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City life

Television | The Wire offers a gruesome depiction of urban crime

Issue: "'Into captivity they shall go'," Feb. 24, 2007

It may be in some ways the best show on television, but The Wire's gruesome and profane depictions of urban life in Baltimore mean few actually have the stomach for it. The one-hour drama's position on the premium HBO cable channel doesn't help attract an audience, either. Let the warning be clear: The Wire includes gunshot wounds, knife fights, cocaine overdoses, ubiquitous f-bombs, and the occasional stray breast.

Such a show may not be for most people. But wrapped within the vulgar package is a slice of urban life-a television form of reportage that captures the hardships and stumbling blocks of the American city.

The show's name comes from the wiretap the police install on ghetto pay phones to listen in on the secret world of the drug trade. Its first season profiles a band of ghetto drug dealers and the police detail tasked to take down Avon Barksdale's narcotics organization. Season two maintains tabs on the Barksdale organization while shifting focus to a group of blue-collar stevedores also caught up in narcotics traffic. Season three examines the political connections to the Barksdale organization.

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The show's first three seasons are out on DVD. Its fourth season-which introduces the topic of dysfunctional schools-currently airs on HBO.

Unlike other serial dramas, The Wire presents no hero who rises above the culture and forces change as a matter of will. Victories over crime are limited by a corrupt police force more interested in preserving a comfortable status quo than in making real change. Perhaps the show's most direct message is that humanity is both depraved and finite. No horrendous act can completely crush hope. No heroic act in this life can put an end to all the terrors of depravity.


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