David Simon brings a historian’s sword in his analysis of urban decay, and the blade is very much one that befits the years 2002 to 2008. The era carried a specificity to its history that is worth noting and is memorialized in this iconic HBO show. The drama was a portrait of its time in the same way a show like AMC’s Mad Men strives to capture the 1960s. The only difference is Simon sought to tell his story in real time. These breakdowns of institutional order emanate from the history that surrounds them, history that already feels distant to those of us rewatching episodes in 2012. To see 2002 again is jarring. Recall the hoppers’ casual use of payphones? Characters’ confusion at the very idea of text messaging or an Internet search in season 2? Or the lack of social media in the disintegration of journalism Simon depicted in season 5?
There’s a scene at the end of the fourth season that you would think might be more relevant to the sort of highly-educated, culturally sophisticated writers who enjoy pontificating about The Wire online:
Dr. David Parenti: We get the grant, we study the problem, we propose solutions. If they listen, they listen. If they don’t, it still makes for great research. What we publish on this is gonna get a lot of attention.
Howard “Bunny” Colvin: From who?
Dr. David Parenti: From other researchers, academics.
Colvin: Academics?! What, they gonna study your study? [chuckles and shakes head] When do this shit change?
As it happens, I’ve been watching the show all the way through again in recent weeks, and yet I somehow haven’t been overcome with culture shock while trying to mentally inhabit such an alien world where toy phones and their apps didn’t comprise the cultural center of gravity. I know, right? Somehow these proto-humans managed to fill the empty, interminable hours of their lives regardless.
When faced with sixty hours of drama centering on the destruction of white and black working-class life in recent American history, the bleak prospects for both cops and dealers, teachers and ghetto kids, it takes something…special to single out the absence of Twitter and Facebook as something noteworthy. I mean, it shouldn’t require aggressive slumming to encounter representatives of the twenty percent of adults who don’t use the Internet at all.