A Book Review Essay by John Duncan Talbird.
David Simon’s television series The Wire ran on HBO from 2002-2008, five seasons of a prestige show that, in the less than ten years since its last episode, has reached iconic status and is on most critics’ top-ten shows of all time lists. It is the Citizen Kane of TV, the modern equivalent of Dickens’ serialized doorstop novels of the 19th century. Surprisingly, it has received little critical attention considering its near-universal acclaim. Into this void, Stanley Corkin has stepped with his smart, engaging book-length examination, Connecting the Wire: Race, Space, and Postindustrial Baltimore (U of Texas P).
The main theoretical lens Corkin views The Wire through is the work of postmodern geographer David Harvey. Corkin argues that Harvey has “done nothing less than reimagine an integrated field of political economy with an important spatial dimension. Harvey’s evolving methodology increasingly provides a comprehensive means of seeing neoliberalism as a system of space relations that transform economic conditions and relations” (16). On several occasions Simon has said that he set out to show “fealty” to the city of Baltimore (8). Harvey’s writing allows Corkin to problematize place in the context of the show’s neoliberal critique. With his detailed reading of the five seasons – one chapter per season – Corkin shows that in the postmodern world “place” and “space” are two different things. Corkin writes, “This is the domain of postmodernism, an era when the concept of place is subordinate to that of space. It is less a matter of where production occurs, than of how far in cost and time it occurs from targeted markets. Thus, place becomes a particular or lived locale, while space (or location) is general and tied to operative meanings of relative distances” (15). Because of Corkin’s work as a film critic (see his excellent study of classic Cold War westerns, Cowboys as Cold Warriors ), no matter how theoretical he gets, he never lets his gaze stray too far from the text (and there are many illustrative images to guide the reader). He writes, linking theory to genre, “This study of David Simon’s series locates the spaces where urban geography meets Baltimore noir” (18).
Most fans of The Wire think of the series in shorthand. Season 1 is the Drug War, Season 2, the Waterfront season; Season 3, the Political Realm; Season 4, the Education Season; and Season 5, the Journalism one. Corkin doesn’t set out to debunk these thumbnail tags, but he does complicate them significantly. As he writes at the beginning of Chapter One, Season 1 is the most conventional season as far as genre expectations go. We watch as police detective McNulty (Dominic West) and several colleagues investigate the Barksdale drug syndicate. This is where the titular “wire” is introduced, the means by which the police eavesdrop on the criminals and this is where, as Mark Stern writes in a recent essay, we are introduced to the wire as metaphor, the way all of these institutions – the police, the crime organizations, the political apparatus, the business community, etc. – are interrelated in this city. Corkin writes, in the postindustrial city of Baltimore, “Employment for African Americans seems to consist of working for the police, working for the city, or selling drugs” (22). One of the ways that Corkin brings complexity to this already-complex series is the way he scrutinizes the intersection of race and class as depicted in The Wire and how scenes echo and reverberate across different seasons. For instance, he looks closely at a scene in Season 1 where gangster D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) and his girlfriend dine out at a fancy Inner Harbor restaurant. Despite being able to afford the pricey entrees, despite the fact that they’re not the only African American diners, D’Angelo can’t be comfortable. “Do they know? Do they know what I’m about…Acting like we belong down here” (38). Corkin notes that this theme will reappear in Season 4 when Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) takes some children he is mentoring out to dinner. This is a prime example of what Corkin means about differences between space and place. Although the characters live in proximity to these spaces, although they may even have the financial means to pass from one sphere into another, their travel from point to point is not seamless.
Season 2, located primarily on the Baltimore waterfront, is where Simon further sets the parameters of what the TV series will be. As he has said, “If we hadn’t gone somewhere else in Baltimore, we couldn’t have said to anyone we were trying to write about the city…If we had just gone back to the ghetto and continued to plumb the Barksdale story, it would have been a much smaller show, and it would have claimed a much smaller canvas” (49). Corkin makes connections between this season of The Wire and the classic film On the Waterfront (1954), noting that Simon updates the story to include issues of globalization and deindustrialization (51) and also noting the series’ bleaker conclusions. Concentrating on the heavily European-American makeup of the stevedores union, this is the “whitest” of the five seasons of The Wire and Corkin doesn’t miss the opportunity to examine how the show examines how Baltimore/America constructs and deconstructs race, analyzing scenes of the intersections between multiple “people of color” in the drug trade and also the way characters perform “their” race and also those of others (he has a nice section examining how white characters “act black” and vice versa).
