Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Teaching The Wire

My friend Christian sent me this Slate article on The Wire: The Complete Series moving onto university curricula, which I thought was a pretty interesting pathway to thinking about The Wire generally. If you’re teaching the show, you have to assume the show has something to teach in of itself—but what? Well, the focus of the teachers in the article (which may or may not be the focus of teachers everywhere) seems to be on how they can impart real-life lessons through the fiction of the show, which is to be expected. What the critics (and the viewers) almost always focus upon, when watching the show, is its extraordinary verisimilitude and therefore its (seeming) realism.

The show’s great achievement, though, is not its verisimilitude, or the complete world it conjures but rather its success at creating a world, a world with a mood largely fatalistic: we’re all tossed and turned on other people’s whims. There’s a great speech in the first season that exactly encapsulates it:

The show largely gets you to accept that the king stay the king, even though we know that it’s not true in real life, and it’s not even true on the show’s terms: the king is dead—long live a new king. But, from the perspective of the three characters sitting around the chess set, it’s certainly true enough: they’re just the pawns on the front line, at the beck and call of other forces far beyond them. Most of us happen to be pawns, but some of us make it to the last row and get promoted. There are exceptions; The Wire gets you to disbelieve this fact.

Most of the show does this, anyway. The extraordinary bleakness of most of the show rings true enough, and most of it has aged well. The show started in something like cheerier days, in bubble America, and now in today’s era of diminished expectations, many of its propositions seem more like axioms. Particularly, I think, its thoughts on politicians.*

(*Note: it’s been pretty well-established that The Wire is President Obama’s favorite show. This deserves far more attention, speculation, and thought than anyone has given it to date. I may take a crack at it at some time. But I think Obama’s thoughts—well, his honest ones—on Tommy Carcetti would be something I’d be willing to pay for.)

There’s an exception: The Wire caught a bad case of Godfather: Part III-itis in its final season, and while the disease didn’t afflict the show as badly as, say, Star Wars, the damage is extensive. It exposes the show, you might say. Seasons One-Four are consistently brilliant and exactly what critics are talking about when they call it the best show ever; Season Five, however, is not. Season Five—and here I’ll spare you the spoilers—introduces several ridiculous subplots and character changes for no good reason whatsoever, in a tone that clashes radically with the relatively understated tone of the rest of the series. (Are there serial killers in Baltimore? I doubt it.) The worst thing, though, is its approach to the institution of that series: journalism. Simon’s thesis, repeated often, is that journalism’s problem—newspaper’s problem, more specifically—is staff cuts and prizes. The show reflects that, of course. I won’t argue with the first, but it’s more a symptom than a cause. We all know the business model is broken. The latter is ridiculous, practically self-evidently so. Maybe the biggest problem with its portrayal of journalism is that the word “internet” is not uttered once in the episodes I’ve seen so far.

The bad writing of the fifth season exposes the patterns of the first four. For one, there’s the question of power. Some have stated that all authority figures are odious in The Wire but this isn’t quite true. Think of it this way: power is the ability to get what you want. The characters who get what they want most consistent are most odious; the reverse holds true also. So the characters with power are frequently willing to be most odious; the ones who aren’t as willing to be odious are less powerful. There are, of course, important elements of truth here: you will be pushed around in the world if you aren’t willing to stiffen your spine, but certainly it’s not always literally true.

What is true, however, shouldn’t necessarily always matter in fiction. It’s not that David Simon is wrong when he attacks journalism in this way. It’s that he’s not interestingly wrong. It fires no neurons, no synapses, no “I wonder if that’s true” in my mind. Instead, it’s something that’s merely false. The first four seasons are often wrong and often right, but it’s always in a dramatically interesting way. In fact, the first four seasons are mesmerizing. For one, you forget it’s really writing at all, simply things happening. That’s a goal of every writer, so you always have to admire it. That suggests more: it suggests, in this instance, a lack of perspective. There are, in my mind, two great schools of writing: one like David Foster Wallace, where you are always very aware that a specific argument or perspective is being argued (however well or poorly); the other, is more of that realist one, in which you simply think you’ve been given a telescope to spy on someone from a long distance. Obviously, in the latter case, you haven’t—the telescope points itself and sees selectively—but it’s a great trick and very useful to think that you have.

That’s why the focus of teaching the show should be on teaching the drama and the writing. The dramatics of the show for the first four seasons are a master class: practically every tool in the writer’s belt is deployed from time to time, and I would be useless at long lengths to tell you all of the instances. Really, watch the show—it’s brilliant. Just don’t necessarily be mesmerized completely by the spell, because the real-life portions are not quite that.

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