Archive for October 2006

Coming Clean

October 31, 2006

Episode 45 spoilers below. For posts on 44, see here, here and here.

Let me begin by saying that #45 was the worst episode of The Wire I’ve ever seen.

no good

Now that I have your attention… I’m serious. 45 was over-the-top preachy, with Prez, Sampson and co. reciting talking points instead of real dialogue in the teachers’ lounge. The moment where the one random teacher started talking about No Child Left Behind really made me want to turn off the television. How does a show that’s so good at making its critique through narrative and character and all the trappings of fiction wind up just spouting politics? And let’s not even talk about Herc. He’s not so much an example of what the show is doing wrong; he’s just so unbelievably bad at being a cop that it’s getting hard to watch. There was a moment when he and Carver were the same, but Carver has become good and Herc has just become the biggest, stupidest, oafiest oaf on the force.

bad cop

But worst of all, on 45, were the kids. You would have thought that Prez’s moment in the classroom of last week never happened for how they were behaving. And not like I expected The Wire to turn into To Sir, With Love and give us an after-school special where now all the kids just love learning and want to go to college, but a little building on his successes would have been nice. It’s so, so frustrating to witness how little they want to learn. I could turn this on Prez and say it’s his fault, but to be fair, it takes a while to become a good teacher. This is one reason why programs like Teach for America are in some way flawed: Unless you’re a real natural, it takes a few years to figure out how to be consistent with kids, how to not give in to them, how to resist the pressure to try something new every other day because you’re looking for an instant solution. And maybe my desire to see the kids turned on to math because of one moment of inspired teaching proves that I’m looking for instant gratification on the show. Maybe it does. But I feel so worn out watching the kids. Don’t they want to learn at all? These are the ones who are still showing up — you would think that they would want to get something out of it. And no, the occasional revelation that Michael does his homework does not satisfy me. Maybe this is realism, maybe I’m just having a hard time accepting The Way It Is. It tires me.

hw

But I have a bigger problem, and it’s that I don’t understand what the show is doing with these kids as voices of social critique. Let me back up a bit: I could listen to String, Avon, Omar, D’Angelo, Bodie challenge the hypocrisy of the police, the state, the education system, all day long. I am endlessly fascinated by the cross-overs between the criminal and the straight worlds. But I do not like being lectured to by a child. When Namond stands up and starts shooting his mouth about how all the adults are hypocrites because they smoke, I just want to give him a spanking and tell him to go play with his pals. And what really frustrates me is that I don’t understand what Simon & co. are doing with those moments: Are these moments for us to realize how naive Namond (and all the kids by extension) are? Are these genuine criticisms of the state? Are these moments an indictment of our previous sympathy for the outlaw elements because they reveal the limits of the game (ie, unlike String, who made decisions and had dignity, Namond is basically gun fodder lying in wait)? What is going on? Normally Colvin cuts Namond down when he starts riding his high horse without a helmet, but the scene just ended, leaving its meaning obscure.

I guess, too, that I’m just getting a little bit sick of watching kids. The Wire has always been a very grown-up show with very grown-up themes. In some way, perhaps, using children as such main players limits the show, even as it extends its reach into the educational system. I want more Omar; I want scenes with De’Londa; I want more Carcetti; I want more Sampson and Prez (at least when they’re not parroting policy memos). I love Dukie, I love Michael (and let me here say that I was obviously wrong when I said that no way had Michael been molested — dude Jumped from Bugs’s dad), I love Randy, I even like kids in real life. I’m just starting to sour on watching them every week — especially when I feel like they’re preaching to me, dropping knowledge that they don’t even have.

“Bleak to a fault?”

October 30, 2006

This goes off of #45. All #44 needs can be addressed by this post. 

As I believe I’ve let on in previous posts, my Season 4 experience has been irrevocably jacked up by spoilers. Although I did my best to avoid anything that smacked of them, one errant click was all it took for me to learn about what’s likely this cycle’s most pivotal event. Since then, I’ve been trying to come to terms with what I’ve lost, and thrashing myself for feeling so diminished. I don’t think H&H would exist were I not the kind of television watcher who thinks himself above mere surprise; anyone who has ever helped a Wire novice get his wings, or gone to see a film for a second time, probably harbors similar feelings. And the truth is, I watched Seasons 1 and 2 after I first got down with 3; knowing that D’Angelo got offed didn’t make it any easier to watch, and it wouldn’t have taken a genius to get that he was a martyr figure from the jump. The same went for Stringer’s demise, which was a cathartic moment despite the Times’s best effort to scoop fiction.

