Archive for September 2006

Let’s hear it for small packages

September 21, 2006

I might be out of Wire-related thoughts for this week, but it doesn’t exactly help that I can’t read anyone else’s. At Salon, James Hynes’s piece in the “Life” section warns me straight-out that it’s chock full of spoilers. Had I not stumbled upon a warning somewhere else on the interwebs, I would’ve probably had some joy denied me by Jacob Weisberg’s Slate onslaught. Only dear Heather Havrilesky deigned to handle this like a television program and not give it away all at once. But since her entire voice depends on the ritual of weekly viewing, it makes it seem like an either/or proposition: take The Wire as a visual novel deserving serious treatment, and you lose the right to enjoy it in episodic fashion.

I have as many weighty opinions on this show as anyone, but as I declared last week, that shouldn’t cost it its medium. It’s probably misleading to throw the word “innocence” out there, considering how far we are from sitcom territory. Yet if the discontinuous narrative seems to defy television conventions, can’t we also assume that it’s comfortable as defiant television—maybe even invested in that tension? To construe The Wire as an uninterrupted epic, is ultimately kind of an insult to the consensus “finest American broadcast ever.” If The Wire is masterful television, surely this also implies an original take on serialized process. Jumping ahead of viewers, which cuts them out of the discussion while denying the value of their incremental experience, is kind of rude. Most importantly, though, it’s neglecting part of what makes this such amazing art, whether you’re talking technical innovation, shrewd storytelling, or capacity to dispense enjoyment.


Give the user some

September 20, 2006

CC and I had some incredibly productive words last week on the subject of gettin’ high and its relevance to The Wire. What we both seem to agree on is that, while The Corner was draped in junk, rot, and renewal, over its four seasons the show of our dreams has taken some drastic steps to minimize (no NA) the role of actual drug use in its tapestry of facts. At this point, Bubbles has shed his pathetic, self-destructive self, once symbolized by Johnny, and become a self-made hustler, friend of the law, and advocate for education. Even Hamsterdamn, which could’ve been cast as a blow for the rights/personal struggle of the individual, truly had the block like the Dawn of the Dead.

While no one should expect The Wire to glamorize controlled substances, it has also been surprisingly opaque when it comes to their role in the socio-psycho-drama known, mightily informally, as THE GAME. Season 1 at times seemed cut from the same cloth as what I’ve seen of The Corner, going so far as to introduce a ludicrous “Bubbles and Johnny clean up” storyline, have Steve Earle drop by to give a motivational speech, and just generaly languish over this most grimy of human predicaments. Depending on how much interest you have in this matter of business, this was profound or disastrous. Now, though, users are a broken feature of the landscape, imbued with meaning only when they push along the plot or dramatically break the mold.

Funny about all this is that, in my limited experience with such lost souls, drug addicts love The Wire. While no one would ever want to identify with the kind of shit-out addicts depicted therein, there’s a general consensus that, in some sense, this show belongs to them. I take it to be something along these lines: The Wire illuminates absolutely everything surrounding an individual’s use without confronting it in itself; especially if one is looking to downplay the murdrous consequences of addiction, this is a cozy way to glom onto an near-operatic context. Most addicts would prefer to think of themselves—like Bubs—as a streetwise component of the grand hustle, rather than its object, the hustled. In emboldening the noble junkie, situating him within the web of bad-ass machinations, and reducing the lesser addicts to wandering scum, Simon successfully allows every self-glorifying user to embrace his show and their lifestyle with precious little honesty.

I would like to take this gorgeous opportunity to compare this to a certain strain of hipster’s love of cocaine rap, one that I don’t doubt plays a role in Wire-mania. Tales of moving crack by the bushel are exotic, raw, and decidedly alienating; after all, who among us wasn’t raised to consider crack like rat poison? However, when Clipse, Jeezy, Weezy, Juelz, Rick Ross, and any number of others switched it up and made yay the primary focus, it became something these kids could relate to. Hearing rappers exult over enormous quantities of powder cocaine is, for anyone remotely incline to themselves get excited about coke, a lot of fun. Thus, their affinity for consuming a drug opens out onto a gigiantic vista of hardcore fantasy, the original meaning of Scarface‘s climax reclaimed by some of the last people on earth to cop the anniversary DVD.

