And All the Pieces Matter: Thoughts on The Wire and the Criminal Justice System
11 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2010 Last revised: 17 Mar 2017
Date Written: October 4, 2010
The standard police procedural, even including great dramas like NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues, adheres to time-honored narrative conventions. It focuses on good if sometimes imperfect cops trying to find the real bad guys - the perpetrators - and bring them to justice. A crime had ruptured the social fabric, and at the end of the episode, guilt is determined and things are put to right. The standard procedural is concerned mainly with individual fault and heroism. It does not raise disquieting questions about the criminal justice system, the legal system, or the social and political arrangements that lead to a permanent underclass. There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and in the police procedural, every one of them stands on its own.
The Wire is a different kind of television. It aims not to reassure but to unsettle, or as David Simon once put it, "to pick a fight." Unlike the standard police procedural, which resolves a discrete problem every week, The Wire keeps widening its lens to reveal the context in which crime and policing take place. Although the show begins as a description of an actual wiretap, the series soon turns out to be about a series of interlocking systems, wired for dysfunction.
The Wire is deeply concerned with institutions, how they constrain the shape of individual lives, and how they perpetuate themselves, often at the expense of achieving their legitimate goals. However, although the show’s most cherished subject is the institutional roadblocks to good policing, The Wire defies the standard paradigm in this regard as well. It is not one of those cop shows that reflexively portray constitutional rights as annoying hindrances to law enforcement. Other shows tell us that cops need free rein; that we ought to trust their instincts and keep the government and the Constitution off their backs. This show vividly demonstrates that those instincts are sometimes misguided or self protective and that the right kinds of limits can play an important role in good police work.
This essay is an exploration and appreciation of The Wire’s remarkable portrait of the criminal justice system, with particular attention to its insights about policing and criminal procedure. It uses the chess lesson scene from Season One, “The King Stay the King,” as a starting point.
Keywords: criminal procedure, policing, criminology, exclusionary rule, law and literature, narrative theory
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