The Wire may or may not be the Greatest TV Show Of All Time, Now And Forever, In Any Language And Genre, In The Whole World, And Throughout The Whole Extent Of Spacetime — but one thing’s for sure. It’s definitely The Most Praised Show Of All etc. Time, Entertainment Weekly and the Guardian have all labelled it the greatest, as have lots of other folks with and without column space. Metacritic.com assigned the fourth season an aggregate score of 98%, which is higher than the rating for God Himself; more strikingly, it’s even four points higher than the score for Kanye West’s most recent album.
The Wire‘s legion of enthusiasts regularly point to a couple of features that merit especial praise: the show’s realism; its panorama of an entire society at every level; its giving voice to the marginalised and disempowered. Realism: swearing! Panorama: Drugs! Unions! Politicians! Schoolkids!
Settling old grudges Journalists! The marginalised: Black people! Gay people! Gay black people!
In interviews during and after the show, creator David Simon consistently claimed the highest ambition for the show and its themes. In particular, the show would
with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.
First season: the dysfunction of the drug war and the general continuing theme of self-sustaining postmodern institutions devouring the individuals they are supposed to serve or who serve them. Second season: the death of work and the destruction of the American working class in the postindustrial era, for which we added the port of Baltimore. Third season: the political process and the possibility of reform, for which we added the City Hall component. Fourth season: equal opportunity, for which we added the public-education system. The fifth and final season will be about the media and our capacity to recognize and address our own realities, for which we will add the city’s daily newspaper and television components.
Throughout the whole show, however, there’s one group of marginalised and disempowered that is not given proper representation; one type of individual that gets eaten by institutions but is not explored; one group which has historically faced, and continues to face, massive inequalities of opportunity.
That’s right: I’m talking about the ladies.
Simon identifies The Wire‘s great theme as “institutions devouring the individuals they are supposed to serve or who serve them”. And throughout all five seasons, the show develops this theme in detail, in a variety of institutional contexts and with a variety of individual players. Institutions fuck over McNulty, Daniels, Bubs, Wallace, D’Angelo, the Sobotkas, Bunny, Randy, Bodie and plenty more besides.
But, from Snot Boogie’s sad demise at the very start to the much-exploited homeless guy at the end, The Wire is singularly unconcerned with how women fare in these institutions, the fates they face, the options open to them.
Consider: by my count, over the course of five seasons, thirty-seven cast names appear in the opening credits. Of these, four are women. These are the actors playing Beadie, Kima, Pearlman, and (!) Alma Gutierrez. Beadie is in the credits only for season 2, despite playing a sizable role in the final season too. Shardene and Snoop never make the credits. By contrast, Burrell, Rawls, Sydnor, Clay Davis, Clarence Royce, Maurice Levy and Chris Partlow do.
Chris Partlow makes the cut and Snoop doesn’t.
(This gender imbalance is presumably, totally unrelated, in any way whatsoever, to the fact that ten out of the eleven writing credits throughout the show are men)
Or consider: of those thirty-seven cast members, the relationship status of three of the women are plot points. Pearlman fucks McNulty and then Daniels; Beadie fucks McNulty; Kima struggles with her (de facto) wife and child. Alma gets nothing, but that’s only because she has no internal life to speak of or, really, any kind of life to speak of, beyond learning at the feet of the great
David Simon Gus Haynes.
Sure, much is made of who the guys are fucking, too — McNulty and Omar in particular. (And, of course, if Pearlman is fucking Daniels, then Daniels is fucking Pearlman too). But, for a lot of the male characters, it’s simply not an issue. They may be married or have a girlfriend, but it doesn’t matter much to their character. Prez has a wife onscreen for all of one scene, as I recall; Bodie, Herc and Carv take dates to the movies and that’s about it; Marlo and Avon are mostly asexual; Rawls’ sexuality is a throw-away gag (well, two gags, if you include the graffiti in the homicide toilets); and who the hell knows about Royce, Davis, Burrell, Levy, Sydnor et al. The point isn’t that the show isn’t interested in who the guys are fucking; it’s that the show is much more interested in who the women are fucking.
And once you get beyond the “main” cast — even if you include a couple of extra characters not in the opening credits, such as Shardene, Snoop, Prop Joe, Jay Landsman and the like — it gets even worse. Most of the tertiary female characters are WAGs, would-be WAGs, one-night stands, or mothers. Going down the cast list, if we skip the few women who actually do appear in the opening credits, we get: Snoop; Marla Daniels, who’s fucking Daniels at first and then she’s not; Cheryl (you know, the one with her coupons); Theresa D’Agostino, who fucks McNulty and then tries to fuck Carcetti; Grace Sampson, who used to fuck Cutty; Donette, who fucked D’Angelo and then Stringer; Elena McNulty — look, it’s too depressing to go on.
The biggest missed opportunities comes in season four, with the introduction of the school. Here you have an environment with a lot of women and a lot of girls, the powerful and powerless. Maybe they couldn’t fit in a new major character as a teacher, given that they already had Prez undergoing his learning journey and growing into his new role. Maybe there wasn’t any need. But surely — surely — they could have made one of the four kids that we track a girl?
For the point of season four is, in part, to show the options available to black children in marginal environments. Randy, the budding entrepreneur who ends up traumatised by his glancing contact with crime. Michael, the child of abuse, who’s recruited to crime by way of protecting his family. Namond, who’s too weak for the streets and lucks into a way out. And Dukie, poor Dukie whose fate seems sealed from the moment we see him.
We see what the boys can do, what can become of them, what few roles are offered by the system — the systems — that surround them. But what are the fates for girls? Do they become dealers, junkies, citizens? What specific options do they have that the boys don’t have? Questions not answered by the show; worse, they’re not even asked.
The show isn’t altogether clueless on gender. There’s a nice bit in season four when all the neighbourhood mothers converge on Cutty, as one of the few eligible bachelors going. Or the bit in season one when D’Angelo lets his casual misogyny slip to Shardene. And the instigating incident of season two — the dead sex slaves — suggests a show not entirely uninterested in how women are used by power. But is that enough for a show that aims to reveal an entire society, and how that society grinds down its members? Is that enough for the Greatest TV Show Of All Time?
Or, to quote the great Bunk Moreland: Happy now, bitch?
The entire Wire roundtable is here.