Goodnight, hoppers; goodnight, hustlers everywhere

"Goodnight, hoppers; goodnight, hustlers everywhere" Continued...

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

The "wire" in question is a wiretap of a Baltimore drug ring, but the series title implies that viewers are listening in on an unfamiliar world, seeing and hearing what we usually do not. Maybe The Wire is also about walking a tightrope where we may fall off on one side into utter cynicism or on the other into unrealistic idealism. The show never received high ratings because, instead of signaling plot turns three blocks in advance, it demands that viewers pay attention. Ecclesiastes: "For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them."

The Wire regularly shows the difference between appearance and reality: Police hoping that bureaucrats will pay attention make up crimes, and reporters looking for advancement make up stories. Those who are wise realize they're seeing only part of the picture. As one of the good guys from season five, newspaper editor Augustus Haynes, says, "If you want to look at who these kids really are, you have to look at the parenting or lack of it in the city, the drug culture, the economics of these neighborhoods. It's like you're up on the corner of a roof and you're showing some people how a couple shingles came loose. Meanwhile, a hurricane wrecked the rest of the --- house."

That last sentence brings to the fore a major problem of the series, and the one that forces me to fence off this recommendation. The Wire has violence, sex, and bad language. People are shot in the head-although not in glamorizing slow motion, as in a Sam Peckinpah film. Some people are shown in sexually indecent exposure, and several times adultery seems to go along with adulthood. Either the violence or the sex would be sufficient to make many WORLD readers want no part of this series, and for some to question whether anyone should watch.

The violence and sex are periodic, but the series has one constant: obscene language. Criminals assault English in virtually every sentence, and police aren't much better. Dockworkers, reporters, and others also kick back a few, partly because some spend many evenings drunk, but in large part because this, realistically, is their common verbal currency. Is the realism worth it? Some WORLD readers again will say no.

For me-and I know many will disagree-some enormous positives balance those large detriments. The Wire reflects better than anything else I've ever seen on television the teaching of Ecclesiastes about "the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them." Newspapers lack money for investigative reporting. Police lack money for overtime or even for cars that aren't over-the-hill. Drug dealers, though, commonly bring out fat rolls and casually peel off $100 bills.

The series is full of memorable characters like drug-snitch Bubbles, stick-up man Omar, and teachers forced to live and die by test scores. It includes myriads of fleeting but memorable moments, including the look on a boy's face as he realizes his complicity in murder. Those of us who have read Goodnight, Moon to our children grasp the poignancy of a detective holding a child up to the window and saying goodnight, moon but also goodnight, hoppers; goodnight, hustlers; good night, scammers.

The show moralizes only minimally, but the plots convey lessons: one person at a time, one day at a time. Think locally, don't obsess globally. Reporters should enjoy their work on the Baltimore Sun and not plot a move to The Washington Post. Policemen can save one child and put to the side nightmares about thousands. The Right Stuff among police is honest, grimy detective work, and the same is true in newspaper work-including getting the grammar right.

A few moments of hope do emerge. A gangbanger, taken into a loving but firm home, becomes a good student. An ex-convict sets up a boxing gym and becomes a youth leader. A heroin user cleans up his act. A crooked cop goes straight. But tangled rules constrain judges from doing what is right, and ambition turns politicians from ideals to deals. Ecclesiastes: "I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness."

The Wire is mercilessly consistent in that vision. Petty larceny on street corners parallels grand larceny in corner suites. Uninspired police, instead of pounding the pavement, flip through porn magazines or create doll furniture. As bad as things are, the powers in every institution seek to keep things the same and even to create the myth of "back in the day" when things were better. Ecclesiastes: "Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart."


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