“it can’t be a lie”: The Wire as breaching experiment

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Abstract

The five seasons of The Wire are widely recognized as a landmark event in the history of media efforts to portray life in America’s poor, racially segregated communities. The show was especially momentous for scholars, such as us, who study urban poverty and the various ways authorities work to manage its problems and populations. Here, finally, was a dramatic depiction of the world we knew through our research and tried to convey in our teaching and public engagement. Here, finally, was a nuanced, humane account of the lives and lived realities – of cops and drug dealers and teachers and addicts and students and parents and more – that intersect and shape one another in the most marginalized neighborhoods of the nation’s cities. Here, finally, was a wildly popular, critically acclaimed, nationally televised cry of dissent from the “thriving cultural industry of fear of the poor, led by such television programs as America’s Most Wanted and Cops.”1 Even more than most documentaries, The Wire offers a realistic depiction oflife inside the “hyperghetto,” a social space defined by stark racial segregation, severely diminished jobs and social services, inadequate schools, rampant poverty, open-air drug markets, widespread housing foreclosures, and pervasive depression and dilapidation.2 From the show’s inception, this realism has been a central reason for its appeal to scholars in our field. The Wire portrays in vivid detail, not just the social facts of collective life that we study, but also the daily struggles, failures, and, in some cases, successes of people who live and work in the hyperghetto. Realism, however, is only part of the attraction. Social scientists have cheeredThe Wire as well for its ability to dramatize how individuals are shaped, in powerful but far from deterministic ways, by the social and institutional environments they inhabit. In the US today, poverty and related “social problems” are all too frequently understood as products of individuals’ bad choices and moral failings.3 The Wire, as Ammol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson rightly argue, “effectively undermines such views by showing how decisions people make are profoundly influenced by their environment and social circumstances.”4 Crucially, The Wire does not depict this dynamic in a way that isolates the poor or suggests they are uniquely susceptible to structural forces. It draws police, politicians, union bosses, and journalists into the same frame, showing how individual agency gets shaped and structured across a broad spectrum of positions in the social field.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Politics of HBO's The Wire
Subtitle of host publicationEverything is connected
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Pages11-40
Number of pages30
ISBN (Electronic)9781136025921
ISBN (Print)9780415854108
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014
Externally publishedYes

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