‘The Wire’ shuts down

The HBO show offers people a glimpse into how their civic institutions are failing them.

Television, for many people, is often used as a means for escapism, immersing us in stories more fantastic, people more beautiful and lives more interesting than our own. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the HBO series “The Wire,” which depicted the heartbreaking realism of inner-city life, failed to find much of an audience. The show ends its five-season run this Sunday, but it has done something that few television shows – or even news organizations – ever do: It has shown us an honest picture of what post-industrial America looks like.

Each season put a different institution in the city of Baltimore under the microscope. The first season highlighted a dysfunctional police force, with leadership more interested in manipulating statistics than stopping crime, and an underclass of inner-city drug dealers, practically forced into the trade for lack of legitimate jobs. The second season looked at the slow death of the working-class economy through dock workers fighting to keep their harbor and their jobs from succumbing to “development” and gentrification.

The third season took on reformers, showing how politicians are more interested in riding the language of reform to higher office and mugging for TV cameras than actually doing the painful, expensive, and usually unpopular work of true reform. The fourth examined the school system, consistently under-funded and handicapped by the economic distress dragged into the classroom from the homes of students. Perhaps the saddest was the current season, which focused on a newspaper industry more interested in chasing prizes and protecting the bottom line than “monitoring all this and sounding the alarm” as the show’s creator David Simon has said.

While Baltimore is very different than Minneapolis or St. Paul, there are shades of that city and the terrible inertia of its institutions that can be seen everywhere in the United States. The show took a long, angry look at the direction it believes we’re headed, and if years from now it turns out to have been right, we won’t be able to say we weren’t warned.