Archive for September 2006

Through the rapids of time

September 18, 2006

After watching #40 early today, I almost sent my letter of resignation in to HH headquarters. Our favored program has pushed the meter so far past totally fucking awesome that I almost don’t want to write about it. It’s fairly unfathomable how much of a leap it’s made each season, and by this point the damn thing is almost unwieldy in its jingly perfection.

To avoid the hard fall back into civilized discourse, I want to tell you all that my favorite character is Bodie. I’ve said some things on this at my verified address, and this doubtlessly informed my first HH effort. There’s a lot I find endearing about Bodie, plenty I find interesting, and even some stuff that’s informative. But what it comes down to mostly, though, is that dude’s grown up over the course of The Wire—with the show, even. An esteemed colleague of mine estimated that B-Squared must be around sixteen when Season 1 begins; now, he’s seasoned enough to hold it down on his own, but still gets given the youf treatment by certified young gun Marlo. Twenty seems like a reasonable guess at how many birthday candles he’s puffing at, meaning the boy has become a man.

(Sidebar: Am I the only person who feels that Truth be Told wrecked itself by referring to both B. and Wallace as “man-child?”)

The mesmerizing thing about Young Broadus is that he’s both the quintessential participant in the game, and yet strangely independent at key moments. He punches cops during a sweep, even though Fruit tells us all that this dance is merely the rhythm of the corner; bucks Stringer’s authority and charismatic sway on the team; and now, apparently, decides to go up against the reigning King of the West. If the “the game” is every institution of any kind in Baltimore—and by extension, The Wire itself as narrative construct—it’s key to note that Bodie’s been sucked into every major plotline on the street side, and yet somehow escapes their inevitable collapse. The entrapment bit was one, as was the fingerprint deal from Season 2, and his rise out of the D’Angelo/Wallace sorrows.

All this has, in effect, tested dude’s character like nobody’s business. And, singificantly, proved that he’s both in deep as hell and capable of registering events as more than just a mindless soldier. It’s not just that Bodie has gotten older over the course of the program; it’s the events of The Wire that have been his education. These formative experiences have turned him from cocky, sporadic kid to canny operator. Granted, his hunger and intensity were evident from the beginning, but the show’s writers could’ve just as easily turned him into a Bey-style gladiator. The Wire has been nothing less than his coming-of-age story, what happens when a juvenile with some wits makes the most of his opportunities.

If you can’t tell, I think Bodie’s a tremendously important character in the grand scheme of the show. Put simply, he’s the only one who has a real sense of history to him. Yes, backstory helps us understand Lester and Daniels; Herc and Carver are nothing without their career pitfalls; and McNulty and Stringer unfold as studies in tragic flaw. But in none of these cases have we seen a character forged from clay before our very eyes. We know the rungs of several hierarchies, and how these agree or disagree with certain kinds of personalities. Bodie, however, has been created by institutions, forced to squirm and scheme as an individual in order to play the game without being its bitch. In this respect, McNulty and Stringer were men whose strong identities were their downfall; Bodie, as befitting someone born and raised in the thick of it, has spent his whole semi-adult life adapting.

I think we’re all in agreement that the kids are what’s made Season 4 so seering; I would argue that this is exactly because they’re playing out the early chapter of Bodie’s life, making game-infused personal history the thrust of the story. When it’s recognized that development is inseparable from various institutions (school just makes it explicit), and four pre-teens are placed at the center of the plot, then it’s not a stretch to say that Bodie has become the show. I said last week that I thought this li’l gang was Pit Crew Redux; while now it’s clear that Michael has a bit of D’Angelo in him, I’m not going to back off the claim that this is essentially Bodie’s prehistory. At this juncture, though, it seems like a lot more figures into the maturation process than just gang politics and cop manuevers. Whether this means the The Wire has gotten broader in scope or we viewers have gotten more open-minded.

