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Rewatching 'The Wire': Classic Crime Drama Seems Written For Today

Like many devoted fans, I jumped on the release of newly reconfigured, high-definition versions of HBO's classic cop series The Wire, binge-watching much of the show's five seasons on the HBO GO streaming service over the holidays.

And what I discovered — along with the sharper visuals — was the immediacy of the show's themes. Every episode felt as if it had been written last week, despite the fact that it debuted more than a dozen years ago and finished its run in 2008. Nowhere is that prescience on better display than the ways The Wire talks about race, culture and class.

David Simon, creator of <em>The Wire</em>, on the set in 2002.
Gail Burton / AP
David Simon, creator of The Wire, on the set in 2002.

Series creator David Simon's potent stew of on-point television offered a knowing take on the decay eating at Baltimore, and by extension, many American cities. The show highlighted the overly aggressive policing of poor black communities, the way drug-dealing became the only viable business in too many neighborhoods, the stigmatization of the poverty-stricken and the ways that middle-class black people often fell short in attempts to help African-Americans stuck in the underclass.

In fact, I'd argue The Wire has a greater resonance today than when it was originally broadcast, because so many of its messages about urban failure, policing and race have become a depressing reality.

Here are some examples of scenes that speak to issues we're grappling with now.

These Lives Matter

The scene that opens the very first episode of The Wire feels like a mission statement. A teen, nicknamed Snot Boogie, lies dead in the street. The show's protagonist, Baltimore police Detective Jimmy McNulty, gets another street kid who witnessed the shooting, to explain that the victim was killed for trying to steal money from the pot at a dice game.

First, Simon shows viewers they are entering a world where the rules are different, the language is different and the danger is obvious. But he's also focusing on a situation that many Americans pay little attention to: a young black man with a criminal past getting killed in a senseless shooting. We hear some of Snot Boogie's personal story, and we feel a pang of pity when McNulty expresses sympathy over the insulting nickname (even if he is probably exaggerating that feeling to get the witness to talk to him). Most importantly, we learn that Simon is going to make viewers care about people who many of us have preferred to ignore.

That idea is central to real-life efforts by protesters in Ferguson, who looked beyond Michael Brown's past and fought to make their fellow citizens care about him and the other young men who lose their lives in overlooked neighborhoods. Part of the message is that, even if someone is guilty of a crime, they deserve to be treated like a human being by police and society in general.

The Thin Blue Line, Beyond Black And White

Another scene from the first season features a black police official, Lt. Cedric Daniels, berating a knucklehead officer who, in a fit of temper, struck an unarmed kid. While Daniels is reprimanding the young white officer, he's also coaching him to spin his story to avoid official sanction.

Real-life protests over the grand jury decision in Eric Garner's death show concerns about this very issue — questioning whether law enforcement is capable of policing itself, and whether the justice system can be truly impartial when a police officer stands accused of assaulting or killing a black man.

The show also lays bare how and why it's so tough to fix failing police policies. Consider a scene from The Wire's third season. An experienced police major, Howard "Bunny" Colvin, decides to herd drug dealers into "free zones," areas in his district where police essentially won't enforce drug laws. The short-lived experiment reduces crime in all the other areas he policed and allows the drug trade to progress without its usual violence.

Before it all comes crashing down, Colvin explains to a young sergeant how drug enforcement tactics have disconnected police from the communities they are supposed to be protecting.

"This drug thing, it ain't police work," he says, remembering how old-school cops walked a beat, got to know their communities and learned tips from local residents that helped solve crimes. "You call something a war, and pretty soon, everybody going to be acting like warriors ... and when you're at war, you need a [expletive] enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your [expletive] enemy. And the neighborhood you're supposed to be policing, that's just occupied territory."

Real-life activists today fear those are the attitudes fueling stop-and-frisk policies where thousands of innocent young people of color are searched and sometimes detained. Look at the "you're with us or you're against us" stance many New York police have demonstrated in dealing with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and you see more evidence of the war attitude at work.

Neighborhoods Collapse, Crime Thrives

Actors Jermaine Crawford, Maestro Harrell, Tristan Wilds and Julito McCullum portray Baltimore students in the show's fourth season<em>.</em>
Paul Schiraldi / HBO
Actors Jermaine Crawford, Maestro Harrell, Tristan Wilds and Julito McCullum portray Baltimore students in the show's fourth season.

I didn't speak to Simon for this piece, but I did interview him several times during the show's run. He told me back in 2003 that the show often detailed how people land in the drug economy when traditional options fail them — whether it's the black kids in crumbling schools and struggling families in the fourth season, or the white kids trying to land a shrinking number of jobs on the city's docks in the second season.

"Whenever the economy shrugs and throws off people it doesn't need, the underground economy finds a place for them," Simon said. "You start seeing the intersection between the drug culture and the lack of meaningful work."

At a time when both incarceration rates and income inequality are reaching staggering levels, that seems to be yet another prediction Simon and The Wire nailed many years ago. Throughout the series, young people are taunted by career criminals, police and each other about the futility of pursuing education and legitimate work.

Simon has said often that The Wire is, in part, about the failure of institutions and the mediocrity of bureaucracy, even in the drug trade. But it's also about how those failures work along fissures of race and class.

As books like The New Jim Crow and documentaries like The House I Live In argue that the war on drugs has become a war on the poor and the non-white, the case for The Wire's view of an America hobbled by the desire for order at any cost — especially if that cost mostly falls on poor black and brown people — seems seriously prescient.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.