Work on TV: HBO’s “The Wire”

I love cynical, hard-bitten cop shows in part because they often do a good job of portraying utter dysfunction in the workplace.  Every week, we’re treated to an array of dumb policies, unmerited promotions, retaliatory demotions, lousy leaders, screwed up bureaucracies, unnecessary hierarchies…and with good stories to boot.

But HBO’s “The Wire” (2002-2008 ) took the cop show to a different level, and for so many reasons, it’s worth watching, well, wire to wire. The brainchild of David Simon (creator of another classic, “Homicide: Life on the Street”), “The Wire” is set in modern-day Baltimore, and during most of its five-year run it followed an ongoing story line of the war on drugs, featuring the city’s police, politicians, community organizers, public schools, media, and, of course, drug dealers.

Detectives Jimmy McNulty, Kima Greggs, and Lester Freamon, and lieutenant Cedric Daniels make up a core of compelling central characters on the police side.  Drug lords Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and Marlo Stanfield head up a smart, ambitious, and ruthless group of dealers.

Sometimes it’s the dealers, not the cops, who demonstrate the higher level of organizational intelligence.  Stringer Bell takes continuing education classes in business management, and when he gathers together his lieutenants, he runs the proceedings like a good board meeting.

“The Wire” is not for those with delicate sensibilities.  The language is raw — let’s just say it’s not your show if you take offense at regular use of certain four, eight, and twelve letter words — and the violence is jarring.

The show received exceptional kudos from reviewers for its superb acting and compelling story lines.  When the series was in its final season last year, reviewers used terms such as “Dickensian” to praise its portrayal of the rough side of urban life.  I confess that I haven’t read enough of Dickens to make an accurate comparison, but I’ve been in enough workplaces to appreciate the show’s true portrayal of the ups and downs of going to work.

To view “The Wire”: HBO subscribers can access episodes periodically.  Netflix and good video rental stores carry the series as well.  And now, the complete series has been released in a boxed set.

This is quality television, a dramatic lesson in the realities of the gritty side of urban life.  Those who have interests in organizational behavior will find that “The Wire” yields additional insights about how workplaces work…or don’t.

The online Wikipedia has an extensive entry on “The Wire”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wire_(TV_series).

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