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‘The Wire’: Dickensian (for better and worse)


“Dickensian”. The oft-used word by critics to describe ‘The Wire’ and also used by this season’s apparent enemy, the Baltimore Sun’s James Whiting. Whiting, in a scene that’s a small joke on supporters of the show who fall-on that however accurate, kinda stupid descriptor, demands “Dickensian” tales of Baltimore’s “lost” youth. As this ‘New York Times’ article notes, the point of the scene is how the editor “devalues the word” and “strip[s] it down to a synonym for abject poverty, instead of a world of stark contrasts with unlimited scope and a rich, teeming bog of detail”- but both definitions of “Dickensian” work for ‘The Wire’.

Like Dickens, ‘The Wire’ melds muckraking outrage with an impressive scope and focus on detail, but also a grotesque catering to its audience, just Simon’s audience scoffs at sentimentality, and wants pat, digestable ambiguity. All of London wept when they read the death of Little Nell; ‘Wire’ viewers knowingly nod when Joe gets popped in last week’s episode; they aren’t happy about it, but they got what they wanted out of the episode; to feel complacent with the faux-“with it” thought: “man, that’s just how the game goes…”.

See, ‘The Wire’ is “teachable” and that’s a little frustrating. This is why “real thugs” and rich people who want to feel the pain and outrage of city violence both enjoy the show. Pretty much anyone watching can pick up what it is commenting upon and each episode ends in a way that acts as if moral complexity and ambiguity haven’t been around in art for thousands of years (so it hasn’t been on TV a whole lot, big deal). Yet, the episode is just out-of-reach of the average television viewer, so it has an obnoxious exclusivity to it all. It’s how ‘No Country For Old Men’ is basically this bad-ass crime drama and then tacks on those stupid dream scenes at the end that aren’t good (and basically explain the movie) but make dumb smart people feel arty.

This isn’t a ‘Wire’ hate-piece though because I’m writing about the show now that’s it’s finally sort of clicked for me. I’m captivated. I genuinely can’t wait until Sunday night at 9 to watch it and you know- that’s sort of the best time to seriously dissect something.

Before this season, I never got through an entire episode. I’ve seen bits and pieces of plenty of episodes, but the show would always annoy or bore me and I’d turn it off. I was totally ready for Season Four’s premiere and within fifteen minutes, the show just didn’t sit right. The writing and acting are genuinely bad at points, especially amongst the white characters, who have trouble narrating the show’s not-real but real-for-television dialogue and it falls back on this portentous hard-ass attitude that reminds you “this ain’t your Grandmomma’s cop show!”; it’s horrible at times. ‘The Wire’ prides itself on being a very good television show and that’s setting the bar pretty low. “Dickensian” is impressive on one level but you know, there’s way better writers’ names turned adjectives one can use to praise a show.

I know a thing or two about Baltimore’s crime issues- without any grabs for street-cred, just for clarification- this book is about some of my relatives and so, a world I didn’t know of wasn’t being exposed and being from Baltimore, I don’t have the same response as people not from here or you fucks I went to school with that decided to live here after you graduated. Baltimore is not “cool” or whatever to me, so the show has none of this “inner-city” grime appeal or anything like that, and the occasional things that would be incorrect or off highlight a certain lack of craft to the show. The actors sometimes drop a line that clearly should’ve been done over or the camerawork will be particularly obvious, or the show’ll drop the ball on some minor Baltimore detail and it’s just weird. I know, I know, we’re in David Simon’s universe, not real Baltimore and that’s cool, but hearing New York accented actors strain to say “Baltimore” the way dumbasses like me actually say it (Ball-Duh-Moore) kinda hurts to hear. Also, some people on the show just don’t know how to curse! It hurts to hear. The same with the occasional Baltimore in-joke; it’s just heavy-handed and a cheap way to appease the more knowing viewers.

In the third episode of this season, Michael and Dukie hack to ‘Six Flags’ and there, meet two white girls from Virginia, who upon hearing Michael’s from Baltimore go, “Baltimore? That’s really cool.” It’s a funny comment on Baltimore’s reputation as the place plenty of assholes think is cool because its dangerous but would never live there themselves, but it’s stupidly obvious and as much as I want to laugh knowingly with the scene, I feel gross for doing so.

It’s funny that a lot of dopey people in the press say David Simon’s plan for this season to be a partial attack on his former paper the Baltimore Sun is too personal or whatever; in scenes like the one above, he’s just as seething with anger. The guy takes everything in Baltimore personally, even pre-teen white girls from Virgina! That is the reason the show is ultimately quite good. Simon’s weird mix of accuracy and totally overdoing it makes the show. Like the best artists, Simon picks and chooses the aspects of reality to focus upon to create an environment that is surprisingly accurate to real-life and a rarified vision of the artist.

‘The Wire’ may be at its most brilliant when it nearly enters the surreal. The “Hamsterdam” experiment a few seasons back was great and this season has McNulty faking a serial killer in a crazy, radically pragmatic attempt to get more funding for the police force: McNulty places red ribbons on the fingers of dead or murdered homeless and then retroactively adds ribbons to the files of unsolved homeless cases. The brilliance and comedy of the situation comes about when no one really gives a shit because its homeless people and then, in an even darker and more surreal grab at reality, Detective Freamon doesn’t scold McNulty, but points out that reality and offers to help make it something.

So…the two begin making the serial killer more insidious: McNulty cuts up the fingers of the homeless to reflect a struggle and Freamon has fake dentures to bite the corpses. It’s a weird and funny and maybe a not-so-subtle jab at sex-pervert-killer obsessed shows like ‘CSI’. Just as the whole Baltimore Sun thing pisses Simon off, I can imagine him catching an episode of ‘CSI’ and growing just as angry, not only because the show is stupid but because it turns crime and criminals into this very palpable sick, evil thing, which you know, make crime way easier to accept. The show’s a fucking juggernaut because Simon and company see how everything fucks everything and are pissed about it.

Nowhere is that understanding more apparent than in this season’s implication of ‘The Baltimore Sun’. Some critics have noted this plot seems a little more obvious than stuff of the past. It’s a testament to the grotesque groupthink amongst critics that this sub-plot’s (relative) lack of ambiguity is causing frustration. It just proves that many have blindly internalized the show’s palpable sense of complexity and turned into another cliché, because anyone attuned to the show’s rhythms and logic would see why the Baltimore Sun gets it so hard. Cops go crooked or half-crooked for reasons that make sense, criminals rob and steal and we understand why, but guys like Whiting and Templeton are just out-of-it dopes who don’t know or care how they affect things; that’s real evil. They aren’t “in it” on any level, but will pick it apart for their benefit- and that’s all the worst because their not being “in it” could allow them to have a significant, positive impact. So yeah, fuck them harder than any piece of shit cop or drug-dealing asshole.

One can imagine that if a Season Six were to exist, it might go super-Meta and be about the way ‘The Wire’ as a TV show affects the image of Baltimore and in typical David Simon fashion, it would be part-brilliant, part-obnoxious and just a little too clever, but just like this (and every) week’s episode, by the end of it, the best stuff sticks in your head- a very realistic shootout (the way it farts out and is just suddenly over is rarely portrayed in even the best “films”)- the bad stuff is negligible, and you’ll be back next Sunday.

Written by Brandon

February 4th, 2008 at 7:23 am

Posted in The Wire, television