There’s also the fact that, as we all know, things pretty much always end up shit for everyone involved in our most beloved series. You can count on one hand the number of truly positive outcomes in the program’s history: stripper redeemed, Lester raised from the depths, Daniels as star, Daniels with Perlman, and possibly Jimmy gone soft. Other than that, everything can, and will, go wrong at some point. We don’t know exactly who, how and when, but as elusive internet icon Rocco Chappelle put it in a email, “people are going to die; plots are going to be foiled by incompetence, self-interest, and general chicanery”

While we may not know exactly which Boy of Summer will catch serious misery, or how it will unfold, there’s no mistaking we’re going to get our hearts pulped by season’s end. Spoilers can only hurt us so much, since we know most parties involved are doomed. Cops get fucked, criminals die, anyone with a soul gets crushed. The mechanics of plot and character that land them there, and watching it all so masterfully play out, are the real meat of the matter.

The Wire might not necessarily be predictable, but its utter pessimism and unfaltering belief in institutional tyranny doesn’t leave a lot of breathing room for humanity. At the same time, developing some of the most vivid characters in the history of the moron box puts the invested viewer in near-sadistic situation: share their world, then have it wrung out of you. I can’t help but wonder if plot doesn’t somehow serve to mitigate the anguish, since it allows you to hold out hope until the final, shiftily-delivered punch.

That’s not to downplay the complexity of these real-like situations, or suggest that I ever know what’s coming. But there’s certainly something paradoxical about a program gashed with plot twists that nevertheless operates under a basic fatalistic presumption. Perhaps it’s that we learn about ruin by witnessing various paths to it; on a generic level, all of these stories are the same. What imbues them with meaning, though, is the people behind them, and their fairly futile choices and interpretations.

(Of course, this depends on how much you think The Wire’s invested in the serial structure—“visual novel” would seem to say no—and  whether or not slow-burning can be read as a narrative decision, not a recipe for viewer titillation and agony.)

The arrival of Michael’s abusive stepfather was almost a relief—here was the molester we’d so frequently asked after, and now all of a sudden one of the four kids seemed fast-tracked for disaster. The scenes from next, where we see him reaching out to Marlo, were both stunning and, once you saw them, sadly obvious. Cutty, Prez. . . none of them actually have any power to wrest these teens from the jaws of crisis. The more you see Namond treating his grind like a fluffy rite of passage, right down to employing babies and whining at his mother about “wanting to build,” the more you realize how insulated his life is. Dukie suffers more from neglect than deliberate mistreatment; perhaps suspiciously, Prez has been able to turn him from stinky, world-weary creep to beaming, social creature, albeit one whose development seems a little arrested.

Michael’s stepfather, though, is about the darkest, most chilling kind of creature we’ve yet seen on the show; when a force like this shows up, it makes perfect sense to come running to evil incarnate. Michael doesn’t just need a role model, or encouragement—he’s facing his own version of the devil, and lord knows you fight monstrosity with monstrosity. Of all of the young’uns, Michael has the most advanced understanding of The Game; he’s also pragmatic enough to get that going to Marlo might just be his only guaranteed option

Just in case everyone’s slitting their hands right about now, I hope I’m not the only one who took note of Chris’s choice in footwear:

Back on mines

October 30, 2006

Welcome back, those of you returning after the long Wire hiatus. You can click here, here, and here for our thoughts on #44. For anyone pleasuring themselves in the realm of OnDemand, I’ll have something new and sterling by late afternoon. And people spreading leaked copies around the webs. . . if this blog wanes, you’re the reason why.

Lucky Sevens

October 25, 2006

Be warned: 44 spoilers await. (Count ‘em.)

