I’ve sat through some of the great British television mini-series several times, especially Brideshead and Camomile Lawn. I’ve loved every BBC adaptation of the novels of Dickens and Austen — some even more than the books themselves.
So, last birthday, when someone in the family gave me a DVD set of The Wire, I feigned polite interest but knew it wasn’t my style. Just about the last thing I felt like watching at the end of a long day was an American cop show praised for its realistic portrayal of the foul-mouthed black drug dealers of Baltimore’s welfare housing estates and crooked white unionists on the city’s docks. But I recently opened the package and was immediately hooked. I’ve now hungrily devoured the first two of its five seasons.
The criminal subcultures of this decaying, rust belt city are the setting for a look at the human condition rarely matched in any art form. Writer David Simon, a former police reporter, obviously had high literary ambitions for his work and has brought them off. Checking the internet, I find some commentators have compared him to the great nineteenth century novelists. I agree.
In fact, he is heir to Rudyard Kipling, another former journalist who used his direct experience of the streets and bazaars of Lahore to produce a masterpiece. Simon is a leftist who thinks unrestrained American capitalism is the root of all evil, but his insight into human nature and institutions, plus the dramatic artistry he brings to the Hobbesian Baltimore he has created, lift this work way above his personal political views. Kipling did the same in his great novel about India, Kim. It won Kipling a Nobel Prize for literature. The Wire puts Simon in the same league.