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.