Sunday, July 12, 2009

Listen Carefully

Finished Season 1 of HBO's recently completed series The Wire this week. Anyone who has heard of the show has probably also heard critical assessments, which are usually along the lines of "Greatest Achievement in the History of Television". With four seasons left to watch (hooray!), I'm already sympathetic to these claims, though I think that The Sopranos may just edge it out. However, I've seen only one season of that program as well. The two primary aspects of The Wire's greatness are aesthetic and thematic.

The Wire diverges from traditional television narrative format in its episode divisions. The show's first season tells a single story - the Baltimore City Police Department's effort to bring down an enormous drug trafficking operation led by elusive kingpin Avon Barksdale. The season plays out as if a single script, with episode divisions marked every hour. Individual episodes may lack a beginning, middle and end, though the season as whole follows traditional narrative form, so that the show is much like a serialized novel. This allows for far greater plot complexity and more extensive exploration of minor characters than is typical in television or film. Time has always been a severe limitation of film as an art medium, in the two-and-a-half hour time limit is rarely passed, and I think that the Wire's approach is a vital step in the maturation of the artform.

Of course, narrative innovations are worthless if the story isn't worth telling, and The Wire tells a damn good story. It is the story of a police investigation, with wiretaps, chases, arrests, interrogations, and prosecution. It is the story of criminals undermining that organization, with drug sales, profits, cover-ups, beatings, deception and murders. But most importantly, it is the story of a city, and of the people who comprise it, depicting their duties, loyalties, virtues, vices, passions and betrayals. The show dedicates substantial time to both police and criminals, so that we come to hate and to pity characters on both sides of the law. We love and admire Kima Greggs, the most talented and capable detectives on the Baltimore police force and to revile deputy ops Ervin Burrell, who relentlessly pursues public standing over good policing. Similarly, we sympathize with teenage dealer Wallace, the son of an alcoholic mother, who tutors and cares for his siblings and cousins, and hate bloodthirsty Avon Barksdale and his calculating second-in-command Stringer Bell. About other characters we are more ambivalent. Protagonist Jimmy McNulty is a fine homicide detective with a feisty disregard for the foolish regulations, but also intellectually vain and a poor father. Mid-level dealer D'Angelo Barksdale seems capable of both brutality and kindness, and unwillingly trapped in his lifestyle. The show treats its finely acted characters with a rare compassion.

Critics have often praised the show's realism. I do not know if it is realistic or not as I have never lived in West Baltimore. The show does avoid television cliches, is reluctant to break its somber tone except with natural humor, and includes frequent and often breathtaking vulgarity. I would estimate that the show contains about two "f-words" per minute, and characters create highly original compound swear words. The show's use of music is also notable; excepting its theme music, only music playing within locations on the show is heard.

I argue that The Wire is a socially conservative show. The social conservatism of the moment seems to be an unhealthy preoccupation with other people's sexual behavior. The Wire is not socially conservative in this sense. There is a much deeper socially conservatism that says that the individual is basically bad, and that social structures and institutions are necessary to make the individual good or to channel the individual's bad impulses to a good end. This is The Wire's social conservatism. While the show goes to great lengths to portray police corruption and brutality, it shows the work of the police to be important and positive on the whole. Moreover, its highly flawed characters become better as a result of their participation in the institution. While many of the criminals are sympathetic, their work is shown to have horrific consequences, for themselves and for others. The show never suggests that the criminals are good people doing bad things, because it refuses to label characters as good or bad - morality instead consists in action. There is a slight libertarian undercurrent as well - the suggestion that the legalization of drugs would reduce crime, but it also depicts the terrible consequences of drug use. In fact, I have hardly come to the end of thinking about the show, and would guess that it is complex enough that people of many political persuasions would read their own philosophies into it. On the whole, I cannot give the show higher recommendation.


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