The Wire & its view of Polish-Americans

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 Sobotka

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 Sobotka

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 Sobotka

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.

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18 thoughts on “The Wire & its view of Polish-Americans

  1. zarazek says:

    I watched one or two episodes of the series, didn’t like it at all.

    Also, it should be ‘its’, not ‘it’s’ in the title :P

  2. wildphelps says:

    The thing about “The Wire” is that one cannot watch one or two episodes. One needs to watch it from beginning to end. In fact, I liken it to a Russian novel – the plot lines and characters are that interwoven and complicated.

    My wife watched it a few months after I did, and she took no issue with the moral, ethical, and legal shortcomings of the Polish-American characters. As she noted ALL the characters in the show are flawed.

    I honestly believe that it is the finest American television show in the last 25 years, and I am not alone in that opinion:

  3. siudol says:

    I absolutely agree that you just can’t watch two episodes. In fact I think every one of the five seasons starts off “slowly”, but found it more of a setting the scene as it were to an invariably riveting conclusion. I found out about the show somewhat accidentally, but it didn`t take me long to get so hooked that I ended up binge watching through the whole 5 seasons in under two months. My girl-friend and I turned into total show addicts.

    The representation of the Poles in “The Wire” didn`t bother me at all. I found it objective. In fact no character in the show (even the “goodies”) is squeaky clean to say the least, and every one has some ulterior motive in whatever they try to do. Nothing is black or white in moral terms, just different shades of gray, but I still found myself strangely siding with some characters against the others. Omar is my favourite. What a cool dude!

  4. wildphelps says:

    In an interview during his campaign, President Obama said that “The Wire” was one of his favorite shows and Omar was the most compelling character. I found myself drawn to four characters – Omar, Bubbles, Stringer Bell, and Michael (who it seems would be the new Omar – with Dukie becoming the new Bubbles).

    Such excellent writing – too bad the world (or at keast the US) seems to have a preference for reality TV and vampires rather than intelligently scripted drama that could provoke substantive conversations.

  5. Kuba says:

    Well I guess I will have to watch it and see how I like it.

  6. ghost says:

    I watched all seasons. I’m planning to re-watch them soon. Great show, in my top5.

  7. Thanks for this.

    I never knew about this series and will make a point of watching it.

    Is it available as streaming video online or do I have to see if I can borrow it from a library?????

    Sorry but I am not going to spend money to buy DVDs.

  8. Ashley says:

    My Polish boyfriend and I have loved every episode of this show on DVD in our Boston home. I’ve been pushing it to everyone I know who is mourning the end of Lost. It’s true that because the plot of each episode isn’t a fully satisfying package when seen by itself, The Wire only seems to appeal to people who are willing to watching it from the beginning (and it’s better than Lost). Not like catching whatever CSI or Law-and-Order is on at the time.

    And coincidentally Valcheck is my boyfriend’s father’s identical bizarro. Creepy.

  9. I’ve gotten through the first two episodes.

    Roland “Prez” Przybylewski is portrayed as an idiot who has only managed to stay on the police force because of his uncle Major Valchek who in turn got where he is because of his political connections. We hear how Prez previously shot up his own car and lied about it until the bullets were identified as his and then we hear him shooting his gun off in the command office. Then, he pistol whips a 14 gang kid and blinds him in one eye. Later asked why by his commanding officer, he answers because “he pissed me off.”

    The wife of his commanding officer describes him and two other guys working with him, one Black and the other Irish, as “untrustworthy and useless.” But of the three, he is portrayed as the most volatile and least intelligent.

    So far, I don’t see a single redeeming quality in Prez.

    I’m hoping there will be some balance offered by other Polish characters.

    Otherwise, its good TV.

  10. In episode 3, we’re introduced to Valchek in person who only seems interested in keeping Prez on the force. He’s then described as “a necessary evil” by the commander (the Black deputy commish?) of Prez’s commanding officer, a Black Lieutenant. It’s not easy keeping track of who’s who without a scorecard. Not much balance here so far.

  11. siudol says:

    You can always watch CSI Miami if you want something easier, Smashing Fruitfiles. Prez is obviously a guy who has daemons to grapple with. Lots of people I know get immediately defensive the minute they see anything polish negatively portrayed in the media over here. Besides, believe me, there is more to Prez than what you have seen so far in the first 3 episodes of a five-season series. The beauty of the show is that, just like in life, practically all the characters are multifaceted and conflicted about a lot of things.

  12. Easier, siudol? Duh, I think I am quite degreed and intelligent enough to have an opinion without having to be subjected to your totally unnecesary insulting demeanor.

    Perhaps there were some additional redeeming qualities in Prez and Valchek revealed in subsequent episodes and seasons. But in the first few of episodes, they were depicted as entirely one-dimensional and entirely negative.

    Other characters, right off the bat, however, were presented in terms of various shades of grey and as being in the throes of all sorts of complex moral conflicts.

    I made it clear I only viewed the first few episodes and expressed the hope that there would be some balance presented in later episodes with other Polish characters and even in terms of character development of Prez and Valchek.

    So what redeeming qualities did you see in Prez and Valchek, having viewed the entirely of The Wire?

  13. siudol says:

    Gee whiz, smashing fruitflies! You’ve just proved my point. That’s exactly the type of over-sensitivity I was talking about. I said “easier”, tongue in cheek may I add, and you immediately feel insulted. Also, when I talked about the defensiveness of some people it was a general comment and did not refer to you personally. I’d like to make that clear in case you also construed that as an insult. The “easier” one, yes, was addressed to you, but oh man, never did expect it would hurt your pride so much. Next time I’ll put a smiley face emoticon next to it.

    I don’t exactly remember now at what stage Prez changes, or when exactly I changed my attitude towards him. Sometime in the second season I reckon, maybe later. But mind you, you may never like him and that’s understandable. Valchek, on the other hand, sadly remains a bit of a dick (pardon me) throughout the whole show (hope I’m not revealing too much.)

  14. No, it’s not a matter of oversensitivity. It’s a matter of your lack of sensitivity or maybe just plain lack of civility, courtesy or common sense. When you wrote that I try something easier like CSI Miami, it’s an insult, especially in the context of a discussion about “Polacks” being portrayed as dumb and stupid.. If you don’t get that, you are what you were suggesting I am. Given that in my estimation you’ve crossed the line more than once, you can stick your smiley emoticon up your ass. I’m a character, too. Cheers.

  15. siudol says:

    You’ve won.

  16. Won what? You gonna send me the complete DVD set for all the seasons? Thanks!

    In any event, it seems like the series is still extraordinarily popular, at least in my rust belt US city, because there seems to be a waiting list for most discs containing a couple or several episodes — and they have multiple copies of these in at about a half dozen libraries in the system.

    The acting is really great in my estimation. And I don’t recall having ever heard about any of the actors. And the writing is superb, too, with the exception of not haivng afforded the two Polish characters — at least in the first few episodes — the same personal complexity provided just about every other character right from the get go, except for the Irish(?) and black cops that Prez was working with when they got counterattacked from the towers,,, They too come off as rather dumb and dumber. But still with Prez being the dumbest.

  17. siudol says:

    I said “you’ve won” because I didn’t feel like getting drawn into what was becoming a pissing contest.

  18. Then don’t so cavalierly accuse somebody of being oversensitive or of only being capable of understanding a show like CSI.

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