As jetset pointed out on Monday, 44 contains a very amusing set piece of Prezbo getting the kids interested in math by teaching them, well, the numbers: He notices them playing poker at lunchtime (using pistachioes in lieu of money, although a quarter is placed on the table just to “remind” Michael of the 25 pistachioes he owes) and starts spontaneously schooling them on the odds. Then, with the help of a basement raid, he produces enough dice for the whole class to break up in groups and learn a few things about odds. He sets Dukie up with a computer and the look of joy on Dukie’s face as he manned what I presume are the records of the activity, although he could be busy doing something else, was one of my favorite moments of the whole episode.

dice

Presumably Prez is gonna get spanked for this: He’s gone off the curriculum (smelling trouble, the principal already warned him about this); he’s raided the basement; and, of course, he’s encouraging gambling. Of course I’d say what he’s doing is great — as he put it, and I’m paraphrasing here, If you trick them into having fun, they learn without meaning to. He’s discovering that good teaching means turning your kids’ minds on, putting things in context — and context doesn’t just mean a boring word problem about traveling from Philadelphia to Baltimore, as he tried to do in his first class. And it’s sure better than paying kids to learn, as some have resorted to. Seems to me that paying kids to learn is just one more way to bring the profit motive, corporations, and all that other junk into the classroom. Prez knows that his students aren’t innocent, but he’s not so jaded that he thinks that they won’t be motivated by good times as opposed to greenbacks.

Numbers, and gambling, have mattered on The Wire for a long time now. Marlo’s and Royce’s poker games this season clearly come to mind. Being good at gambling — knowing the odds — in Marlo’s case is a kind of metaphor for his maturity. He doesn’t usually win at poker; he’s still, in this sense, green. Royce’s card games were a sham, where the interesting bet wasn’t on who’s going to win but on how many more he was going to call before the primary. And then, of course, there’s Cheese. Remember the dog fights? Another gamble. Not to say that this episode in Prez’s class is directly harkening to all these moments, but it’s interesting to think about where the bets lead, how they pay off, who they pay to.

chalkboard

It seems like every time you a class full of black children in the movies or on TV, they’re behaving like caged animals. The Wire argues that the kids’ behavior is largely a matter of who the authority figure is: They settle down for Sampson, but act out for Prez. One of the reasons I liked Half Nelson so much (see it, see it, and not just because, as Shoals pointed out, Donut and Michael are in it) is that it showed black kids as being decent: More or less behaved, not wielding razor blades or knives, rowdy, but no rowdier than your average middle-class white classroom of adolescents. On The Wire the kids are easy to distract and impossible to reach. (We know that they learn in some classes, but we never see those scenes.) I understand that The Wire is offering a realistic depiction of an inner-city classroom, and that it can be really that bad, if not worse, but I still feel like the presentation of young black children as so badly behaved in school reinforces some really terrible stereotypes. I’ve been waiting to see these kids have a moment where they learned something, and that moment finallly arrived.

Seeing the kids get into math because they feel like it matters — like they need it —- of course, more than anything, recalls String educating himself to be a better businessman. The Wire has always been interested in the overlaps between the straight world and the criminal world, how knowledge is trafficked between the two, how their rules and cultures inform each other. And while it’s hard as hell to convince twelve year olds that geometry has any meaning in their lives outside of K-12 (when those of us on the other side can say that it really doesn’t), odds are something small that they can hold on to. Not to get all weepy about it, but maybe they’ll see that the fun of learning something new can carry over even to what you can’t use to pass the time on the corner or to make fifty cents or, one day, to win at Marlo’s table. One class might not change anybody’s life, or the show, which is hurtling ever faster towards its inevitable tragic end, but it does round out the kids’ characters and shows them capable of waking up for a few minutes inside the school. (Also provided a pretty amazing parallel with the “troubled kids” class that Namond is in. I don’t know how anyone else felt about that, but I found it so, so depressing to watch those little boys spew such invective at the teachers — esp. the women. It exhausted me.) I was happy to see Prez finally have a break-through in his class. Watching him this season has been brutal. I think he’s earned it. Of course, the next roll of the dice may not work out so well for him.

crystal ball

Some thoughts on real po-lice

October 24, 2006

                              Ed Norris

I’m not sure how well-known this information is, so I apologize ahead of time if this is less than informative. But, if you didn’t know, Detective Norris, the bald-headed partner of Greggs on the dead witness case who, in episode 43, was temporarily demoted to a beat cop working the election polls, is played by Ed Norris, the former police commissioner of Baltimore, the former chief of the Maryland State Police and, finally, a former federal prisoner. (For a good story about Norris, check out this Baltimore City Paper article — full disclosure: I am a former City Paper intern — the first of two interviews following his release from prison for corruption. This is also a solid, if sentimental, take on Norris’ recent Tampa relocation.)

