How Is ‘The Wire’ Still The Best TV Show About The Problems That Sparked Baltimore Riots?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Cheryl Gerber/file

David Simon, creator of the critically acclaimed television shows "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street."

In the wake of violent protests in Baltimore, it’s hard not to make references to The Wire. The show, which aired on HBO to critical acclaim but disappointing ratings, is rooted in the corrupt and disheartening aspects of the city. Arguably, some of the themes The Wire (and to some extent, its predecessors The Corner and Homicide) addressed — a corrupt police force and a self-serving local government — contributed to the public frustration that preceded the riots. Certainly we know the police force hasn’t dramatically improved since the show was on the air.

In wake of the eruption of violence on the day of Freddie Gray Jr.’s funeral, creator David Simon wrote a post on his blog pleading for nonviolence. “There was real power and potential in the peaceful protests that spoke in Mr. Gray’s name initially, and there was real unity at his homegoing today. But this, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a dimunition of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death,” Simon wrote. Other cast members also weighed in on social media. Wendell Pierce, perhaps better known to Wire fans as Bunk, called the protesters “criminals;” Andre Royo, who played the drug addict-turned-police informant Bubbles, called for “Discipline not Destruction.”

But it’s a little strange that in the wake of violent protests, and some of the real economic policy failures in the city, that the The Wire, now more than a decade old, is what we turn to. After all, David Simon is a white man and this is disproportionately a story of people of color. And even though he made sure to bring in Baltimore-based actors to populate the show, it’s certainly not a perfect account of the city. Despite the recent popularity of shows created by and for black audiences, like Scandal (which did its own one-off police brutality episode earlier this year) and Empire, The Wire still remains the best study on TV of the complex issues that sparked protests around the country under the Black Lives Matter banner.

Most of what has addressed the movement in popular culture — particularly in television — has been addressed through one-off episodes on popular television shows, often making the equivalent of a cameo. Few dramas, especially in the era of CSI-dominated procedurals, are willing to spend the time on an extended look at the dysfunctions of how city governments deal with complex problems like race, police brutality, and the failures of the drug war.

And now, of course, the pressures of gentrification, the landscape of mobile technology, and the revelations of widespread government surveillance could dramatically change the dynamics of a show in which the entire premise rests on getting warrants for wiretaps. Now the technology and political limitations have changed pretty dramatically.

In an interview in 2012 with Salon, Simon said that at the time appetite for even a fourth season of The Wire was touch and go. “The Wire was supposed to be canceled; in fact it was cancelled after three seasons. And I went in and I wrapped my arms around Chris Albrecht’s legs and begged,” he said. But as hard as he fought, his ambitions were always greater than just that show; he even discussed a spinoff show for The Wire in the interview, “at some point after Season 3 of The Wire, and we introduced the political in season three, we wrote a spinoff show for city hall. We actually went to Chris Albrecht and said, ‘Here’s a pilot of a show called The Hall that follows the Carcetti character and his political career. And we want to run them in tandem.'”

Perhaps one of the big problems is that, although television is getting more diverse in the ways it’s delivered to the audience, through on-demand, Netflix and others, the kinds of people producing shows remains relatively un-diverse. A UCLA study found that 94 percent of CEOs of film studios are white, and the minority talent represented by the top three talent agencies is in the single digits. Solving the diversity gap in movies and television is only part of the problem, but it certainly would go a long way toward offering up more stories like those of The Wire and other cities where fighting police brutality is about survival.

The Wire‘s writers were mostly white men, as is typical on TV shows. But one of the secret ingredients was an intimate knowledge of the issues raised on the show. Ed Burns, who co-authored many of the episodes on the show, was a former Baltimore homicide detective and public school teacher. Simon himself spent decades as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Other writers, including George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane, were acclaimed crime novelists. In fact, Price’s latest novel The Whites takes on race head on.

It’s worth noting that while television remains lackluster in taking on police brutality and the underlying tensions, musicians are leading the charge. When pop stars like Rihanna have a platform, it helps to elevate the message of racial inequality. Change could come from making sure The Wire doesn’t sit in a time capsule as the only show to take on police brutality on an ongoing basis.