The Land Before Land

When we sleep, we make noise. When we don’t write for months, it’s a lot less deliberate.

With that, here’s my attempt to follow in JSJ’s footsteps and get this site to pop again. There have been numerous reasons before now to get going, but the prequels (scroll down, on the off chance you haven’t seen them) have compelled me to speak. On paper, this idea is stupendous, especially given the density of the characters and the show’s allusions to an equal mired past. Yet somehow, these completely misfire.

Each vignette gives us a moment from the past that shows us the character’s essence. For our intents and purposes, these might as well be when Prop Joe, Omar, Bunk and McNulty became who they are today. And therein lies the problem: There’s something altogether too comic book-y about these, even when it’s Omar being revealed. I guess we could think of the The Wire’s character as clear-cut vectors made complex through circumstance. Prop Joe had it all figured out before puberty, and all that cherubic poise got grizzled needlessly. Our two favorite detectives were lovable, untroubled drunks recognized for their brilliance. And Omar was Robin Hood with even less to stand in the way of his righteousness. It was all so simple, and innocent, until the real world intervened.

And that’s exactly the problem. Exactly when did innocence become part of the The Wire? To presume that people know themselves all along, and simply get distracted or deterred, is way too Romantic. As is any kind of idealized version of the past. There’s just not any point at which the various societal forces are kept enough at bay to allow for this; if they could be, and tragedy always snuck up at the last minute, then Simon’s pessimism would be weepy, not frank. I seem to recall Season Four, in which a bunch of kids had about five minutes of finding themselves before getting refracted through the system. Randy couldn’t be Bobby Hill in a group home, and Michael would probably turn into Marlo.

These prequels are little more than retroactive sentimentality. We see these characters as uncertain adults in a dismal, violent city, but can rest assured that once things were better. They weren’t always subject to drama, and if that’s the case, we can feel better about their future prospects. Which, of course, is radically counter to everything we know about The Wire. There’s no confidence in its world, only arrogance, caginess, and long-suffering conviction.

Unless, of course, we’re supposed to infer that Baltimore was once a very different place. Sadly, the prequels give you no sense of context other than haircuts and music. And certainly, there’s none of The Wire’s patented collision of individual and social circumstances. Nothing about the local economy, or political climate, that might explain the halcyon tone. Did Prop Joe grow up in a time when brains trumped brawn among the kids? Was Homicide once less harried? What about growing up during crack’s heyday made Omar into a moralized stick-up kid?

I wish I knew.

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23 Comments on “The Land Before Land”

  1. Jim Says:

    Agreed. These are Apocrypha, little removed from fan-fiction. One step from being the “Star Wars Holiday Special” of our times.

  2. Ben Guest Says:

    Good point. When I watched the first one, Prop Joe, I actually thought it was fan generated.

    What would be interesting: an actual look at the Baltimore you mention. An actual prequel, season 6, that examines the city before Season 1. Perhaps, a year or two in the mid to late seventies, that would show the seeds of the great decline of BMore.

  3. Ty Keenan Says:

    Two-minute character sketches are so anti-Wire that these were doomed to fail in comparison to the show. However, I can’t say I’m surprised by the outcry of love for these shorts if only because so many people have affection for the characters. I know too many people who say “I wanna be McNulty” to think that these connect on anything approaching an artistic level.

    The trouble is in figuring out if that’s wrong or not. I think the show’s as good as it is because of its social and political concerns, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it would be fun to have an occasional drink with Bunk and McNulty. I’m not incredibly bugged (just irked, for the broader reasons stated here) by these prequels because I’m willing to throw them away as inconsequential marketing tools, but I can understand why people are excited to have these characters back in their lives. It’s enough for me to know that we’re just a month away from real episodes.

    Anyway, I know the cross purposes of these different modes of appreciation of the show have been mentioned on this site before; I just think they deserve mention in regards to the prequels.

  4. morewire Says:

    Agreed on pretty much all of the points above. Somewhere around the internet I saw the prequels referred to as “David Simon’s Wire Babies”, which turned out to be relatively accurate.

    In the short amount of time given to each segment, they play up the iconic elements of each character, when the heart of the show (to me, at least) lies in how every character fights categorization.