The Increasing Significance of Race

September 18, 2006

by LittleManLevy,

After reading over last week’s posts, it occurred to me that for a show whose primary focus is the black urban underclass, the first three seasons of the Wire had remarkably little to say on the subject of race. The blackness or whiteness of individual characters is rarely brought to the viewer’s attention; racial inequality is represented in the landscape, but never enters as an object of critique. The dysfunctions of the institutional power structures are what keep the plot moving and the city miserable, and for the first three seasons, these dysfunctions are essentially colorless.

In the first two episodes of Season 4, however, these power structures are presented in overtly racial terms. Herc laments about how his black partner will again make rank before he does; Perelman worries that a black DA will “bounce the white girl…and give the narcotics division to one of their own”; and Tommy Carcetti repeats his sorry dirge about waking up white in a city that ain’t. As one of us has already pointed out, it is easy to watch this episode and conclude that “the system is black” in Baltimore – that its corruption is a corruption of black influence and self-interest. But when we stop and consider the events of Seasons 1-3, how much evidence for this conclusion really exists? In the first season, Daniels lost his promotion to a white lieutenant (Cantrell); Royce’s first police commissioner was white, as was his intended replacement until Valcheck – in exchange for the Sobotka detail – intervened on behalf of Burrell; as the portraits in city hall testify, all but one of Baltimore’s former mayors have been white as well.

If the racial anxieties expressed in Season Four are significant, it is not for their validity, but for their objective consequences. Insofar as white opportunities appear closed under a black administration, those who feel aggrieved will be motivated to replace it. One of the big questions about the dead witness leak in Episode 2 was whether Landsman dialed Valchek directly, or whether he went through Rawls. However irresponsible, my speculation is that Rawls was involved, believing that a white mayor is his only chance at further promotion. Here, race really could become an impediment for reform in Baltimore. For if Carcetti is to win, he will need more favors from his informants, and these favors will require repayment. Given the chance to promote an actual reformer like Daniels or Colvin, he’ll have to settle for just a different color of status quo.

This is the first instance where racial polarization could become a self-fulfilling prophecy; a second is Carcetti’s campaign. In addition to informants, Carcetti will also need votes, and D’Agostino’s remark about Spiro Agnew and the 1968 riots gave a hint at how he might get them. It was by lashing out at the black community and rejecting its leaders as criminals that Agnew, a one-time moderate Democrat, famously caught the eye of the Nixon campaign, and propelled both himself and the race-baiting “Southern Strategy” onto the national stage. As it stands now, Carcetti’s law-and-order platform seems largely innocent and sincere. But as the campaign heats up, I have a feeling this will change.


Update: Just saw Episode 3 – they just keep getting better!  A few quick thoughts:  1) Is Major Crimes really dead?  Will nothing come of those subpoenas?  2) That scene between McNulty and Bunk brought tears to my eyes.  After he didn’t show up once in the last episode, I thought I was over him.  I was wrong.  3) Who is Rawls going to demote from homicide?  If its Landsman or that other guy, I withdraw my theory about the leak.  4) Let me be the first to confirm it: the academy LOVES Bunny Colvin.

Out of character?

September 17, 2006

Aside from race and politics, two topics this nascent blog has addressed thus far, The Wire also focuses on the organization and machinations of the Baltimore Police Department, with an emphasis on the difficulties created by the department’s chain of command.  Recently, in New York, there was an incident involving the NYPD which caught my eye, not only because it is an example of not being “good police,” but because it seems uncharacteristic of the way I understand responsibilities to be meted out in the vertical hierarchy of a police bureau.

Critical Mass, the regular convening of bicyclists in New York City and beyond, has regularly been subjected to New York’s various methods of police enforcement, ranging from citations and arrests to more aggressive acts of restraint.  Recently, a Critical Mass legal observer — a neutral bystander who accompanies protesters to document any acts of police abuse — was caught in the fray, allegedly being thrown off her moving bike by a police officer and, in the aftermath, being ticketed by the same officer for a fabricated traffic violation.  While the use of physical force by a police officer in the midst of a protest is hardly novel, what was surprising in this case was that the offending officer, Bruce Smolka, was an assistant chief of police and a commanding officer for the Southern District of Manhattan.

