The Wire as Contemporary Greek Tragedy? The Wire as Rogue TV?

In novelist Nick Hornby’s interview with David Simon in The Believer, Simon describes The Wire as a contemporary Greek tragedy. “Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character,” he alleges, “a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways….” What aspects of Greek tragedy (e.g. the chorus; the mythological cycle of arete, hubris, ate, and nemesis) crop up in The Wire, and how are they reinvented for the present era, for the specific milieu that Simon explores–modern day Baltimore? For example, Simon cites Baltimore’s institutions, including the “police department,” “drug economy,” and “school administration,” as replacements for the Olympian gods. While a few of the classical Twelve Olympians wreaked havoc as destructive forwards–like Ares, the god of war–most of the ancient Greek gods were benevolent. With this in mind, we see that Simon’s “gods” are darker re-imaginings, or simulacra, of their originals.

Consider the argument that the primary aim of only a portion of film is to deliver appeasing entertainment through cathartic exercises, whereas the central focus of the majority of television is to satisfy viewers with comforting, formulaic entertainment, based on character redemption and other operations that episodically resolve disruptions of justice in the narrative and foster the renewal of hope. Apply these notions to The Wire’s atypically pessimistic, or realistic, depictions of the trajectories of its characters (keeping in mind the view of Baltimore as a character). If catharsis is a facet of feel-good entertainment, does The Wire abandon this practice and thus fall outside of the category of escapist entertainment? How might its alleged rejection of convention have affected its viewership? What’s more, is sheer entertainment a primary goal in the majority of television series but only a portion of films? Was The Wire more suited to be a mini-series or feature film?

One response to “The Wire as Contemporary Greek Tragedy? The Wire as Rogue TV?

  1. I’m not sure that The Wire really falls outside of escapist television, although I’m sure Simon would see it that way. To him, The Wire is another in his line of his “documentary” television shows. I doubt that his intent was to give the audience catharsis, even though he did say that he wanted to make a twist on the traditional cop drama. But what we have been discussing lately shows that it doesn’t matter what David Simon thinks, it’s the viewer that matters.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t mater what the primary goal for the creators was, just like it doesn’t mater what the primary meaning in Catcher in the Rye by Salinger means. I still don’t understand what’s going on besides my own interpretation. If there is emotional relief to be found on the show then a viewer can find it. Perhaps The Wire could offer relief to the real life drug dealers and cops of Baltimore. Maybe the presence of catharsis is something we will never determine for certain.