One of the popular memes in praise of Game of Thrones is that it’s a fantasy version of The Wire. I don’t think that’s inaccurate, but I think the goal shouldn’t be simply to find the next show that’s like The Wire, but to find ways to incorporate The Wire’s structural sophistication and political values into lots of shows. To that end, someone should really, really adapt Tamora Pierce’s Provost’s Dog books, the third of which is due out in October.
The Provost’s Dog books are fantasy, set in Tortall, a country Pierce invented in 1983 in her first book, Alanna: The First Adventure. Among the major premises of that world is that individual people have magical abilities and that magical work is part of commerce; that the gods are actively involved in a small number of humans’ lives and that the boundaries between the real world and the realm of the gods can become more porous; and that the dead can communicate with the living.
But despite that setting, this is essentially a structural story. Beka Cooper, the main character, is a young cop (or Dog) in a deeply dysfunctional police force in Corus, Tortall’s capital city. She lives in a rooming house with a bunch of young ne’er-do-wells on the rise in the Court of the Rogue, the city’s criminal hierarchy. She and her partners are essentially an independent task force, senior enough to pursue investigations at their leisure. There’s even an avuncular judge, a gay criminal who’s willing to do deals, a real serial killer, and most importantly, an acknowledgement that government’s abilities are limited, and that sometimes you need extralegal organizations in order to maintain some semblance of order, but those groups are going to be less stable than government agencies.
Because the Dogs are dramatically underpaid, they’re heavily dependent on both organized and casual bribery to supplement their incomes. That makes them less likely to crack down on well-established offenders, but the leeway that’s baked into their approach to law enforcement also means they’re much more likely to let go one-time offenders rather than ruining their lives. The precarious position of the entire police force also means it’s especially important for the organization to have good leadership, something Pierce makes clear in Bloodhound, the second book, when Cooper and her partner travel to another city, only to find that a weak local leader’s left the Dogs in shambles and the country on the brink of disaster. And trust me, turning a blind eye to counterfeiting ends up being a lot worse than COMPSTAT.
Similarly, the Court of the Rogue plays a critical role in Tortall’s stability: David Simon’s pessimism about capitalism and the poor has nothing on Pierce’s cold-eyed assessment of the nobility and the common people. A good Rogue, among other things, stockpiles grain and oil to distribute during the winter after lean harvests, mediates disputes so minor disagreements don’t turn into murder, and figures out what the Court’s role will be when Tortall’s security is under threat. The Rogue is much more organized as a social welfare organization than the Barksdale crew, but both take care of their own. Just as the Dogs prevent Tortall’s nobility from coming down on all the criminals in the kingdom by forging a relationship with them, the Rogue in each of Tortall’s cities keeps crime from becoming unmanageable. The Rogue is a less hilarious but sexier and vastly more functional version of the New Day Co-Op.
I should probably confess at this point that I really want to see this adaptation happen so I can watch Hailee Steinfeld beat the hell out of a bunch of bad guys with a leaded baton and a spiked ponytail. But the fact that plot complexities grow out of character, institutional structure, and intractable social problems means the Provost’s Dog books really have the making of a great television series. That doesn’t have to be an insight unique to David Simon.