If we have learned anything from The Wireabout the internal structure of a major police department, it is that “real” police work — that which happens on the streets, out of the office — is often practiced by officers who are lower in the chain of command.  Hence, McNulty, who is happiest doing work unencumbered by the upper echelons of the police bureaucracy, asks to be placed in the Western district, on foot patrol and away from internal office politics.  Real police work, I imagine, is more physically taxing than being an administrator and, as this case reveals, street-level operations put officers in positions where they have to make decisions that, if chosen poorly, could jeopardize their career ambitions.  Thus, this case of Assistant Chief Smolka seemed strange to me, given the fact that he is so high in the chain of command and could harm his potential upward mobility by engaging in this kind of overly-aggressive riot policing.  Could you imagine any of the police chiefs on The Wireparticipating in this kind of grunt-work and facing retribution from within the department and from outside it?  (Litigation brought by the National Lawyers Guild on behalf of the legal observer is imminent.)

I would be curious to know if anyone has additional information on this case, or if readers think that this sort of street-level policing is, in fact, uncommon for higher officers to partake in. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Playa

September 16, 2006

On a more serious note. Last Thursday night, I went to Chelsea to gay it up with a bunch of art people. little-man.jpg After hanging out with your typical group  of recovering and non-recovering drug addicts (and talking at length with them about…The Wire) I got invited to some fancy dinner in honor of the lead drug addict, who’s opening happened to be that night. After settling into a table of 300,  I contentedly looked about for the menu and continued blabbing about The Wire.  At about the same time my bladder filled up I was more or less done talking about the show, I got up to go to the bathroom, and came back to find that my seat had been filched out from under me.

I said fuck you to everyone and left by myself. Even though I was lugging around a bunch of shit I decide I would take a leisurely stroll back to the L train. I walked from 26th to 23rd cutting east. I approached some crappy Chelsea movie theater (why are all the theaters in Chelsea so crappy?) and a crowd standing in front of it on the side walk. There were some limos, but whatever. I thought, hey, maybe there’s a premier. That thought vanished at the sight of no press, and no motherfuckin red carpet.

I didn’t pay attention to anyone as I cut through. Once I penetrated the crowd – the rather thin, stationary crowd- I looked down at the ground and saw what was a glorified doormat; a big, cheap, piece of plastic that said “THE WIRE”. I thought about this and looked up. This time I didn’t see anything except faces. All the faces. The entire cast. I’m. . . surrounded. . . I’m enveloped, ensconced, encompassed, in the middle of The Wire. Herc is standing right in front of me with some hot chick; he looks like a wiseguy and smirks when he’s smoking a cigarette. Freamon is on my right; he’s laughing! He’s wearing some weird African shirt! He looks like he could break out his tenor at any moment!

I’m in shock. I see celebrities all the time and 99% of them suck. Maggie Gyllenhaall? Claire Danes? Matthew Fox? Gavin Rossdale? But this, I have to call someone. I have to tell. . . the people at dinner! I have to get a picture! I’m looking maniacally for my phone, which has both a phone AND a camera! I get my phone and it’s dead. I can’t concentrate on one thing at a time; I stop what I’m doing to make sure I haven’t missed anyone. Where is McNulty? Where’s Omar? What the fuck? I go back to my phone, I don’t know what to do. I’ve got to do something, because I’m positive this will never happen again. Wait—I have my charger! I can charge my phone and THEN I can take a picture- with what now only appears to be two thirds of the cast. . . .seasons 3 and 4, maybe? Where’s Frank for God’s sake?

