In this post, Tom Brookes considers ‘The Wire’ as a sociological cultural object in its production, form and content, and consumption.
Ten years ago this month, HBO broadcast the final episode of The Wire (2002-2008). It had not been plain sailing. Since its inception, The Wire had weathered low viewing figures and regular threats of cancellation. However, by its conclusion, and throughout the subsequent decade, it was more often than not afforded the label of ‘the greatest television series of all time’. This anniversary has prompted numerous reflections on the show and its legacy and, as far as is possible, it is my intention to avoid covering that same ground. Instead, I wish to read The Wire as a sociological cultural object in its production, form and content, and consumption. I do so through observations of The Wire’s (1) ethnographic roots; (2) visual thick description; (3) specificity and generalisability; (4) relational ontology; (5) account of social reproduction; and (6) stratified consumption. In doing so I hope to demonstrate something understood but rarely expressed: sociology is not and should not be the preserve of the academy alone, but is a way of listening, seeing and showing.
The Wire was created by Baltimore resident and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun David Simon and depicts the police department and drugs trade of his home city. As such, its roots can clearly be traced back to Simon’s two non-fiction books: Homicide (1991) and The Corner (1997). Both are works of journalism significantly informed by ethnographic methodology. For both, Simon undertook a year of participant observation: in the homicide unit of Baltimore Police Department for the former and on the corner of West Fayette and Monroe Street in West Baltimore for the latter. In The Corner, Simon acknowledges the influence on his work of classic ethnographic studies such as Liebow’s Tally’s Corner (1967) and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
Downtown Baltimore skyline – image credit: (urbanfeel CC BY 2.0)
It is not simply Simon’s research methods which render The Wire a sociological work, however. It is that they can be seen to inform the visual content of the show. Its cinematography favours close-ups of the fine-grained matter of everyday life – an intimate focus on heroin caps and dollar bills changing hands, public telephones being dialled, cigarettes lit – rather than panoramic cityscapes. This is the visual equivalent of Geertz’s (1975) ethnographic “thick description,” a version of what Naficy (2001) might call “tactile optics.” Of course, the close-up is necessitated by the smallness of the small screen just as cinema invites the long shot. Indeed, due to budget constraints, The Wire was shot in the boxier 4:3 aspect ratio even as most television shows transferred to the wider, more cinematic 16:9. But it is in these conditions that art is made: synthesis of content and form, of the story with how it is told, within the possibilities and limitations of the medium.
Like all ethnographies, the bounded setting of The Wire, which takes place entirely within the confines of Baltimore, begs the question of generalisability. What can such an intimate portrait of Baltimore, which makes a virtue of its specificity, tell us about life outside the city limits? It is a question which the show addresses head on. The opening scene of the first episode demonstrates the American conflict of idealism and violence at its heart. Detective McNulty (Dominic West) sits on the stoop with a witness to the murder of the unfortunately named Snot Boogie. The witness tells of how every week Snot played the neighbourhood dice game, every week he stole the jackpot and ran, and every week he was caught and beaten. “Why’d you let him play?” asks McNulty. “Got to” replies the witness. “This America, man.” Cut. Title sequence.
The world as depicted in The Wire is profoundly sociological. The actions of the richest characters affect the lives of the poorest, bureaucratic compromises fudged in City Hall are shown to impact students in classrooms, police on streets, and impoverished neighbourhoods, rather than being isolated, are as much a part of the world as any other. Like the novels of Dickens or Zola, which depict a holistic world of socioeconomic diversity, it has a relational ontology. The questions it addresses are not necessarily ones of absolute morality, of good and bad, but instead of how morality is conditioned by social context. Echoing sociologist Anderson (1999), Detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) rationalises his surprise that stick-up man Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) would collaborate with the police on the one murder he views to be beyond the pale by observing that “A man must have a code.”
There are stories of individual redemption in The Wire. The drug addict Bubbles, brilliantly portrayed by Andre Royo, is clean by the end and returns to his family in the montage which concludes the final episode. His valedictory speech at the NA meeting, camera steadily zooming in on Royo’s face, never fails to bring me to tears: “Ain’t no shame in holding on to grief. As long as you make room for other things too.” The Wire practices what Bubbles preaches, making room for levity and humour throughout. Yet it ultimately depicts a process of social reproduction enforced by structures, systems and institutions. Those end of season montages show continuity more than resolution. Individuals may be jailed, promoted, elected or killed but others take their place, the drugs trade continues apace and the money continues to flow. Bubbles’s redemption is offset by the descent into addiction of teenager Duquan. In the words of Carver (Seth Gilliam), commenting on the ‘war on drugs’, “You can’t even call this shit a war… Wars end.”
Finally, the sociological nature of The Wire survives the broadcast of that final episode, ten years ago. The manner of its consumption and analysis in pieces such as this can tell us about the nature of cultural capital today. At first, the high status accorded to a television show, that archetypal medium of popular culture, could be seen to contravene a Bourdieusian notion of a hierarchy of culture signifying social class. Are we not now cultural omnivores, as Peterson (1992) would have it, indiscriminately consuming ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture side by side? Not quite. As many have shown, the omnivore may consume a range of cultural forms but they are not a singular figure. Many do consume discriminately. Television is subject to aesthetic analysis just as fine art and poetry is. It is not simply a matter of what you consume but how you consume it. The inclination to place The Wire at the top of Best Ever lists, to insist it is more a novel than television, to write a ‘sociological reading’ of it for a blog, evinces our twenty-first-century brand of cultural snobbery. And yet, it’s just too good not to.
 See Lynskey, D. (2018, March 6). The Wire, 10 years on: ‘We tore the cover off a city and showed the American dream was dead’. The Guardian. for a comprehensive overview and Sheehan, H. & Sweeney, S. (2018, March 10). The Wire and the world. Jacobin. for a Marxist reading.
 Two good examples are Warde et al. (2007) and Wright (2011).
Agee, J. (1941). Let us now praise famous men. London: Owen.
Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street : Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York, London: W.W Norton.
Geertz, C. (1975). Thick description: Toward an interpretative theory of culture. In The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London, Hutchinson, Basic Books.
Shohat, E., & Stam, Robert. (1996). Unthinking Eurocentrism : Multiculturalism and the media. London ; New York: Routledge.
Liebow, E. (1967). Tally’s corner, Washington, D.C. : A study of Negro streetcornermen. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Naficy, H. (2001). An accented cinema : Exilic and diasporic filmmaking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Peterson, R. A. (1992). Understanding audience segmentation: From elite and mass to omnivore and univore. Poetics, 21(4), 243-258.
Simon, D. (1991). Homicide : A year on the killing streets. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Simon, D., & Burns, E. (1997). The corner : A year in the life of an inner-city neighbourhood. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Warde, A., Wright, D., & Gayo-Cal, M. (2007). Understanding cultural omnivorousness: Or, the myth of the cultural omnivore. Cultural Sociology, 1(2), 143-164.
Wright, D. (2011). Making tastes for everything: Omnivorousness and cultural abundance. Journal for Cultural Research, 15(4), 355-371.
Tom Brookes is an MSc Culture and Society student in the Department. A recent convert to sociology after graduating from the University of Oxford with a BA in English Language and Literature and teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, Tom is now researching the interaction of cosmopolitanism and social class in education using qualitative methods.