The Wire is an American drama series that ran between 2002 and 2008, and it is one of my favourite TV shows. It was a programme aiming for absolute levels of realism as much as possible. It was a critic’s favourite, but many viewers were slow to catch on to the series, due to the complexity of story lines and characters. Even now, I am re-watching the third series and I find myself noticing little details missed on earlier viewing.
The basic premise of the show is that it is an American ‘cop show’ – but it is more than simply a drama series of police chasing bad guys. It is set in Baltimore, Maryland – an old industrial (sometimes known as rust belt) city. The central theme is how the police try to use electronic listening devices (wires) to catch and prosecute drug dealers on the streets of Baltimore. However it is a war that the police cannot win, as the city gets poorer and more people get lured towards drugs, either as dealers or addicts. This also leads to increased crime in other areas, giving the city the nickname of Bodymore, Murdaland.
There are 5 seasons of the show, and each has a different theme, with the core still being the interaction between cops and drug dealers. The first season introduces the ‘war’ being fought between drug dealers and police. The second season includes the industrial side of the city by looking at the docks and its workers. The third season explores the tangled web of politics in Baltimore. The fourth season shows the school system of the city. And the final season looks at the city through the eyes of the Baltimore Sun, giving the newspaper perspective on life there.
Polish-Americans are represented in the show in some prominent roles and characters. The two main areas in which they are shown are within the police force and as dock-workers. Major Stanislaus Valchek and his son-in-law Roland Przybylewski feature within the police forces, while Frank Sobotka, his son Ziggy and nephew Nick feature as stevedores working to load and unload ships on the docks.
Major Stanislaus Valchek
Major Valchek is a career cop, and is more of a politician than a policeman, as he tries to use all those around him to advance himself. He utilises favours and ‘suction’ with people in authority also. His son-in-law, Roland Przybylewski is also in the police force and Valchek tries to watch out for him, even though he does not think much of him. However, he wants his daughter to be happy, and so works to save Roland from some tricky situations.
Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski
Prez begins the show as an inept detective who has no street sense. His misdemeanours include shooting at his own police car and blinding a neighbourhood kid in one eye when thinking he was under attack. Each time, he is saved by his father-in-law, but eventually is ordered off the streets for a period. This is good for him, as he shows skills in office-based analytic situations. However, one last street mission results in him mistakenly shooting and killing a fellow officer and left pondering his future as a cop.
Frank is the chief of the union of stevedores working on the docks. He is struggling with falling memberships in the union and less and less ships coming to the port. He tries hard to reverse the fortunes of the docks, but sometimes has to resort to illegal measures to find extra funds to lobby politicians in order to improve the dock’s fortunes. He goes about changing things in the best way he can, but by sometimes sacrificing relationships with family.
Ziggy is Frank’s son and also works on the docks, but he screws up so often that Frank fires him a couple of times every month and re-hires him the following day when feeling guilty. Ziggy wants to make more of himself than simply being a dockworker. However, this leads him towards drug dealing. For the most part Ziggy is a comic character, as the scenes with his duck and fights with a colleague highlight. But as he gets more involved in drugs, this has serious consequences.
Nick is Frank’s nephew and also works on the docks, but also wants to make more of his life, partly for his girlfriend and daughter as well. He too resorts to drug dealing though and as his family get more wrapped up in illegal activity, his world gets turned upside down very quickly.
To summarise, Polish-American characters feature strongly in The Wire. They tend to be portrayed in professions where Polish immigrants would probably have been employed, such as the police force and as dock workers. However, the ‘dumb Polak’ jokes or comments feature also, especially in the docks scenes. The Americanisation of names, both in pronunciation and spelling, also can be seen. For example, Major Valchek and Frank Sobotka both talk to Fr. Lewandowski (pronounced Loo-and-ouski) in St. Casimir’s church. One of the main aims of The Wire is to present as real a view of Baltimore as possible, and I feel that Polish-Americans are portrayed as being part of the city. They have positives and negatives – but all play their part.
However, the final word here goes to Major Valcheck here. As he reads of Frank Sobotka’s demise in the newspaper he actually speaks in Polish saying “Spokoj, Frank” wishing to show some respect to the tussles they had in the second season.
I would recommend the Wire to anyone with an interest in drama series, as it is a highly intricate view of life in an American city, including Polish-Americans living there.