I start looking for an AC power outlet on the 23rd st. block between 8th and 9th. I don’t exactly remember the last time I plugged something in outside in Manhattan, but I’m from the the Northern Woods, and things like outdoor power outlets are a dime a dozen. I’m desperate. I’m pacing around for no reason. . . right past Marlo. A bunch of the new kids! Wee-Bey?! He’s not even dressed up; he’s wearing some track suit. I come to realize my half-assed search for an outlet is in vain. I decide to just stand on the periphery (I’m the only person resembling a fan in the vicinity) and gawk. Where is fucking McNulty? He’s probably having tea somewhere. And Stringer? Well, they probably weren’t about to flip for his plane ticket, and he’s probably having tea with McNulty anyway. What the hell are they all doing just standing around on the sidewalk anyway? Waiting for cars. There’s Carver. He’s into modern dance by the way.

I don’t get an autograph. I don’t tell anyone that I like the show. I just stand there, confused. I want all these people to know how much I appreciate them, but attempting that feat seems absurd. The next thing I know, they’ve all been whisked away to the party. I got on the train.

The Dirty South Continuum

September 16, 2006

Shalom y’all. That previous post pushed me right onto this blog–thanks!

Obviously, the most eerie NOLA echo in this season is the specter of corpses boarded up in abandoned houses.

But first, some elisions and misprisions. There are still over 200,000 post-Katrina Gulf Coast evacuees living in Baton Rouge, Houston, and more than 40 states. They are somewhat more likely to be poor and to be black than the city at large, but the vast majority are not “displaced 9th ward residents.” The Lower Ninth Ward, which is the part of the Ninth Ward east of the Industrial Canal, suffered some of the most dramatic damage of the entire storm because of its proximity to the canal breach. (The Upper Ninth got just your average 2 to 4 feet of water). The tour buses go there because there you can see houses parked on top of cars and all that sort of heartbreaking shit. The tour buses also go to Lakeview, though, which is an upper-middle class white neighborhood that is similarly fucked in parts.

The reason i’m interested in preserving this distinction is not just the narcississm of fierce locality but a question of policy. The vast majority of the city’s poor black exiles do not remain in exile because their homes were destroyed. They remain in exile because there is no federal relief money allocated to bring them home or give them rental assistance if they were renters. And in the case of  some 4,000 former public housing residents, they remain in exile because HUD wants to “tear those towers down,” closing and announcing its intention to demolish most of New Orleans’ existing public housing stock, in particular two historic and undamaged developments that happen to be in a stone’s throw of the French Quarter. Pockets of poverty, mixed income, blah blah blah.

All of which wanders right into one of the most painful debates elucidated every episode of the Wire: what do you do when urban neighborhoods turn toxic to children and other living things?

Song Sung Crew

September 15, 2006

I find many things curious about HBO’s labyrinthine website for The Wire, but perhaps no strange feature or unasked-for exclusive has struck me as so odd and so adorable as the playlists compiled by some of the actors playing the kids this season. You can choose from Dukie, (Jermaine Crawford), Namond (Julito McCullum), or Randy (Maestro Harrell), and the handy-dandy world of cross-marketing makes buying each track from iTunes a snap.

Of course, you might want to wait before snapping up all of those tracks. Perhaps the best part of looking at these playlists is realizing that these kids are just kids, and while they have preternatural acting skills, they have the odd, corny taste of teenagers. So you have all three rocking Lil’ Wayne, Death Cab for Cutie, Kanye, T.I., Justin Timberlake and even a little N.W.A. and Coldplay from Harrell, whose choices are broadest in genre. But you’ve also got head-scratchers (Andrew Boccelli, John Mayer) and a few fist-biters (Moby, Elton John). Of course they’re just kids and I’m a crank and this is fun and why don’t I know how to have fun? I dunno, but perhaps there’s something illuminating about these funny lists too. In the same way Namond wants to skip out on hustling to watch his friends trying to catch pigeons, the teens that play these kids aren’t afraid of liking corny songs, or weird songs, or songs that just make them happy.

