The Writers of The Wire: Not as Cool as I Thought

I am a huge fan of “The Wire” and its writers. Long before David Simon had written any television I read his book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” I’ve read everything Dennis Lehane has ever published. I’ve read at least four novels by George Pelecanos. I’ve read two of Richard Price’s novels and followed his screenwriting work for years.

I knew about these writers long before “The Wire,” and if the show had never been made I’d still be an avid follower of their work.

But frankly, I was disappointed and confused by this manifesto they recently put out.

Here’s why:

First and foremost, “The Wire” is such a strong show, and the writing is so excellent that I don’t understand why they can’t just let their work do the talking.

In my mind, they’re now grouped with actors like Sean Penn, Barbara Streisand, and others who use their notoriety to make political statements, and try to influence politics with no awareness of their own lack of expertise. What’s more, these writers are aware of their inadequacy and state it from the beginning.

“We write a television show. Measured against more thoughtful and meaningful occupations, this is not the best seat from which to argue public policy or social justice.” I couldn’t agree more.

Still though, it seems they couldn’t resist.

The writers admit what they suggest will not work. And I agree. There has to be a better way to address this problem than acquitting guilty drug offenders, non-violent though they might be. As disturbed as I am by incarceration levels in this country I think that acquitting people will only encourage repeat behavior. I find ignoring evidence as a jury member to be morally repugnant and flat-out wrong.

Plus, I disagree with the assumption inherent in the writers’ manifesto that non-violent drug offenses are easily distinguishable and divorceable from violent offenses. If there is one thing I have learned from watching “The Wire” it is that the drug trade is inherently violent, and the creation of drug addicts, and the markets they power will inevitably lead to violent crimes, because the motivation of the work force, and the protection of the markets is carried out through violent means.

Am I crazy? Or are these men that I respect and regard as geniuses the crazy ones?

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14 thoughts on “The Writers of The Wire: Not as Cool as I Thought

  1. Someone’s obviously crazy.

    Actually I’m kinda impressed by their article. They’re not really positioning themselves like Sean Penn (I’m gonna stop the US from invading Iraq! yeah right). Seems like they just wanted to draw some more attention to the issue than their TV show did. (Although I’ll admit I only skimmed the piece.)

    I’ve never seen the Wire, have no interest in seeing the Wire, will never watch the Wire, and had no idea what it was about. But now I’m aware of the issue it was trying to address.

    And it got you to blog about it.

  2. Totally agreed. While I’m also a huge fan of The Wire, I thought the portrayal of “Amsterdam” (or was it Hamsterdam? Can’t remember…) in season 3 was a little too optimistic.

  3. I have no problem with what they wrote or that they wrote it.
    In my mind, they’re now grouped with actors like Sean Penn, Barbara Streisand, and others who use their notoriety to make political statements, and try to influence politics with no awareness of their own lack of expertise.
    I disagree with this. These guys, particularly David Simon and Ed Burns, are not at all on par with Sean Penn or Barbra Streisand. They’re not celebrities who don’t know what they’re talking about – Burns was a police officer and an inner-city school teacher and Simon was a newspaperman for years, and together they spent an entire year chronicling a particular drug corner, which they used to write a book called The Corner (which has also been made into an HBO mini-series). My point is, they’ve seen this stuff firsthand and studied it.

  4. Be that as it may, they do admit that the seat of a TV writer is not the best place from which to argue public policy.

    And sure, they’re maybe a small cut above the typical activist actor, although I’m sure many actors do their research as well. But still, they’re advocating a lack of cooperation with the criminal justice system.

    They’re saying that guilty people be set free with no regard to evidence. You would think with greater knowledge would come greater responsibility. For me, it’s more forgivable and easier to dismiss an actor telling me how to vote, than these guys saying we should nullify the hard work of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and cooperative citizens.

  5. Setting guilty people free without regard to evidence is better, in my mind, than putting innocent people behind bars without evidence or even putting guilty people in jail when the evidence is clear, when sentencing guidelines are clearly unethically severe.

  6. I think they had to propose something a bit over the top (and, as they admit, ultimately useless) in order to direct traffic toward their larger point: the drug war is a failed policy that has “demoniz[ed] our most desperate citizens, isolat[ed] and incarcerat[ed] them and otherwise den[ied] them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.”

  7. Except many judges will charge you with contempt of court if you try to inform people about jury nullification near court houses.

  8. Be that as it may, they do admit that the seat of a TV writer is not the best place from which to argue public policy.

    And sure, they’re maybe a small cut above the typical activist actor, although I’m sure many actors do their research as well.

    Actors doing research for a role vs. this being the life’s work of a David Simon or Ed Burns is not even remotely the same thing, but that’s a small point.

    However, if you’re as versed in the previously published works of these men as you say, how can you be honestly surprised at what they suggest? It’s not as if they haven’t repeatedly made similar (or even the same) suggestions in their previous works.

  9. While I’m also a huge fan of The Wire, I thought the portrayal of “Amsterdam” (or was it Hamsterdam? Can’t remember…) in season 3 was a little too optimistic.

    Really? I must not be remembering season 3 very well because I remember Hamsterdam being kind of a nasty place. I remember the attitude of those with the most invested in the idea coming away with something of a “Not a bad idea, but not well executed” view of the experiment.

  10. Brian V.,

    I was referring not to research actors do for a role, but to the research actors do to back up their political opinions.

    It’s precisely my familiarity with the work of these writers that makes this statement confusing. I agree with you that Hamsterdam was portrayed as a failed effort in Season 3 that ultimately led to the death of Bubbles sidekick, Johnny Weeks. A particular point was made of how harmful Hamsterdam was to young kids who were drawn into the mess because they were no longer employed as look-outs in drug operations. The entire plot line was a warning about the unforeseen consequences of decriminalization of drugs, if you ask me.

    Simon’s book “Homicide” is a paean to hardworking detectives, and an exploration of how drug-dealing has led to an explosion of murders and made them much harder to solve. Because drug-dealing and most inner city murders are inextricable, and because Simon seems to have a great deal of respect for police work, it’s hard for me to reconcile this statement with his earlier work. I imagine acquitting drug-offenders is probably an offensive idea to most cops.

  11. That’s not really how I read Homicide or Season 3 of The Wire at all, which probably explains our differing views on the article.

  12. Well, maybe I’m crazy, I said that from the beginning.

    Maybe I’m overstating the case on Season 3, but it’s hard to see it as an unqualified argument for legalization.

  13. Supergenius,

    Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.

    Seriously, what is the ethically correct sentence for playing a part in enslaving an entire populace to drugs? Don’t we have to assume that your typical drug-dealer has probably introduced at least one person to a lifetime of drug addiction, and/or sold drugs that have led to an overdose, and/or indirectly contributed to violent crimes committed to get money for drugs.

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