Allow me to head your rage off at the pass: this is not necessarily meant as a condemnation of The Wire or drug users. As someone who started a blog devoted solely to this program, I don’t think that my respect for it can be stressed enough. I simply want to suggest that, in the same way that schools are getting explored this season, perhaps the use side of things is a quadrant also deserving star treatment. And as for my frank discussion of drugs and people and music. . . just take it on faith that I know what I’m talking about.

Fallen Angels

September 19, 2006

I’m building on Shoals’s last post here, and the comments that introduced D’Angelo. So consult that to get a sense of where this is coming from…

The topic here is, broadly speaking, pathos. I’m a little farther in the season (I watched 41 last night) but I’m not giving anything away when I say that The Wire can really tug at heartstrings, and does so more this season than ever before. It’s so hard to watch these kids sometimes, esp. Dukie and Michael’s dealings with his little brother. The way he takes care of him, gets him set up, holds his hand — it’s all very touching, and makes me feel like something bad just has to happen. Watching an 8th grade boy take care of his little brother cause his parents are MIA and he lives in the ghetto, well, that’s going to make your heart flutter a little. It inspires a whole host of emotions: admiration, guilt, sorrow, pity, and the sense that this just isn’t how people should have to live. The Wire’s an incredibly smart and intellectual show, that’s not under dispute, but it also knows how to use emotion at key moments, and with key characters, to either drive home its points or inspire feeling or just keep the plot moving.

Michael reminds me of Wallace, but also of D’Angelo. D’Angelo was and is one of my favorite characters (I can’t commit to a #1 slot), but he was marked from the start. He had to die for so many reasons: to fracture the family; to reveal the way the game had warped the family even as it had built it, had made it a family at all; and to drive home to viewers the real senselessness of the game, its refusal to spare anyone. D’Angelo was a good kid (like Michael), he was trying to do the right thing for himself (get out of the game; Michael’s (still) in school), and he was murdered –sacrificed — by his uncle and his mom. Not sacrificed to some greater good, but to the preservation of the status quo, which keeps money in boys’ pockets but also, Season 4 won’t let us forget, keeps them down in a cycle of poverty, keeps them out of school which is, as idealistic as this is to say, I still maintain, their only hope. (Street smarts are great for surviving, but not so great for leaving, as Stringer learned. And no one really survives the streets, another lesson of The Wire and countless movies — you climb high, you fall hard). To return to the point, D’Angelo’s murder was emotional — it was misty-eyed, and it was supposed to be.

What I’m thinking here is, are there any moments when the show loses its grip on pathos and falls into sentimentality? Are there any scenes — esp of the street, which seems like the easiest place to fall into some serious liberal sappiness — that anyone can remember that seemed cheap in some way, or un-earned? Some of the stuff with Michael and his brother could come across that way, but I think what we’re really seeing is not an unearned emotional moment but set-up for something bigger down the line. In fact, what seems the weirdest and most false to me so far is not on the street at all but is with McNulty and Beadie. I always thought their romance was a bit random, more like a tacked-on wedding at the end of a Victorian novel than a real relationship, and those “ankle-biters” with their perfect behavior and their “McNulty gave it to me” sing-song voices, I don’t know. I just don’t buy it.

Discuss, if you so please.

And if that’s not interesting to anyone, maybe someone else has an opinion on Bloomberg’s newest plan to reward the “good behavior” of the poor with cash? Because the people who aren’t in school, seeing the doctor or scoring well on standardized tests aren’t worth helping. There probably aren’t pressures in their communities or home lives that make “behaving well” an impossibility or anything.

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.