedy with the singular "the" of bourgeois reading. The Wire was...