Once Upon a Time in America

I want to make a contentious point, and one that I don’t make for the sake of gladiatorial insinuations, or allusions of grandeur. The Wire is not only a better show, but more specifically a better show about criminality and race in the United States than The Sopranos could ever hope to be. This is not a new or novel point, and is one that many will recognize from Bill Simmons loving endorsement of our beloved Charm City saga.

While part of the horror/pleasure of mob-based narratives is always in the grisly gory tactics of intimidation and revenge matched up with the overarching mushiness of familial bonds and, of course, food, The Sopranos manages to make most of its characters ride the very thin line between sympathetic and reprehensible, without ever falling to either side. Paulie, for one, is a hot-headed, borderline retarded, psychopathic fool, yet the show does all it can to make him tolerable, comedic, and eventually forgivable. Add to this the fact that characters like Paulie and the rest of the family appear to thrive on their criminal endeavors, occasionally getting into messy scrapes but mostly earning righteous amounts of money from boosted cars, construction scams, stolen tvs, and of course, a smattering of drug sales. The Italian mob of The Sopranos is, of course, complicated with the intrusions of modernity on an essentially old-world mythology. Hence Tony’s panic attacks (the reason for his therapy) are linked to his enjoyment of cured Italian meats, to cite just one of thousands of examples. Yet those old world tropes are not completely exploded, and still inform the narrative.

One element of the old-world gangster mythology is a mistrust of black criminals, through a combination of deeply ingrained racism (suspicious for appearing in just that one scene of The Godfather, as voiced by Don Zaluchi: “they’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”) and the myth that black people make terrible criminals. In The Sopranos, black criminals are almost always depicted as bumbling, easily fooled amateurs, used only for the dirtiest of murders and framed as at best brutal and efficient and at worst as shiftless and lazy. Perhaps most importantly, in an echo of Godfather-ish stereotyping, The Sopranos commends honor on its Italian gangsters, while blacks are normally presented as lost in the godless void of the inner city.

What I would argue is that The Sopranos actually, however unselfconsciously, begins to believe in its own mythologies as the seasons go on, making more rather than less excuses for the racist, sexist and anachronistic lies that frame not only the worldviews of its characters, but the framework of the narrative itself. In the real world the days of glory for the Italian mob are long gone, with most Italian gangsters running clownish criminal enterprises, or languishing in prison, watching their families shill for reality TV. In the real world, the scary mobs are the Russians, the Balkans and the Chinese, while black criminal enterprises come in all shapes and sizes, but are by no means relegated to J.V.-level cowboy operations, stick up crews and errand boys for gangsters.

On The Wire, conversely, white criminal enterprises are often shown to be poorly thought-out blunders that inevitably call out loudly to the authorities and are easily infiltrated and prosecuted, while a range of black criminal operations show a complex shadow society for the underclass, with its own lower, middle and upper classes developing (think corner dealers, soldiers and kingpins), but also complex systems for side-stepping the legal world. The second season focused heavily on this, with Ziggy’s boneheaded drug schemes and White Mike’s incredibly easy turn from bust to turning state’s evidence contrasting with the ever-tightening Barksdale cartel. Of course the well-tuned, shadowy worlds of the Greek and the Russians remain mysterious and seemingly lucrative enterprises, while the end of Season 3 certainly destroyed any notions that the Barksdale dream was built to last. But by investigating the role of criminality in the underclass community, even displaying the complexity of black criminal organizations as rivaling their white counterparts, past or present, The Wire manages to complicate and subvert mythologies of criminality that The Sopranos just juggles and rearranges. Moreover, I believe that The Wire suggests that, however fleeting and based in iniquity, there is an honor in criminal success that exists for those deeply ensconced in the game. Wee-Bey’s uncomfortable advice for Namond is just a hint of the incredibly deft hand the writers on the show give to exploring these concepts.

This season, Marlo’s crew, small-time in comparison to the Barksdale operation, is the closest the show has anymore to an organized criminal conspiracy (though those Godfather-style round-table meetings of the city’s kingpins are still keeping their appointments, with Prop Joe looking more regal every season), yet I think it is important to wonder how the program overall has acted to infiltrate and subvert some of the dominant mythologies of organized crime that haunt our society, mythologies whose anachronism haven’t made them any less sweet to American audiences, and may have helped to preserve some of the worst ways that Americans think about race, ability and criminality.


Explore posts in the same categories: organized crime, Race

11 Comments on “Once Upon a Time in America”

  1. Shoals Says:

    this makes me ask some some hard questions about who the audience, de facto or otherwise, is for the wire. seems that the subversion you’re talking about might apply most to the simmons demographic which, by his own admission, might never show up in the first place. on the other hand, hasn’t it sort of deromanticized “the game” for anyone who has developed a mythic version of it?

  2. While I couldn’t agree more with your point about The Sopranos’ borderline-racist depiction of black criminals (something I’d never really given much thought too, previously), I’m not sure it exactly “commends honor” on the Italian ones. If Stringer and Marlo exist to give black criminal masterminds their long-overdue credit and respect, Tony Soprano exists to take it away from the long-overrated Cosa Nostra. A flabby, suburban mob boss who plays Mario Kart and cries in therapy seems “human” only in the sense of being completely unremarkable, whereas Stringer comes off as the world’s most brilliant CEO. In part, this difference is a function of the two Davids’ styles of criticism: Chase’s being cultural, Simon’s social. Of course, it is also reflects a reality about today’s various crimes businesses. Only the toughest, canniest operators could rise to the top of the Baltimore’s fierce drug game, but when your main business is shaking down coffee shops and hosting poker games for plastic surgeons, a certain level of flabbiness is inevitable.

