It’s the 20th anniversary of “The Wire,” a television show widely regarded as the greatest series of the 21st century. Viewing it is one of the best gifts you can give yourself if you’re a recent high school or college graduate, because nothing else will prepare you so well for the workforce.
On the surface, “The Wire”’s five seasons keep you entertained by depicting conflicts between Baltimore police officers and drug dealers. But beneath the drama and the ever-expanding cast of characters is a profound philosophical thesis about systems. Chances are, you didn’t encounter this philosophy in school. Curricula typically are designed to prepare students for the workforce, not to prompt them to question how well work will work out for them.
“The Wire” takes a cynical look at how systems — a combination of policies, procedures, and norms — maintain the status quo and prevent reformers from sparking change. The show portrays police work as focused on generating statistics that give the appearance of crime decreasing rather than genuinely making communities safer. “The Wire” presents a broken educational system in which teachers are forced to focus their efforts on getting students to pass standardized tests rather than helping them learn information and skills that will improve their lives. It shows newspapers driven to win awards more than to cover stories that benefit the communities they serve. And it presents politicians as publicly proclaiming that they are devoted public servants while privately making shady deals and scheming to enrich themselves.
This philosophy of dysfunctional systems may sound depressing, but it’s a helpful thesis about what happens if you treat work as more than a paycheck. It suggests that your own motivation is insufficient — you’re most likely going to get crushed if you see your job as a reflection of your deepest ideals and values and if you never have enough resources to do things the right way. The trade-offs you have to make if you cannot escape bosses and co-workers who prioritize advancing their careers, or are too apathetic to have troubled consciences, are brutal. You might grow resentful about being the unworldly sucker who thought they could make a difference. Or you could pay a steep price, like getting fired or demoted, for remaining true to yourself and opposing problematic office politics. In “The Wire,” bucking the system doesn’t work. Resistance is futile — both for folks working in official bureaucracies and folks working on the street.
The realism in “The Wire” straddles the line between documentary and drama, so you might be wondering why you’d want to watch it when the news is so heavy and discouraging. To be sure, the aesthetic qualities, which include masterful storytelling, first-rate acting, and amazing dialogue, are in themselves so compelling as to be worth your time. But I’m most impressed with what happens when you sit with the show’s portrayal of systems.
First, you’ll gain a better understanding of why people in different jobs express similar grievances. Take the Great Resignation, a significant pandemic trend during which many dissatisfied people quit their jobs. While reasons for leaving vary, there are some striking commonalities. Teachers and health care workers with a strong sense of purpose became despondent over their employers’ lack of support during especially trying times. While it’s tempting to say they experienced burnout and end the analysis there, the problem runs deeper. Being so committed to the greater good, some people suffered the harm of moral injury. They were wrecked by not delivering services that they deemed professionally appropriate. And they felt betrayed by bosses and colleagues who didn’t object when students and patients got less than they deserved.
Second, you’ll develop a better appreciation of whistleblowers — of their bravery and commitment. When whistleblowers go public, critics often suggest that they should have worked harder to change a system internally. Or they demonize the whistleblower as a publicity-seeking narcissist. But since you’ll recognize how hard it is to go against the flow of institutional inertia and resistance, you won’t have to accept the accusation at face value. You can carefully consider whether a person has exhausted all reasonable options for working within a dysfunctional system.
Third, you might give more thought to embracing the freedom, and risk, of working for yourself. While “The Wire” is harsh on systems, it presents the character Omar Little (brilliantly portrayed by the late Michael K. Williams) as someone the audience should respect. In a conventional sense, Omar isn’t an upstanding citizen. He robs drug dealers at gunpoint and sometimes shoots them. But Omar has his own code of conduct, which includes not intentionally harming civilians — the folks who aren’t, as he would say, involved in the drug game. Omar can live up to the code because it’s self-imposed, and he doesn’t work for superiors who can order him to abandon it when it isn’t convenient for their business. President Obama picked Omar as his favorite character in the series.
Fourth, you might approach work differently. If you’re looking to make friends or find an extended family at your job, you might instead strive for emotional distance from co-workers and managers. Setting firm boundaries can make it easier to challenge authority when you’re asked to do something that makes you uncomfortable. Alternatively, if you’re planning on keeping to yourself as much as possible at work, you might consider the benefit of trying to establish relationships built around shared values. If a system starts to feel oppressive, you may have created the conditions for solidarity and collective action. Admittedly, when “The Wire” introduces a dockworkers’ union in the second season, it presents the organization as not up to the task of doing what its members want most. But that’s one union, not all unions, and there are other ways of working together for a common cause.
“The Wire” is such riveting drama that I don’t want to reduce it to an academic lecture on systems. And yet, the show offers important educational lessons that most people don’t get in school. Graduates, I’m sorry for suggesting you choose more homework. But until you see “The Wire,” your education is incomplete.
Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.