Better still, as a kind of supplement to these playlists, HBO provides notes on the music that accompanies each episode, so you can go check out Elephant Man, the Chi-Lites, Mobb Deep and the lovely Dead Meadow now that you know. I’m going to keep my ears open for future playlists and more hidden gems in the soundtrack.

Damn it feels good

September 14, 2006

I am a firm believer in infinite justice. To that end, I will stir up some in-house venom, and then bring heaven crashing down upon myself.*

The eternal magic, and the key problematic, of The Wire is that it’s all things to all people. It’s a politicized whirlwind with a message about American society; an ode to the complexity of humans on both sides of the drug war; and one of the most bad-assed depictions of the inner city underworld this side of Cuban Linx. What makes discussing it so dizzying, and frustrating, is trying to detangle these perspectives. To be fair, this is as much a matter of the viewer himself as the show in itself, or way shit goes down in this kind of forum. The pacing, fractured plot, dark skin, and amorality may make for an inaccessible show, but don’t underestimate the WTF quotient of a creation of equal use to high-minded saber-rattlers, literati, and card-carrying participants in the muthafarkin’ GAME.

Perhaps the greatest challenge involved in being a fan—one that I’ll readily admit I haven’t figured out—is how to keep these three aspects in mind without lapsing into incoherence. If The Wire can claim to take television realism to a whole ‘nother altitude, it’s in large part due to this ambiguity. The real world very rarely makes these distinctions clear-cut, and the enduring legacy of a mess like Tupac suggests that it thrives off of such confusion (or conflict). This might be why I feel so justified in having a personal (NEVER SENTIMENTAL!!!!) relationship with the show; in life, only first-person synergy can resolve of that kind of disparity. And while McNulty, Stringer, Bodie, or Bunk may be impossible to make sense of in the abstract, I think each of us knows how we respond to them. How we, as fellow human beings, sympathize or empathize with these remarkably vivid constructs in extraordinary situations.

Now to shame myself. I know I’m not the only white, middle-class fan of the show who can’t get enough of the show’s complex, black outlaws. I came up listening to hip-hop, and learned long ago that gangsters are the last two generation’s anti-heroes; how could I not be mildly obsessed with a program that’s about as authentic as they come, one that real life dealers relate to as well as mythologize? I could try and claim that this affords these characters the political, and literary credibility they’ve needed all along, but fuck that—as stated above, there’s no easy attempt made to integrate the three. And to return to the first-person, sometimes I feel outrage when I watch The Wire, sometimes sadness, and yes, I often laugh and nod my head like I know something.

So I want to propose this: let’s not pretend we’re above being fascinated by, or even exoticizing, the world The Wire depicts. I may be a left-winger with part of an advanced degree under my belt, but there’s no way I can fully understand what a corner boy or detective goes through. To try and assimilate The Wire into the all-too-familar contexts of politics or literature is presumptuous, while repping patient ignorance is almost as insulting. The Wire may be edifying and masterful and all, yet the reason I jock it so hard isn’t just because it makes me a better or smarter person. It’s also one of civilization’s most perfect pieces of entertainment, something that’s not lost on all the “real” people who watch it. I don’t think it’s un-PC for me to consume it as such, even if I’ll freely acknowledge that this might be at odds with some of my other reactions to it.

*ADDENDUM: In my rabid, Hitchens-esque fit, I forgot to lay out my point in digestible terms. So here it is, for the benefit of the willing: the different ways of viewing The Wire can often be at odds at each other. I’m skeptical of any attempts to read politics too broadly into the show, because any and all action is so bound up in individuals. They could be symptoms of a trend, or they could be exhibiting personal quirks; they could just as easily be bluffing, or lying to themselves. Turning them into studies in psychology or character development can miss some of the urban condition (often factual, or historical) knowledge that the show’s transmitting. Not finding the genre-esque thrills still latent in the thing ignores what a tremendous contribution it is to the cops and robbers canon. The only way I think we can do the program justice is to consider characters, and situations, in their totality, always acknowleding these different facets by letting them sloppily co-exist. Any other way, and we’re not letting The Wire attain its full, celestial might.