    • Truly excellent take: Chase and Simon’s methods of social criticism are different. Chase might just be a bit of a self-hating Sicilian-American who is bitter about the world he experienced as a young man. He has confirmed that Livia Soprano is based on his mother, and I almost look at it as a paean to a lost innocence.

  3. PostmanE Says:

    I broadly agree with your points too, but I would add that I believe, through watching about four seasons of the show, that almost everything written into the Sopranos that affirms or informs the “old-world” narrative is done so in an expository manner. David Chase doesn’t unconsciously allow racism – or sexism, or any other destructive attitude – to creep into his show unaccounted for, but rather uses it to do what I believe has always been the whole point of The Sopranos: Demystifying modern mob life; not just humanizing it, but tearing it apart at the seams and revealing its ordinary machinations to the world. See Tony falter. See Tony cry. See Tony fail to maintain his own family, let alone his criminal one.

  4. Aswong1 Says:

    I agree to some point, but would also note that the viability of the mob is something Chase and Co. addressed pretty directly in the latest season. As I understood the season, the mob as an institution was not well suited to handle modern developments, i.e. chains like starbucks, homosexuality, etc. So at least on that count, I think it’s hard to fault Chase on showing the Soprano family to be too successful, and I think the decline of the mob will still be a central theme in the final 8 episodes.

  5. jetsetjunta Says:

    Yes I don’t mean to be too hard on Chase and co., and I recognize that a large part of the greater themes developed in the Sopranos commends humanity in all its pathetic and relatable ways on Tony and the other members of the family. Yet I think inherent in that project is finding sympathy for the life they have all chosen, and that this requires at least a modicum of belief in the machinations of mafia mythos. What I wanted to hit on more forcefully perhaps is the way in which the Wire flips the coin, as LittleManLevy points out, to show that in the actual, that is not the allegorical, worlds of crime in society, operators who thrive are also those who discard the myths and trappings our society has so neatly built for outlaws, and build new enterprises based on their wits and their ability. To be fair, if there is a narrative of crime for this nation, it can be found in the underclass’s knack for following the economic promise of the American dream by whatever means at their disposal, whether that means by offering protection to neighborhood stores, proferring drugs, gambling and prostitution, or illegally importing new immigrants from China, only to trap them in indentured servitude on their arrival.

  6. christycash Says:

    A friend who is smarter than I has argued quite forcefully that the Sopranos is a show that flatters its viewers by making them feel smarter than Tony and also making Tony into a hero that they can identify with —- he is a pathetic, small hero, but a hero perfectly suited to these hero-less times. Do any of us (whoever the “we” reading H&H is) identify with the Wire? Is such a thing possible — is it possible to identify with a character who may not share your race/class/social context? Can the Wire be said to flatter viewers, either the same way as the Sopranos does or differently? Could I ask more questions? My sense is that the Wire is *smarter* than the Sopranos, that the real genius of the Sopranos was getting so many smart people to fall for what is, in my estimation, a very repetitive show that exists to replay one set of family dynamics until they are ground into dust.

  7. PDGirl Says:

    In response to Christy’s post–b/c it is one of the things with which i struggle the most about “The Wire”:

    In terms of “identification,” I think the appeal of “The Wire” is multi-faceted, so I’ll just offer ideas on two points…
    First, for a large portion of “The Wire”‘s audience, the show is introducing them to a culture/way of life/segment of society that is, at least superficially, foreign. And, through that introduction, the audience realizes that “hey! we’re not so different after all.” I know that might sounds incredibly overly simplistic, but really, the scope and focus of the show are unlike anything that’s ever been on television. Not to mention the (oft-mentioned) fact that two-thirds or 75% (or whatever it is) of the characters (and the actors) on this show–this big budget, incredibly well-written and produced show–are black. I think of that interview clip w/ Frankie Faison (Burrell) that I saw on HBO where he talks about seeing these fancy middle-aged white ladies on the LIRR who were fawning over him and gushing about the show. You don’t think that this show–in addition to its can’t-be-understated artistic value–has changed their worldview? I think it has.
    I’m a white, liberal, educated young woman who grew up in the suburbs and my job deals with race and class and I try to examine these things (and am forced to do so regularly), and I know The Wire has impacted me in that way. (Real life experience, obviously, is more influential but some viewers don’t have real experience).

    Secondly, in terms of flattering viewers… again, I know I’m going to over-simplify, but I guess I think that since watching The Wire might seem like it’s “good for you,” that in that way it can provide a little bit of liberal intellectual masturbation… like- here’s this awesome piece of art, and watch it, think about it, be moved by it, and it can assuage some of your guilt at abandoning people in desperate circumstances who live just blocks away from you (at worst) or simply being complicit/doing nothing about them…

    I wish I could spend longer re-writing this post, but….

    Oh, one final point…. I really do think a lot of the lack of popularity/lack of Simmons-esque viewers has to do with race. For cryin’ out loud, Simmons could barely bring it up in his most recent Page 2.

  8. PostmanE Says:

    He was afraid Scoop Jackson would hear about it…

    Kidding. But did anyone see Whitlock’s comments on Scoop? Crazy stuff.

  9. Joey Says:

    As usual, ON POINT.

    And to go one step further: The Wire is the best television program ever made.

  10. avedbpxzkt Says:

    spanking an adult male

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