Norris was a New York transplant, a lateral hire from the NYPD, who came in with the intent of cleaning up Baltimore’s police force. Norris, as I remember, was well-respected — hence, his upward move to the Maryland State Police — and brought with him Comstat, a computerized, statistical analysis of crime and police prevention. In Season Three, I believe that Rawls and Burrell are using the equivalent of Comstat when roasting the various police majors for the underenforcement in their districts. It is also the statistical tool the police use to determine that Bunny Colvin managed to produce unprecedented drops in crime, though without any knowledge about how Colvin actually reduced the crime rate.

The benefits of Comstat have been heralded by Martin O’Malley in his recent gubernatorial run, and the issue of the police being beholden to not only subjective political expectations (e.g. Mayor Royce’s domination of Commissioner Burrell) but also to objective numerical accounting has cropped up in The Wire repeatedly. To wit, the dry-erase board in the homicide office, with its dichromatic scheme of black and red for solved and unsolved murders, respectively, has been a recurring symbol in The Wire, perhaps most prominently in Season Two, when the thirteen “Jane Does” are added to the chagrin of the Landsman and Rawls.

                                         The Taming of Chance

It probably goes without saying, however, that the aforementioned dichotomy between subjective expectations and objective accounting is not so cleanly cut. Rather, political expectations are always informedby statistical observation and, conversely, statistical observation is increasingly frought with political expectations. (The more academic reader might call this a case of “overdetermination.”)

The Wire, unsurprisingly, captures this confluence fully. For instance, one effect of statistical enumeration of crimes is the fact that politicans and the press can more easily establish the effectiveness of law enforcement through the following inverse relationship: when the crime rate is greater, we can assume that the police’s performance is of a lower quality. Hence, in The Wire, the mayor constantly pressures the police force’s upper management and, by exenstion, upper management constantly pressures the force’s middle management (they call this the chain of command) to keep the number of reported crimes down. In Season Three, Officer Burrell complains of Royce’s impossible demand to keep the murder rate below 270 for the year, a number that is strangely rigid and, apparently, meaningful. With the advent of more specific and detailed statistical reporting, a police force like Baltimore’s is no longer expected to simply reduce crime, but to reduce it to, and beyond, certain levels. In other words, the political expectations for a police department have become more exacting, with less room for error.

On the other hand, the measurement of crime is always affected by politics. The inclusion of certain crimes at the expense of others — that is, the choice of which crimes are reflected in a city’s homicide rate — must always be recognized as a conscious political decision, one which, the cynic presumes, has certain benefits for whatever person or party is currently in power. Additionally, the contents of a crime rate can be just as arbitrarily chosen by jurisdictional lines. For instance, in Season Two, when the shipping container is found to contain a baker’s dozen of dead prostitutes, the decision to include those deaths in Baltimore City’s, and not in the neighboring county’s, jurisdiction lacks any fundamentally meaningful or principled rationale. Rather, it reflects the rather random lines of county soveriegnty — and, of course, the meddlings of one police officer, McNulty, with too much time on his hands — which are always drawn by political actors.

                    Gerrymander

It will be interesting to see what happens when Marlo’s bodies start popping up in the Westside on the newly-minted mayor’s watch. How those bodies, once reduced to statistical numbers, affect city politics, and how Baltimore’s politics will alter the accounting of those bodies, should, I hope, be an interesting sidebar about how “real po-lice” operate in Charm City.

Chessie

October 23, 2006

Well the week lapse really puts into high relief the oddness of HBO’s machinations and the On-Demand mess they have created. If you want to see our commentary on Episode #43 please look here, there, and yonder. For some extra tidbits and our more thematic discussions please see this and that. Plus check out our interview with David Simon. Continue below for some words on #44.

