By Shawn Peters
HBO has a big new hit on its hand with The Night of, a gritty criminal justice drama about a young Pakistani-American taxi driver accused of murder. The show is drawing comparisons to a previous gritty HBO criminal justice drama, The Wire, which many consider to be the greatest show ever to air on television. Shawn F. Peters, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reflects on The Wire — and its value not just as a television show, but as a pedagogical tool.
Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City by Elijah Anderson (W.W. Norton, 2000)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander (New Press, 2012)
Tapping into The Wire: The Real Urban Crisis (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) by Peter Beilenson and Patrick McGuire
The Wire and Philosophy by David Bzdak (Open Court, 2013)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates(Spiegel & Grau, 2015) The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 2009),
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover (Vintage, 2001).
The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play and The City That Could Not Be Broken by Wendell Pierce (Riverhead Books, 2015),
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman (Picador, 2015)
The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre Liam Kennedy and Stephen Shapiro (editors), (University of Michigan Press, 2012).
There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing up in the Other America by Alex Kotlowitz (Doubleday, 1992) and The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma by Alex Kotlowitz (Anchor Books 1999).
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (Harper, 2011) and World Gone By by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow, 2016)
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates byWes Moore’s (Spiegel & Grau, 2011).
Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District by Peter Moskos (Princeton University Press, 2009).
The Night Gardener by George Pelaconos (Back Bay Books, 2009) and Right as Rain by George Pelecanos (Back Bay Books, 2011).
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau, 2015)
Clockers by Richard Price (Picador, 2008), Lush Life by Richard Price (Picador, 2009), and, most recently, The Whites by Richard Price (Picador, 2016).
Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys Victor Rios (NYU Press, 2011])
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon (Holt, 2006), The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood by David Simon (Broadway Books, 1998)
On The Wire byLinda Williams (Duke University Press, 2014)
When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor by William Julius Wilson (Vintage Books, 1997).
By Shawn Peters
Every fall, I teach a course in the Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison called “Narratives of Justice and Equality in Multicultural America.” Don’t let the ponderous title fool you: we spend the semester engrossed in some incredibly rich and provocative texts, including director David Simon’s masterful drama The Wire, which aired on HBO from 2002 to 2008. (Indeed, the program is so integral to the course that students commonly call it “that Wire course.”) Although the show’s run ended eight years ago, its unflinching examination of the ills plaguing urban America – drugs, poverty, violence, and despair among them – still rings disturbingly true.
My students are by no means the only people who still treasure The Wire. The show remains beloved by the likes of Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, journalist Joe Klein, and President Barack Obama, who told Simon in an interview last year that he’s a “huge fan.” And Entertainment Weekly crowned The Wire “the all-time greatest TV show” in 2013.
One way to more fully appreciate the enduring greatness of The Wire is to read the many wonderful books that can complement it. What follows is a brief but expansive sampling of works in a variety of genres that might deepen and enrich viewers’ understanding this entertaining and important show.
These books would include last year’s gripping memoir from Wendell Pierce, who portrayed The Wire’s irascible detective Bunk Moreland. In The Wind In the Reeds: A Storm, A Play And the City That Could Not Be Broken, Pierce recounts his upbringing and career, and charts the post-Hurricane Katrina revival of his native New Orleans. This is a charming and very often moving look at Pierce’s life, his devotion to his craft, and his love for a city struggling heroically to recover not only from natural disaster but also gross governmental neglect and mismanagement (a recurring theme in The Wire’s depiction of Baltimore’s woes).
Pierce’s effort complements the memoir of another Wire cast member, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. As her book Grace After Midnight shows, Pearson’s personal and career trajectory was a bit different than Pierce’s. A so-called “crack baby,” she grew up in foster care and started dealing drugs as a teenager. Pearson served a lengthy prison term for second-degree murder (a crime committed when she was all of fourteen years old) before serendipitously finding her way into the cast of The Wire. Grace After Midnight is a grim but ultimately triumphal story about the myriad cultural and socioeconomic barriers faced by women growing up on the margins of American society.
To the chagrin of many, David Simon has yet to pen an autobiography. However, prior to creating The Wire, he honed his narrative skills by working as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writing two masterful nonfiction books about the urban realms that would be memorably covered in the show. Brimming with Dickensian detail about the lives of police detectives, drug dealers, and those caught in the crossfire between them, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood are two essential companions to The Wire; many of the show’s most memorable scenes are adapted from their pages. (These include the very first scene in the series, in which Detective Jimmy McNulty tries to sort out the fate of a doomed young criminal memorably nicknamed “Snot Boogie.”)
