Archive for September 2006

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.

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.