Watching Baltimore try to brand itself over the past 20 years would be high melodrama if you didn’t actually live here. And we’re getting a reminder of that this week as HBO Home Video releases a 20-disc box set of the complete “The Wire” series on Blu-ray, exactly 13 years after the Baltimore-set show premiered June 2, 2002.
The box set was announced in December, its June release date in March, and this commercial product is hitting stores during one of the most turbulent times in recent memory: almost two months since Freddie Gray's death in police custody, a little more than a month after confrontations between Baltimore Police and African-American citizens around the Mondawmin Mall metro stop boiled into events now called the #BaltimoreRiots (according to mainstream news network and local reactionaries) or the #BaltimoreUprising. It's also arriving after the most violent May in terms of murders in the city since 1972, prompting City Councilman William "Pete" Welch to tell The Sun: "This is killing the city. I can't attract a developer to come in with the amount of violence that's going on."
After the recent unrest, it might seem baffling that "The Wire" was ever Exhibit A of what's wrong with Baltimore, but even during its run that argument felt specious. For starters: it's just a freaking television show, and while it adhered to the language of cinematic realism, It's no less a speculative, representational space than "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," another show that academics love to mine. Plus, no matter how many critics championed "The Wire," it drew modest viewing numbers at best. And yet, marketing research suggests "The Wire" is the only thing people who don't live in Baltimore know about the city. The only place I was ever asked if Baltimore is really like "The Wire" was in Hampden.
Like so many of the city's branding attempts, it arrives pre-loaded with double meanings. It's obviously a call for unity, a shout out to the ones who showed up the morning after the uprising to clean up the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues: the community organizers, the student activists, the clergy men and women, the nonprofit volunteers, the average citizens who since before, during, and after "The Wire" have done the small work that brings and holds people together. And then there are the ones who benefit from maintaining the economic development status quo that led us to where we are now.