When I first asked David Simon to speak in my media, faith and Hollywood class, he was pleasant, polite, and surprised. The Wire, he emailed back, doesn't draw on religion. Its dramatic cues come straight from Greek tragedy. No matter, I replied. Its themes, stories and characters are religious enough for me—What is my responsibility to others? Can I make things better? Why am I here? What do I care about? These are the demons plaguing Bunny Colvin, Cutty Wise, Bubbles, and Jimmy McNulty. And Simon, a former colleague at the Baltimore Sun, is equally passionate about the questions.
I would have loved The Wire even if the first season wasn't shot in my old neighborhood. (How many times did I rewind just to see if that old grey building was really my house?) The series felt real in ways that highlighted the falseness of almost everything else on television. It wasn't just the street language or the mixed race cast or even the portrayal of urban devastation. Rather, Simon's approach had more in common with journalism than entertainment: he wasn't about to tidy things up in an hour (or 50) by allowing the good guys to win and making the problems all go away.
In its depiction of post-industrial capitalism, The Wire brings to life horrors that many would prefer not to see. Speaking to USC students and faculty this past week, (yes, he did come) Simon explained that this season shows how the media helps to obscure the view. “Watching a TV drama to get the truth, that's the real joke,” he said.
Hour after hour, year after year, The Wire portrays seemingly intractable waste, corruption and ineptitude. It felt like it did when I reported in Baltimore, and it reminded me why I got out so fast.
What I didn't understand then, and what The Wire reminds us now, is that the problem isn't Baltimore, it's a society rich in religious rhetoric but surprisingly short on follow-up. David Simon doesn't have to put religion in The Wire: it's impossible to watch and not wonder what Jesus would do.
The Wire ends March 9, but its storylines will continue running in most of our cities. David Simon's soon-to-be classic series will be available on DVD.