'The Wire' walks its own down and dirty way


September 08, 2002|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Throughout the 1990s, you could regularly hear me moaning on these pages about one of the great differences between the best British and American cop dramas on television: The British weren't afraid to get down, dirty and depressing in trying to capture deeper truths about society in their detective fiction.

Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane as a gambling-addicted police psychologist, was the model of television that wasn't afraid of being called "too dark" and getting tuned out. As brave as Homicide: Life on the Street was in this regard, NBC was forever fighting with the producers to "brighten" it, and, near the end, some bad choices were made in hopes of renewal through compromise.

I thought of Cracker as I came to the end of tonight's season finale of HBO's The Wire. As I watched, I had that same great rush that I sometimes got from an ending of Cracker, when instead of having goodness falsely rewarded and the moral authority of the powers that be artificially reinforced (as even an NYPD Blue always does), Cracker stuck to its existential guns. That's the way The Wire ends tonight, and that is a triumph.

It's not an artistic triumph; David Simon, the creator of the series, doesn't do television as art. Simon does sociology, and he does it as well as anyone on American television this side of David Chase (The Sopranos), Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) and Tom Fontana (Oz).

It's no accident that all four are on HBO and that each of those series takes us inside a harsh subculture -- the Mafia, the funeral industry, prisons and the drug world -- as they use fiction to expose the kinds of truths about American life that are beyond the ability or nerve of network news to tell. Thank goodness HBO believes that we can handle such truth. Wouldn't it be nice if public television, which is accessible to everyone, delivered the goods this way?

Looking inside a world

The first great truth told in The Wire involves setting much of a series in the drug world and then showing that realm as a vast, entrenched, incorporated, world-without-end within America.

Furthermore, that world is not depicted as being somewhere out there on the American landscape -- exclusively within an inner city depicted as the frontier. It reaches into the very establishment that we think of as our keepers of the moral order. In The Wire, this is depicted through the blowback felt by the investigators when they start pulling campaign finance records of city and state officials to trace drug money that has helped fuel election campaigns.

Another set of truths involves race -- the 5,000-pound elephant that television almost never talks straight about.

In an interview before the series debuted, Simon stressed to me that the series was not about race. That's OK; I would say the same if I were him. Any white producer dealing with the kind of urban reality that he does is painting a bull's-eye on his back by announcing an intention to deal overtly with race.

But this series is loaded with issues of race. For example, one African-American state senator and his driver are far more intimately involved with drug money than just allowing it to find its way into campaign coffers. When it looks as though the senator's involvement might be made public, he appeals to what amounts to an African-American "old boy" network within local government.

The series also shows us the relationship between an African-American funeral director and the drug world. For all their talk of being our "watchdogs," don't expect to see these issues explored on local TV news.

On the other hand, one of tonight's most intense moments involves Detective James McNulty (Dominic West), who is white, finally going to see Detective Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) in the hospital where she's fighting for her life after being shot working the investigation he set in motion.

In struggling to express how guilt kept him from coming earlier, McNulty, says, "I couldn't [visit]. I felt ... I felt, well, on a case like this, it's always you or [Detective Leander] Sydnor, or some other black cop who ends up going undercover. And ... I swear, if I could do it over, I'd --"

Greggs interrupts with a wry remark intended to lighten the moment, but McNulty's holding back tears as he says, "I'm sorry, Kima. I'm sorry."

Maybe the notion that black cops are the ones going undercover is obvious, but I haven't heard it explained that way in any prime-time drama. More importantly, I have never heard a white colleague express guilt and apologize for disparity based on race in the workplace. It's an important moment in what concludes as a powerful narrative, told through McNulty, about naivete, hubris and arrogance in white America and what it costs some African-Americans.

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