Sunday, December 2, 2012

Some thoughts on The Wire


  1. Simon's desire to make The Wire more than a cop show shines through much more in later seasons. The first season resembles a cop show the most because Simon was trying to make a successful show that HBO and audiences liked before he started pushing the boundaries of genre. So in season 2 he incorporates longshoremen as part of the regular cast (which wouldn't happen on a network cop show) and in season 4 sets a major storyline in a high school. Simon sought to depict Baltimore as thoroughly as Dickens depicted London and Balzac depicted Paris, and that is much more apparent when the series is viewed as a whole, so I wouldn't take the first season to task for not living up to that reputation.

    As for Baltimore being dull and unappealing, that is absolutely the point. It's meant to be portrayed in all its unvarnished unpleasantness. Simon has lived there for years and spent several years as an embedded police reporter, and he was determined to reveal this hidden, horribly disadvantaged environment to the rest of the country.

    The Wire is a true, unflinching portrayal of that city because the show is, after all, hoping to energise thinking about the massive class divide in America and the toll of the failed drug war on urban environments. The police show trappings and the investigation are there to engage our attention and provide a viewpoint on these dire problems.

    And the characters live in that fairly hopeless world. They're accustomed to it and their desire to reform it has been beaten down by institutions that punish progress. So if they seem unappealing, that might be a reason why. McNulty is a perfect example: he's deeply flawed and repellent in some ways, and so he's the last person you expect to care about enacting change. But he gradually reveals himself to be someone who cares about the individuals being crushed by the system, which becomes profound given who it's coming from. He can't help himself despite his better judgement telling him not to give a shit.

    The Wire is a slow burn, particular in terms of its likeability. I was quite taken with season 1 but not bowled over. As I grew more accustomed to its tentative, almost traumatised manner of storytelling in later seasons, I realised how masterful it was. And season 1 was a hell of a lot better the second time around.

    - Jack

  2. Looking forward to a Freudian analysis of the new Star Trek.

  3. "It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, "No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer."
    – Søren Kierkegaard

    That's what watching The Wire was like for me when I watched it. Every episode demonstrated the way that bureaucratic institutions force people to achieve the exact opposite of what the institutions are set up to achieve.

    Few institutions work properly in the United States. Most institutions are parasitical, feeding on the people whom they claim to help. I grew up in the United States, hearing all the good government bullshit that they feed to kids. George Washington cut down a cherry tree and he could not tell a lie to his father about it, and he took responsibility for cutting down the cherry tree. If you work hard, you will find a good job in the United States that will allow you to buy a house and provide for your family. The police are helpful, capable people interested in making sure that you are safe, and they will never threaten, harass, rape, beat, or kill you. But it's all bullshit. The truth is that the United States is owned by a small number of private businesses, and that they have been fighting imperial wars for over a century and now they see a way of making money by privatizing the prison system.

  4. The drug war is the central metaphor for this American sickness. As a kind of bonus, the drug war isn't just a metaphor, and it isn't just a subtext. It is the text itself. The United States not only refuses to stop jailing nonviolent drug users, it has set up an economic system that rewards people who find ways to feed more and more drug users into the prison system. The incentive structure of law enforcement in the US is designed to make it unattractive to investigate deeply into the distribution of illegal drugs, and the people at the top of the distribution pyramids remain beyond the reach of the law. (Unfortunately, The Wire never deals with the CIA's use of cocaine distribution as a means of raising capital to buy weapons and raise armies to fight covert wars to protect American business interests, but at least it makes a robust presentation of how the drug war creates an illegal but more profitable black market and entices poor people to service that black market.)

    The Wire demonstrates how America fails its citizens (if "citizen" is even the right word anymore), and it dramatizes the failure as it shapes the lives of a few hundred characters.

    In your remarks on The Wire, you said "I don't know whom I would recommend this to: probably only people who are interested in police work and who value highly naturalistic storytelling."

    What you've said about The Wire is true. Season One of The Wire is largely about police work, and Season One of The Wire is pretty naturalistic. But I don't think that you've exhausted the groups that would benefit from seeing The Wire. People who want to know why America is institutionally fucked up, and who require strong characters around whom to organize their thinking should also see The Wire.

    I would be remiss if I did not say that watching The Wire is not activism. Not a single god damn institutional thing is ever going to change because someone watched The Wire. And because watching The Wire is not activism, disliking The Wire is not being reactionary. I know that the thoughts expressed in this paragraph may seem obvious, but when I thought about this television program over the past few days it seemed likely that someone might claim that you don't like The Wire because you don't care about the plight of the poor black underclass in Baltimore, as though liking The Wire constituted meaningful action in the service of reforming the American legal system.

    The Wire certainly does not pass Neal Stephenson's test of having at least one weird new idea in it, and it can't be said to engage in social science fiction until Season Three.