Simon wisely employed a stable of gifted writers for his show, and their novels are uniformly excellent, if predictably bleak. Dennis Lehane's works include Mystic River and World Gone By, while George Pelecanos has penned (among other novels) The Night Gardener and Right as Rain. I am especially partial to the gritty crime fiction of Richard Price, author of Clockers, Lush Life, and, most recently, The Whites. Price has gone on to be the co-creator of The Night of, HBO’s new series about a Pakistani-American defendant caught up in New York City’s criminal justice system.
Simon counts among his fans the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who has written in The Washington Post that The Wire “shows how the deep inequality in inner-city America results from the web of lost jobs, bad schools, drugs, imprisonment, and how the situation feeds on itself.” Wilson has confessed that “those kinds of connections are very difficult to illustrate in academic works,” but he has done so admirably in his own scholarship, which includes When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. Such is the resonance of that work that it deeply influenced Simon’s approach to Season Two of The Wire, which touches on the myriad challenges faced by working-class Americans in post-industrial
Numerous other sociologists have written eloquently on the plight of the urban poor. Their ranks include Elijah Anderson (Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City) and Victor Rios (Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys). Perhaps the most controversial addition to this urban sociology oeuvre is Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Goffman’s study of crime and punishment in Philadelphia initially garnered rave reviews, but it later came under fire for its purported inaccuracies and omissions. Goffman — daughter of the legendary sociologist Erving Goffman — has defended her work in part by asserting that, as an ethnographer, she never intended to write a journalistic account of what she observed in Philadelphia.
There is no shortage of such reportage; many excellent works have explored not only urban crime and punishment but also interconnected issues of poverty, public policy, and social mobility. Jill Leovy’s recent Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America is a riveting account of violence and policing in Los Angeles, while Jason DeParle’s American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare examines the impact of welfare reform in Milwaukee. Arguably the most enduring work in the genre is Alex Kotlowitz’s classic There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing up in the Other America, which movingly portrays the lives of two brothers, Pharoah and Lafeyette Rivers, growing up in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes. I’d also recommend Kotlowitz’s The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma.
One of the great strengths of The Wire is that provides a warts-and-all portrait the lives of the police officers who try (not always successfully) to maintain law and order on the streets of Baltimore. For an accessible account of this work, one should read Peter Moskos’s Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District. The lives of prison guards are examined with a similarly deft first-person touch in Ted Conover’s memorable Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.
Given The Wire’s immense critical success, it probably isn’t surprising that a number of books have cast a critical eye on the show itself, and from a variety of perspectives. Among them are David Bzdak, The Wire and Philosophy and Linda Williams, On The Wire. Two excellent edited collections are Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall (editors), The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television and Liam Kennedy and Stephen Shapiro (editors), The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre. (Fair warning: these books, published by university presses, are not for the faint of heart. The collection edited by Kennedy and Shapiro contains an essay subtitled “The Emotive Power of Systemics, Seriality, and the City.”)
Tapping into The Wire: The Real Urban Crisis takes an intriguing approach to The Wire. Authors Peter Beilenson and Patrick McGuire use the television program as a launching-off point to discuss real-world urban policy and public health issues. They discuss, for instance, the possible implications of the de facto legalization of drugs depicted in the “Hamsterdam” zone informally established by the Baltimore police in Season Three.
An essential companion to the show is The Wire: Truth Be Told, which contains essays not only from David Simon but also from many of the show's writers (including Pelecanos). Also included are tidy summaries of all of the show's 60 episodes -- something that is especially helpful in viewing a show boasting a vast cast of characters and numerous long-running narrative strands.
It is difficult to pigeon-hole the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but his nonfiction is required reading for anyone hoping to understand the nature of race relations in contemporary America and how it has been shaped by the nation’s tangled history. His essay collection Between the World and Me garnered numerous awards, and an earlier work, The Beautiful Struggle, also draws upon his experiences in the formidable landscape depicted in The Wire. In it, he movingly describes his childhood in Baltimore and his complex relationship with his polymath father. Another powerful memoir covering some of the same issues in Baltimore is Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.
My course on justice and equality at UW-Madison ends with students reading a work that masterfully weaves together these many strands and adds a sobering perspective to our viewing of The Wire. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness challenges many of our core assumptions about the essential fairness of the criminal justice system and details the profound implications of public policies that disproportionately target non-white Americans. An impassioned critique, it is a sobering reminder that, for millions of people, The Wire isn’t mere entertainment -- it’s a hauntingly accurate depiction of an everyday world that seems beyond repair.
Shawn F. Peters, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.