One particularly useful way Corkin demonstrates how to watch The Wire is by paying close attention to the first scene of every season. These opening moments help us to understand how that season may depart from the previous one, but also clue us in to the overarching thematic concerns of the season and how it connects to previous ones. For instance, in Season 3, we open on the demolition of a housing project building, the same one that acted as a central site of drug trafficking in the first season. While politicians make self-serving speeches about the improvement of the area in the ceremony accompanying the demolition, in the crowd the reoccurring character, drug-dealer Bodie (J.D. Williams) taunts his friend Poot (Tray Chaney) about his tendency to repeat the same mistakes over and over: “just doin’ the same” (79). This is an arch and clever way of commenting on the political sphere where politicians make grand gestures concerning change and progress and yet continue “doin’ the same,” a key element as we’re introduced to Councilman (and soon-to-be Mayor) Carcetti (Aiden Gillen), an idealistic politician who will sell out his constituents in the interests of his career before the end of Season 4. But also, this opening scene and Bodie’s comment will speak to Police Commander Bunny Colvin, who transforms his high-crime Baltimore sector into “Hamsterdam,” a laissez-faire zone of legal drug trafficking, in order to rope off most illegal activity from the rest of the neighborhood. As the show depicts, this attempt is flawed and probably misguided, his imaginary zone impossible to enforce, his borders permeable and not condoned by his superiors (indeed, they know nothing of his experiment and immediately shut it down when news of it emerges). Despite this failure, the experiment also shows the lack of imagination amongst those charged with managing the drug war, their tendency to throw good money after bad, their propensity for “just doin’ the same.”
Season 4 is generally regarded as the pinnacle in the series. Linking back to the previous season, Simon makes analogies between No Child Left Behind testing and statistical approaches to policing: “…through the display of reified figures that show ‘progress,’ the schools create the illusion of improvement, just as the police force manufactures numbers to create the illusion of greater public safety” (119). This is also the season that introduces the ruthless drug dealer Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) and his hyper-violent enforcers. As Corkin says of the drug dealer: “Marlo is king, and no counterpoised power questions his stature. And he is king because he has conquered the space created by poverty, deindustrialization, racism, and disinvestment. Indeed, globalization may reign in the macro economy, but Marlo controls the space left behind” (138). Corkin goes on to argue that local knowledge is the “other” of globalization and neoliberalism: “For those left behind, knowledge of the spaces of their geographically circumscribed lives intensifies as those spaces acquire depth and nuance…As worldwide systems of trade and communication sprawl across far-flung networks, the spaces outside those systems become increasingly parochial and particular” (141).
Just as Season 4 is generally considered the strongest of the five seasons, Season 5 is regarded as the weakest. Corkin pinpoints the central flaw of this season in a nostalgia that tends to tell a simplistic story of the past, namely the fantasy that there was a time when “the mainstream media provid[ed] disinterested information to an attentive population” (162). Whereas the other four seasons tended to explore and complicate their central themes and concerns, this season – centering on McNulty’s faking of a serial killer’s murders and the subsequent articles written by a dishonest Baltimore Sun reporter (who goes on to win for that writing the Pulitzer Prize!) – is not only hard to believe, but veers close to ham-fisted didacticism in the obviousness of the lessons it tries to teach. Corkin acknowledges that there were other times during the run of the show where Simon made missteps like this. For instance, in Season 2, there are moments that veer toward nostalgia in the storytelling of a “golden age” of union work. However, as Corkin writes, “In that season, the chronicling of the institutional racism of the earlier time cuts through otherwise fond memories of that apparently better past” (162).
The Wire is often compared to Victorian novels of the 19th century, particularly those of Dickens. Corkin, though, places The Wire in the naturalistic novels of the early 20th century, American books by Stephen Crane (Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, 1893), Frank Norris (The Octopus, 1901), Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906), and their ilk, especially in their tendency toward didacticism and cultural critique. I acknowledge Corkin’s point of view, but feel that form is as important as content in the comparisons between The Wire and Victorian novels. Like the novels of Dickens, The Wire is delivered serially, the heft and complexity and even the digressions of the TV series echoing many of the techniques of novels like David Copperfield (1850) and Bleak House (1853). An even more apt comparison might be Èmile Zola’s novels. Like Dickens, Zola, the creator of the naturalist novel, also published his books in serial format (La Joie de Vivre , Germinal [1884-5] and many others). In addition, Zola viewed himself somewhat like a scientist, felt that art should make use of scientific methods in its search for truth and beauty, not surprising because much of what is now called Sociology emerged during Zola’s day (his countryman August Comte, Karl Marx, Max Weber, et al.). I recently also reviewed another new book on The Wire for Film International (15.2), Teaching The Wire: Frameworks, Theories and Strategies for the Classroom (Gaynor and Taliaferro), a collection of essays exploring pedagogical approaches to Simon’s classic twenty-first century television show. One of my complaints about that book was that the editors had solicited mostly authors from the social sciences or education and not even one from the fields of film or media studies. Stanley Corkin, in his deep analysis, approaches David Simon’s masterful series from a media studies perspective without losing any of the sociological focus, particularly considering his utilization of the writings of David Harvey. In addition to blurring disciplinary boundaries, Corkin shows the links of scholarship to pedagogy, using his acknowledgements page to thank both his school for support in leave and travel and his graduate students for their feedback in his seminar. It is a fine reading of The Wire and rather than being the definitive work on this series, I believe it opens up possibilities for future readings.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.