Sociology in HBO’s The Wire

It has been called “the best show on television” (Goodman, 2004) and even “the best TV show ever broadcast in America” (Weisberg, 2006). Written by David Simon, The Wire attempts to address the complex problems in modern-day Baltimore, Maryland in the United States. The show puts a tight spotlight on the use and abuse of drugs by the city’s lowest criminals, the corner boys. As a social group, corner boys share the same desire to earn money with the prospect for a future in the city. Through the narrative and visual techniques, David Simon stereotypically portrays the corner boys as African-American gangsters who have succumbed to the lure of the gangster lifestyle because of the money it offers. By doing this, Simon puts forth the idea that corner boys are nothing but pawns on a chessboard in which their identity and fate have already been written by their superiors.

In the series, a set of linguistic and social stereotypes are used to lay down a collective identity for the corner boys. The screenwriter has consciously employed a register that would fit with the African-American gangsters living in West Baltimore. With other African-American communities living over there, their speech is an essential part in identifying the corner boys. The opening scene of the pilot episode presents detective McNulty who is questioning a witness at a ghetto crime scene. The witness replies to McNulty’s questions with short answers and speaks slang, for instance by stating “I ain’t going no court” and “kill a man over bullshit”. The second reply shows that proverbial phrases are common in their speech. Idioms such as “the game is the game” and “this America, man” (1.01) are constantly used throughout the episode to define the identity of the gangster community. Gradually, these idioms become recognisable landmarks in discourse later on in the show. Furthermore, the corner boys are characterised by their appearance on the screen. In all of the scenes, corner boys have been portrayed wearing baggy clothes. Indeed, this derives from the stereotypical image of a young African-American living a poor life, but there are also African-Americans up high in the gangster hierarchy and they have been portrayed wearing suits. From this point, it is clear that stereotypes and counter stereotypes are used so the corner boys are easily recognisable in the big gangster community.

WATCH: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0mxz2-AQ64

As one watches the show, one understands why corner boys have been struggling with their collective responsibility to the gangster community and their individual yearnings in life. This sheds light on the reasons behind a character’s decision to get involved with the illegal drug trade.  In the third episode of the first season, D’Angelo Barksdale, a lieutenant in his uncle’s drug dealing organisation, explains the game of chess to two young corner boys. The entire scene is a direct metaphor to the world of organized crime. Barksdale’s explanation of the rules of “the game” stands in line with the knowledge the boys need in order to survive long enough that “you get the other dude’s king”. However, the corner boys assert their individuality by keeping out a desire to go against the order of things. Instead of catching and trapping “the other dude’s king” to win the game, the two rather “make it to the end” as pawns so they become “top dog”. The idea of choosing individuality before the collective arguably implies that the corner boys do not make a tight community at all since they are basically thieves who would look out for nobody but themselves. However, the two young corner boys do not represent the entire social group’s status quo. In fact the chess game scene demonstrates that young boys are lured in the business because of individual success with the prospect of getting a higher position in the hierarchy one day.

From the first episode of the series the screenwriter explores the theme of surveillance. The use of electronic equipment by the police is directly brought to the audience by utilizing camera shots from CCTV. By changing the traditional camera’s point of view to surveillance apparatus, an element of realism is created. The audience is given a role of authority and subsequently an impression that they know more than they should as they get to observe the corner boys during drug transactions. While the corner boy gangsters stay a highly dangerous thus bad group to be around with, this kind of engagement generates empathy in the audience. This effect is empowered in one scene in which the surveillance camera gets demolished by a corner boy. Through the eyes of the viewer, an individual corner boy does not exist anymore as they are all the same.

To conclude, David Simon portrays the corner boys as Afro-American gangsters who are oblivious to the world around them. The television show, as a medium, allows Simon to employ linguistic and social stereotypes to create the image of the corner boys as a social group. The visual metaphor of the chess game gives purpose to the corner boys as they long for individual success some day in the future. For the audience, Simon makes use of a changing perspective as a camera technique in order to empower the image of one isolated group. Ultimately all these aspects make The Wire more than just a show, because of the realistic portrayal it offers of one of the most dangerous communities in Baltimore.

(910 words)

Works cited

Simon, David. The Wire. Revised Final Script Pilot. July 2001.

Goodman, Tim. (2004, September 16) Fine, don’t watch the Wire. But that would be a big mistake. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com.

Weisberg, Jacob. (2006, September 13). The Wire on Fire: Analyzing the best show on television. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com.

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One thought on “Sociology in HBO’s The Wire

  1. LOVE the Wire, good article. I love how you write, I know I am a nerd, but I can tell by your use of language that you have probably written a ton of papers for school. Me too! 🙂 But seriously that was a good article, I need to do one on the Wire too!

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