In a recent interview before he became president, Barack Obama told the Las Vegas Sun that his favourite TV show was The Wire.
What a great choice. The Wire, now having completed its fifth and final series, was pretty much the greatest thing ever to be seen on television, some of us think.
Set among the gritty world of cops and low-life drug-dealers, it did for Baltimore what Charles Dickens did for London. The Wire is the supreme morality play for our times.
The lyrics of the opening music strike an unusually religious tone: “If you hold on to Jesus’ hand, we’ll all be safe from Satan when the thunder rolls. Just gotta help me keep the devil down in the hole.” The devil in question is the evil of drugs and drug money.
Without any sort of cheap piety — indeed, without any apparent piety at all — The Wire charts the struggles of a myriad of brilliantly drawn characters to find redemption from the hold of heroin, booze, and gang violence. Some make it. Most do not. Nothing is easy.
Apart from the opening song, there is almost no religious referencing in the show. If ‘redemption’ is the right word to use for the struggles of many of the characters portrayed, it is not redemption that has anything much to do with organised religion.
Writing on the influential website Slate, the American political journalist Jacob Weisberg was correct in claiming that “what ultimately makes The Wire uplifting amid the heartbreak it conveys is its embodiment of a spirit that Barack Obama calls ‘the audacity of hope’.”
Yet David Simon, the show’s creator, describes The Wire as entirely pessimistic: Greek tragedy re-written for the 21st century. For him, it charts the various ways human beings have become surplus to the needs of a post-industrial society.
He speaks of there being two Baltimores — the middle-class Baltimore of gated communities (in which he lives), and the Baltimore outside the gates, which is poor and violent and feared and unloved, and where the only people hiring are the drug-dealers.
Brilliant though it was, The Wire – whose creators have gone on to make he acclaimed and disturbing Generation Kill, about the Iraq invasion of 2003, now showing on FX – got quite disappointing TV ratings in Britain.
Perhaps too many of us do not want to be reminded of what goes on outside the gates and on the other side of the tracks.
If the Obama presidency is going to make good on its promise of hope, it will have to do so in places like the unloved west side of Baltimore.
Though there is no doubting his thoughtful Christian outlook, it is unlikely that President Obama will be as overtly ‘religious’ a President as his predecessor, at least in public terms. But if he finds a way to bring hope to the places outside the gates, then he will be plenty religious enough for me.
That is the way to “keep the devil down in the hole.”
© Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney and a regular media commentator and author. This article is adapted from one which recently appeared in the Church Times, with acknowledgment.