A real-life Carcetti slips

September 14, 2006

One of the more interesting New York elections in Tuesday’s primaries was the state’s 11th Congressional District. The 11th represents a sizeable portion of Brooklyn, and the majority of its electoral base is African-American (which, it goes without saying, means they vote Democratic, making this primary the de facto general election). Four candidates ran in the primary, three of whom were African-American. The fourth candidate, David Yassky, was white, presenting a potential problem that political scientists and, apparently, the writers of The Wire cannot get enough of: the possibility of a minority-majority district being represented by a majority-minority politician. Alas, Yassky lost yesterday — see here for more on the fallout — but the conundrums of a white politician representing a black political district will surely be an issue The Wire will grapple with this season and, by extension, one which we token scribes will have to address as well.

It’s no mystery that Carcetti is an allusion to Martin O’Malley, Baltimore’s current mayor and the Democratic nominee for Maryland’s gubernatorial election. In 2000, O’Malley, an ambitious and loquatious city councilman, won the mayoral election against two African-American opponents. Although there was no incumbent in that election — the former mayor Kurt Schmoke had exhausted his term limiits — there was no question that O’Malley benefitted from the two African-American candidates splitting Baltimore’s black base, a formidable voting bloc constituting two-thirds of the city’s population. It bears mentioning, however, that O’Malley won 53% of the vote (cf. here) indicating he had political strength greater than Carcetti, who, given his tantrums and depressing poll numbers, will almost certainly need a plurality to eek out a victory.

My prediction: Tony Gray, the dark horse, improves as the season goes along, pulling votes from Royce. I give Carcetti the election — he’s got to win, right? — with 36% of the vote, with the remaining 64% split evenly between Royce and Gray.

The Great White Hope

September 13, 2006

Let’s talk about Tommy Carcetti.

Like McNulty (that is, McNulty before his rebirth as a happy-go-lucky beat cop), he’s a white man trying to reform the system in a black city.

Christy already mentioned that David Simon sees the basic story of The Wire as a conflict between people and the corrupt system that is theoretically supposed to serve them. What she didn’t mention is that the system, in Baltimore, is black. Most of the reformers, by my count, are white.

I’ve been considering today whether my favorite show might be at least a little bit racist, if only in a well-intenioned, Bill Cosby sort of way.

(I guess I haven’t said much, but somebody had to start the conversation about race!)

Guess Who’s Bzzack

September 13, 2006

Although we value discussion way above reporting on this site, it is with gladness that we share this news from HBO:

The critically acclaimed, Peabody Award-winning HBO drama series THE WIRE has been renewed for a fifth season, it was announced today by Carolyn Strauss, president, HBO Entertainment. Created and executive produced by David Simon, the show just kicked off its 13-episode fourth season last Sunday, Sept. 10, and debuts new episodes Sunday nights (10:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT).

“We are delighted – though not surprised – at the initial critical response to the new season of THE WIRE,” said Strauss. “David Simon and his remarkable team have created a riveting and thought-provoking series that’s unlike anything else on TV.”

Having depicted an American city over the course of 50 episodes, THE WIRE will use its fifth and concluding season to examine the role of the mass media within that city.

Says Simon, a former newspaperman and the author of two books of narrative nonfiction, “The last question we want to ask is this: For four seasons, we have depicted that part of urban America that has been left behind by the economy and by the greater society, and chronicled entrenched problems that have gone without solution for generations now. Why? What is it that we see and sense about these problems? To what are we giving attention, and what is it that we consistently ignore? How do we actually see ourselves?”

See the whole press release here.


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