Archive for September 2006

narrative arc

September 13, 2006

David Simon/Richard price gave a talk in New York last week that some of the H&H team attended. It was cute when one of our number, on the walk home, asked if we thought there were Wire superfans, the kind of viewer who would go to a Trekkie-equivalent convention. The rest of us quickly pointed out that the hypothetical Wire superfans he spoke of were us.

A few things Simon said really struck me — one was about the conception of the show as “Greek” versus a “Shakespearean” model. He argued that a show like the Sopranos — or most shows on television — are built around a central charismatic figure (Hamlet, Othello, MacBeth etc.). The Wire, on the other hand, is consciously fashioned as an ensemble — and when any one character starts acquiring too much power, he/she must be eliminated. Hence the killing of Stringer, and the demotion/domestication of McNulty.

Along with this, Simon said that The Wire is a show about institutions — that it is necessarily and purposefully negative about change in America, and furthermore, that it is always about institutions “fucking” the people they’re supposed to protect. Which makes me wonder, Are the characters’ lives overdetermined by this heavy control from above? One way to think about fiction, especially television fictions, is that the characters have their own agency in these imaginary worlds. But for Simon, the characters must be constrained in order to make a political point. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just thinking it over.

Richard Price’s main contribution to the talk was to be dreamy and tell a pretty amazing story about a verbal spanking he got from Denzel Washington on the set of whatever movie he was working on, who informed him that he should “pretend” that his black characters are as smart as his white ones. It was pretty remarkable, I thought, that Price was so comfortable in admitting it, esp. given how good he is at writing for The Wire. (Another great anecdote from the talk was that apparently, the day after Stringer’s death aired, all the “real” wires in Baltimore were blowing up with dealers talking to each other about how they couldn’t believe it.)

Final note: My immediate impression of the first episode was that this season was going to be more depressing than even the ones that came before. Watching kids be kids struggling is, for me, even harder than watching grown-ups like Johnny throw everything away. But with a little distance I’m more optimistic. Those kids are alright.

And Mr. Shoals, I have to disagree. Marlo’s not losing composure. I don’t even think he’s getting arrogant. He’s just staking his territory, getting them while they’re young.

Grab those neon stakes

September 13, 2006

I finally got caught up, which means I watched #39 after it had been up for a full two days. Don’t think I’m wretched or nothing for saying this, but that first episode was almost too much for me: between the year plus wait, hype for miles, the On-Demand fiasco and all those conspiracy theories, I didn’t know if I was equipped for another. Luckily, it consisted mostly of Simon et al. trotting out every character whose return you’d doubted; there are so many now that there’s a difference between #38 framing the narrative and this roll call.

One thing I adamantly don’t want to do in these posts is vomit up sentimentality. Although I was as giddy as anyone to see Cutty on a roll, I’d rather refrain from reaction until I know where it’s heading. Double that for the return of Bay and his tropical pets, possibly the most tender slice of low-life in the program’s history. It could’ve been pat or silly that he turned up as Nay’s father, and I could’ve simply latched onto the kid as “son of Wee-Bey.” Instead, this twist confirmed what I’ve been suspecting: these kids are the Pit Crew recast in more stark, hellish terms. Anyone who saw this move as cheap (for better or for worse) ignores this at their own peril.

The saga of D’Angelo, Bodie, and Wallace remains The Wire’s most rudimentary and most evocative storyline. D’Angelo, forced into the game by tradition and reputation; Bodie, a product of his environment seemingly built for it; and Wallace, doomed from the start. Like I said yesterday, it’s always premature to come to any conclusions about the characters, but Namond, Randy, and Dukie/Michael are all those archetypes made more grim. D’Angelo was a prince, an heir to a hustling empire who could’ve possible done something else with himself. Even if D. had honor and family name holding him back, he had probably had better odds than Stringer of going legit. The Bey/Nay scene at prison was cute only when it wasn’t creeping the fuck out of me. Yes, Wee-Bey has always taken pride in his soldiering, but in that conversation you saw how much his work ethic was the product of desperation. He was more like one of Frank’s boys than the usual swaggering street tough, devoted to both the job and the security it provided; all of a sudden, Cutty’s post-crime behavior makes a lot more sense.

No telling if Randy will end up like Bodie, who is as much a raw natural as Wee-Bey is a fine-tuned principle. Still, that one murder he now has on his conscience, plus his enthusiasm for Marlo’s cash, points toward the same helplessness that, on some level, motivates Bodie. Broadus, a middle-school drop-out who never left Baltimore ended up on the corner in much this same way: as a matter of circumstance. That he could make it his life is depressing, not some sort of affirmation of his inner criminal essence. And finally, the strange, nascent tale of Dukie. Just as Wallace was put on the show to teach us a hard truth, I can’t watch Dukie without sensing some of those same overtones + Ziggy. After Michael’s confrontation with Marlo and glum refusal to train with Cutty, I’d include him in this category, too. It’s like being thoughtful or sensitive marks a character early on in The Wire as cannon fodder, even more so when there’s no one to shield them.

One final note: what the fuck is happening with Marlo? I was all set to write up something about how he’s essentially one-dimensional, and would suck in a show that were any less insistently three-dimensional. But as that exception, he’s all the more chilling. Then he spends #39 in search of public approval and getting up in the face of a morose seventh-grader. Is our our favorite arch-fiend already losing composure!??!?!?!!??


September 12, 2006

The season has begun, but with it has begun a strange programming phenomenon. As you doubtless know, The Wire “premieres” each Sunday night on HBO, but episodes become available nearly a week earlier, if subscribers have access to the “On-Demand” system common to most digital cable providers. Add this to the fact that anyone with a shadow of credentials and a breath of promise about publicizing the show in print was speedily presented with the entire season on DVD in the past few weeks. HBO and the folks who manage The Wire seem single-minded in their hopes of getting anyone and everyone willing to devote an hour to get hooked on the show.

It makes sense, particularly given the broad, meandering and novelistic ways the series develops over each season, that the folks at HBO would be keen on grabbing viewers early, clutching them through a few episodes, and then relaxing their grip and watching to see whether viewers will remain seated for the remainder of the season. Even so, it’s a strange thing to see come to pass, television being what it is with the ratings and the ads and the “don’t touch that dial” and suchlike. Yet perhaps cable has finally realized how very free it is from the shackles of timeslots and Nielsens.

What this also says is “fuck you, water-cooler,” and that’s another strange side-effect. Even for this blog, the challenge of drawing in the disparate viewers of The Wire will depend in part on how we can manage the expecations of those who have religiously watched the show at its appointed hour, those who snapped it off On-Demand at the earliest possible time, and those who have already downloaded the whole season.

The New York Times has already written several pieces on the show to coincide with the start of the season. Yet immediately, the notion of a regular season’s schedule has been exploded, and HBO instead, in the interest, it would seem, of accomodating as many viewers’ desires as possible, has concentrated on snagging as many of those viewers as possible.

I hope that despite this programming chaos, conversation about the program will not be curtailed, compromised, or rendered meaningless. I know that some of the writers here are going to be watching on vastly differing schedules, and I think that it will ultimately allow for more lively, informed, and exciting discussions. After all, the best surprises to be found in The Wire are those that creep up on you when you’re not watching, when you’re watching again, or when you’re talking about episodes with someone else who cares.


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