TV Rewind: The Wire Was an Unflinching Portrayal of Broken Systems and Police Corruption

If there’s a more American story, I’m not sure what it is.

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TV Rewind: <i>The Wire</i> Was an Unflinching Portrayal of Broken Systems and Police Corruption

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind. As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to give a fresh look to some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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The Wire is of its time, but also timeless. It’s situated firmly in America after 9/11, with the federal government focusing on terrorism and local police fighting the last vestiges of the War on Drugs. It’s timeless because the brokenness it depicts comes from the heart of America itself. America was created with broken systems, and those systems remain. That’s why watching it now feels as relevant as ever, even as the series turns 18. If it were a person in America, it could vote in the next election, but it probably wouldn’t because it knows the game is rigged. It doesn’t matter who is in charge if the system itself doesn’t change. Good people will still be punished; bad ones will continue to fail upward, leaving corruption and destruction in their wake.

The first time I watched The Wire all the way through was on the heels of the last recession. I was living in a studio apartment that had no closets, and I was mailing DVDs to Netflix because I was depressed and couldn’t afford to go out. TV was my company, and a reminder of the outside world.

Now, at the start of the next recession, TV is my company and my connection to the world once again as I stay inside, hiding from a virus and the government that makes its effects worse. America’s systems are still broken. Nothing is going the way it’s supposed to—except when I turn on my TV for the one hour a day I’m not working or cooking or cleaning or worrying, and it’s time for an episode of The Wire.

The storyline that sticks out to me most now is Roland Pryzbylewski’s (Jim True-Frost). In the pilot, he beats a kid so badly, the boy loses an eye. It’s revealed that this isn’t the first time he’s come under a police review—he previously shot his own police car for no real reason other than he’s an idiot who’s bad with a gun. But he’s related to someone high up in the police department, so he continuously gets moved around and his mistakes covered up so as not to annoy someone with power. The cost of this repeated stupidity culminates in Season 3, when someone innocent is killed and it’s Pryzbylewski’s fault.

If there’s a more American story than that, I’m not sure what it is. It perfectly illustrates how small, seemingly insignificant actions of ignoring mistakes and bad actors compounds over the years. The mistakes only get bigger and harder to take back the longer they are allowed to go on, but no one is willing to rock the boat. Police keep covering up for other police, and in the meantime, children get hurt and communities are ravaged, all so a powerful man can avoid embarrassment. What they don’t know is the embarrassment comes anyway; it’s impossible to outrun forever.

Police brutality has always been a part of the national conversation. It’s resurged the past few years with the publicizing of police killing black men, women, and children across the country. The Wire wasn’t a portend of what was to come, it was telling the story that has existed in America since police forces were first formed. If it feels prescient, it’s just because this particular story seems endless and repetitive.

In the opening of Season 4, some of the corner boys are selling a drug called “Pandemic.” Calls of “Pandemic right here” flutter in the background of the story, acting as an unfortunate reminder of the present I’m trying to avoid by watching The Wire to sink into other people’s misery. The on-the-noseness of these calls would never have stood in The Wire’s original run, which favored realism over whimsy.

Sometimes television writing is enjoyable when it’s lyrical and snappy, like Justified or Gilmore Girls. Part of the appeal of those shows is to see what’s being said, and how people say it. On The Wire, the writing works because of its specificity to Baltimore and the characters. It doesn’t feel like a song but rather like a sculpture that has chipped away at everything inessential to the story. The writing is so good it disappears, leaving human characters making true-to-them choices behind.

The utter ineptitude of the government, police, and businesses—any system—on display in The Wire is difficult to fathom. Because it shows the audience all the moving pieces, viewers can see what the characters do not: the consequences of their actions. It’s almost unbearable to watch sometimes, when a character continues to plod along, unknowingly ruining someone else’s life.

It would be insufferable right now, for me, to watch a show about the hope and promise of America. Parks and Recreation or The Good Place are two shows I love—but to fill my time with sweetness when the world is so bitter would feel too incongruent to process.

A television show is still a system: there are bosses and workers, money to be made, and rules to follow to get it all to come together and end up on my TV. HBO is perhaps television’s most prestigious institution. In the world of The Wire—so, the world I am in—that means it’s likely to be the most corrupt. It’s amazing that at least this one time, it all worked together to produce something great. The creation of The Wire is a miracle in itself, especially when it shows how mired the rest of society is in the banality of evil.

A reminder that someone else sees what’s broken in the everyday life of Americans is a balm right now. So I’ll continue to struggle each day—in minor ways that still feel impossible—until it’s time for the next episode. Because while The Wire tells a story of brokenness, the show itself runs smoothly. And that break from mediocrity is a miraculous reminder of how special it can be when things do go the way they should, if only for an hour at a time.

Watch on HBO



Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. She is working on a book about how women use makeup to help define their roles in society. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.

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