To be a good reader, you must be a re-reader. Most of the books that have really meant something to me I haven't truly understood until the second reading. In high school, I was made to read a lot of classic literature; however, there is only so much a teenager can truly get out of a book like Of Mice and Men or Brave New World, or even The Catcher in the Rye. I remember re-reading Salinger around age 25 and finally "getting" it--the humor, the pathos, the depth.
I think the same goes for great films and, in rare cases, television. I am firmly convinced that The Wire is the best television show ever. I realize this is a subjective judgement. But in terms of realism, of character, of depth of insight into the real problems of post-industrial America, nothing beats The Wire. When I first watched the series in my late 20s, I was in graduate school and it blew me away with it's unflinching portrayal of a modern American city (Baltimore). Last week, I purchased season five of The Wire and re-watched it, and was reminded of the potential of television to be as sophisticated and engaging as great literature.
I readily acknowledge that television today is in a bad way. With its mindless reality shows, cookie cutter dramas, and corporate-sponsored news, I find TV to be generally depressing. As a rule, I don't watch television. The Wire, which ran from 2002-2008, is the only television series of the past ten years that I have watched all the way through.
I think one of the reasons that I connect so much with The Wire is that it settles itself firmly in one location (Baltimore, Maryland) and goes very deep. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a passion for understanding the problems of my specific city (Fullerton, California). The Wire, which was created by a 12-year veteran reporter of the Baltimore Sun, carefully examines all of the complex and intertwining problems that beset one specific city. However, one of the real triumphs of the show is that it manages to say some pretty universal things by focusing first on specifics. It shows how the education system, the police department, the newspaper, the homeless, the working poor, the very wealthy, the politicians, the public employees are way more connected than any of them suspects or even wants to think about in a sustained way.
Because almost no one truly understands the "big picture" no one has the courage, insight, or clout to make any real substantial change. Instead, most people act in a basically capitalistic (i.e. self-interested) and short-sighted way. Constantly, the problems perpetuate themselves. It is a great comfort to me that it is a journalist, a writer, who really begins to understand the truth of things, and point the way to answers.
The real heroes of the show are those who operate "outside the system"--an urban gangster who steals money from drug dealers and gives it to the poor, a reporter who spends weeks living with a real homeless man, a detective who invents a fake serial killer so the department will give him the resources to take down a real drug trafficker. Most of the characters are stuck in the futile machine of the system and the accompanying moral compromises. Those with the courage and vision to operate differently often pay dearly for their "crimes." However the show suggests that it is precisely people like this, people who refuse to play by the familiar rules, who are most desperately needed.
If any real change is to come, the show suggests, it is not going to come from a career politician or a veteran police commissioner, or a union leader, or a wealthy developer, or even an urban Robin Hood. If any meaningful change is to come, it will come from outside the system…from the writers and artists and those with the vision and conviction to imagine a different way.