The Wire is possibly the greatest television show of all time.
It's this century's version of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace — an apt comparison, not just from an artistic standpoint, but because just as people claim to have read the Tolstoy classic but never have, The Wire is a critical darling that has largely escaped the popular consciousness. Over the course of its five-season, 60-episode run on HBO, the show had consistently poor showings in the Nielsen ratings, faced possible cancellation and managed to garner only two Emmy nominations.
Nevertheless, fans of the David Simon and Ed Burns creation are a dedicated and borderline-obsessive group, which can't help extolling the virtues of the cop drama that broke all the rules of cop dramas. Counted among this ilk? President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
In fact, the latter recently invited three of the show's stars (Wendell Pierce, who played Det. Bunk Moreland; Sonja Sohn, who played Det. Kima Greggs; and Jim True-Frost, who played detective-turned-teacher Roland Pryzbylewski) to Washington, D.C., to help announce the Justice Department's new anti-drug public relations campaign. Holder let his feelings about the show be known, saying, "I want to speak directly to [co-creator Ed] Burns and Mr. Simon: Do another season of The Wire. This is a series that deserves a movie. I want another season or I want a movie. I have a lot of power, Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon."
In an email response to the attorney general's stern demand sent to the Times of London, Simon made a counteroffer, saying, "We are prepared to go to work on Season 6 of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanizing drug prohibition."
Seems like a fair trade.
By every measure of every indicator, the war on drugs has failed. In the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes that approximately 500,000 people are in prison or jail for drug offenses today, as opposed to 41,100 in 1980 — a 1,100 percent increase. More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the war on drugs began more than 30 years ago, most of whom have no history of violence or sales in large quantities.
Instead of targeting "kingpins," the war has affected low-level dealers and users, mainly black men, and has swelled the ranks of the prison-industrial complex to untenable numbers. Rights have been eroded, and, as Alexander also points out, "Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the war on drugs," making arrests (and often harassment) easier in the name of protection. The low-income communities that have been the target of this failed policy have not been made more safe; rather, they've been turned into war zones.
According to the report: "Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won." The panel also suggested that America "abandon anti-crime approaches to drug policy and adopt strategies rooted in healthcare and human rights."
This is exactly the message The Wire was trying to convey to the public, albeit in a more dramatic and entertaining fashion. Sure, the subplots and relationships were intriguing, and who didn't love to see Omar run up on the local dealers and take them for everything they were worth?
But the greater achievement of Simon and Burns was the dramatizing of the very real effects of the war on drugs on the community, police department, politicians, justice system, schools, addicts, dealers, newspapers, wives, children and everyone else in between. No one was pure. Even the characters with the best intentions got caught up in the cycle of corruption, hope and disappointment.
The Wire was a huge mirror, reflecting a society eating itself alive and destroying anyone who dared question, "Why?" The answers were never easy, and nothing was ever "solved" in the way that a standard crime procedural, like Law & Order or CSI, might like to tie a neat bow on a perfectly wrapped package. Instead, The Wire spent its time, as Stringer Bell said to Maj. Bunny Colvin in one of the show's more poignant and tense moments, "trying to make sense of this game," and leaving its audience with more questions and a strong sense that justice was not being served.
Holder, as a fan of the show, is aware of this, but as the nation's highest prosecutor, he is charged with upholding and continuing the war on drugs so long as the politicians and public-at-large demand it. Simon is calling him out. If the attorney general wants another 10 to 12 episodes, all he has to provide in exchange is an end to this failure of a drug policy.
There's nothing fuzzy about that math.
Read more about the war on drugs at The Root.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.