modern times

This week the wheels of the show’s narrative machine were switched, it seems, into the next gear, bringing various characters into contact with one another (Daniels and Carcetti is a pretty rich one, while Randy and Herc seems like a disaster waiting to happen), and slowly evolving the larger story line for our heroes, the children. Randy’s truth-telling being mishandled by the hot-headed Herc is frustrating just for how bungling the police can be, while Bunk’s ire-inducing persona messed that whole subplot of finding Lex and his killer even further. Namond again showed himself unprepared for the struggle of the game, while Michael stayed relatively quiet, though his excellent homework was something to note. Carcetti’s do-gooderness was shown in his observations of the police ComSat meeting, his admiration for Daniels both on the podium and out on the field not going unnoticed, though the impossibility of his raising Daniels to Commander was seemingly made clear. Cutty further redeemed himself, which is good because he is one of my favorites, although stepping into the fray between Sharrod and Namond seemed ill-thought-out, as Michael curtly opined. It was hard to tell whether Michael’s scowl at the end of Cutty’s awkward apology for sleeping with his charges’ mothers was a show of grudging respect or further suspicion. Bunny’s classroom seems fairly hopeless, a point pounded home when the sociologist called the mess “fascinating.” Meanwhile, Prez finally figured out a way to trick his students into learning, and his discovery of the updated textbooks and a computer held resonance with McNulty’s discovery of snooping equipment mouldering in the supply stacks of the police department.

olmos

Above all, I think the heartbreak of this week was in watching Bubbles, who I think too often is reduced to a one-note good-hearted-yet-tragic character, transformed into a complex and caring figure fighting from the bottom but encountering unending roadblocks. His concern for Sharrod is doubly touching when we recall that Bubbles has a child of his own that his addiction and his poverty have disallowed him from knowing. Not only that, but Sharrod’s companionship provided Bubbles with a sense of purpose in teaching, mentoring, and frankly in making more money. Of course the one time Sharrod should have aided Bubbles, he shrank back and watched his would-be caretaker take a beating.

One wonders how Bubbles got along for so long running his little business without attracting the attentions of the sort of thief he’s now got shadowing him all the time. Worse still, Sharrod is not only slangin but also using, which breaks a Crack Commandment (never get high on your own supply), and stirs up images of Cutty’s unpleasant and abortive re-entry into the game, not to mention the addictions of Wallace and D’Angelo, none of which ended well for those characters. Seeing Bubbles in his ill-fitting jacket and tie talking to the school’s principal is all the more difficult because it seems as though, despite his altruism toward Sharrod, he no longer harbors any desire to get back into rehab or give up using. The marks on his face are permanent. One wonders too why he has not sought to reach out to his ally on the police force in Greggs, but more about her in a moment.

The “bad cop” who harasses Bubbles when he is asking for help keeps showing up at the wrong time for everyone, and I wonder what his function is meant to be. He abuses, steals, and mishandles seemingly every encounter he has, always looking for the little guy (literally, when dealing with the kids, and figuratively, in harassing the hapless Bubbles) merely to push around and assert authority. The boneheads Carcetti rides around with for a night, as well as Herc, also display aspects of ineptitude and waste-of-time police nonsense (Herc seems unconcerned with solving crimes in the face of covering his ass), but this “bad cop” figure shows the worst aspects all the time. We know good police like McNulty are out there using their heads, but it seems like the deck is stacked against real police efficiency and intelligent work, despite the hopes of Carcetti and the singular, intense strategies of people like Daniels.

copland

If there was a “good cop” this episode, it was Greggs, whose stellar casework and scene investigation made for a thrilling discovery scene while proving that she can handle homicides as well as the veterans. Her one-woman raid on that house where the target-practicing-accidental-witness-murderer resided also provided a moment of real heart-pounding anxiety. I thought immediately of her previous disastrous brush with criminals while on her own, but it showed her courage has not diminished. Her character this season is an odd mish-mash. For most of the season she has been a pawn in the witness dust-up, getting mired in police and city politics while she could have been solving cases. Now she has cleared the witness case, but she doesn’t seem involved particularly in any of the larger narratives of the season. I wonder if she will develop a larger role as the season progresses, or if she’ll remain present, but unimportant to the big picture. It seems a shame to string her along merely for continuity’s sake, when she could be an active participant in the larger story. Perhaps Bubbles will reach out to her for help. He certainly needs someone to rely on.

Getting It Together

October 23, 2006

Today’s been a slow day around HH headquarters, but we’re getting it together. In the meantime, I invite those of you who have not been entertained by this clip to get with it.

I also encourage you all to read Laura Lippman’s wonderful essay on Baltimore books on Salon today. I haven’t read any of the books she mentions, but if any of you have, I’d love to hear more.

And yes, we’ll be getting with episode 44 soon. Patience, children. Patience.

catnap


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.