  5. Will Says:

    I agreed with the vision of this as a sentimental look back (look what a cute little boy Joe is) upon seeing the Prop Joe one. But to me something about the Omar tale struck a different chord–the sheer absurdity of robbing someone at gunpoint and then threatening a (presumed) friend at gunpoint to give it back. That same conflict of hypocrisy (mean enough to steal, but nice enough to give it back) that this show often relies on, that same distorted mental compass that many Wire characters possess, was within each tale. Similarly with McNulty’s tale–while it’s nice that he and Bunk are kindly drunks, what about the (purely hypothetical) poor schmuck who calls the station in need of a cop and gets McNulty and Bunk, deep in the bottle? They’re still drinking on a gun-toting job, no? Instead of sentimentality, I see a presage of darker things…but maybe I’m just giving Simon & company too much credit.

  6. morewire Says:

    The kid that Omar held at gunpoint was his brother, (the soon-to-be “No Heart”) Anfernee.

  7. Shoals Says:

    I know. As in, “Omar’s honor = surplus of heart = karmic explanation for his might.” Priceless!

  8. jetsetjunta Says:

    Shoals and I were talking about this a bit last night before he posted, but I wonder who put these shorts together, who wrote them, directed them, supervised them. This is in large part because I want to say something like “Simon, Burns et al are probably groaning over these too” but I’m concerned about biting my tongue clean off should it come through that these were indeed organic, sanctioned pieces grown out from the show’s venerable braintrusts. I’m also not of the opinion that the show doesn’t have a robust sense of humor – sometimes dark sometimes slapstick sometimes pure wit – but saying something along the lines of “it’s these kinds of corny tv-land conventions that the creative minds behind this series have, at every turn, attempted to stand above” feels like it doesn’t force everyone into a no-laughs corner of self-seriousness. It also occured to me that with the strike and all, these may have been written by scabs, which would of course be a deeply ironic twist, but that’s silly. These were likely produced months ago, and it’s just another sign of my totally out-of-control paranoia. oh well. would have been great fodder!

  9. Ben Guest Says:

    I read somewhere (God knows where) that Simon produced them during the last week of shooting…

  10. jetsetjunta Says:

    see there we are. tongue = cleaved.

  11. Doug Says:

    Agree with pretty much everything here….the shorts do not work precisely because they are self-serving. It was kind of embarrassing to watch, to tell the truth.

  12. Owen Parker Says:

    The shorts are not up to the standard of the series. Could they be? I don’t think any 2 minute clip could possibly rival an episode, let alone a season of the show. I think criticising them on the grounds of this comparison is redundant.

    I approached them with regard to similar material I’ve seen for Big Love, The Kill Point and Battlestar Galactica. As promotional vignettes I think they work well. Certainly I think the decision to shoot prequels is preferable to the promotional materials many other shows have produced where minor characters have expanded storylines crowbarred around the plot of other episodes.

    The original post calls the idea of the prequels “stupendous”. I can’t say I thought it was that interesting; its a promotional device. To clarify; I think the idea of a prequel story is interesting but that is not this idea. I think this idea was to produce short clips that sit outside the storyline of the show and can be distributed to help generate buzz and discussion about the forthcoming final series. On those terms the existence of this discussion makes the clips a success. I think its a testament to the series as a whole that we’re discussing the artistic merit of the adverts!

    Going back to the suggestion of a prequel series – this would either have to be firmly focused on a select group of characters or would require a lot of artifice to have characters interacting who will then have no contact for decades. I’m not sure that would be a positive addition to the story here even if it followed the former template.

    I enjoyed the prequel clips and they certainly are giving me an outlet for my anticipation for the last 10 episodes. They were definitely flawed – The Proposition Joe one in particular felt jarring. However, I don’t think either the McNulty and Bunk or Omar shorts were as far removed from the themes of the show as the original post suggests. I definitely felt a little disappointed in Bunk and McNulty for their dereliction of duty and McNulty’s smug relation of his career to date belies the flaws that will guide his later story – both elements reminded me of the experience of watching this character in the show proper. Omar’s situation immediately recalled the lost childhood of characters like Wallace, Bodie and Michael for me.

    I disagree that these shorts are designed to show the essence of any of these characters – the insight they provide is extremely limited and requires a lot of prior knowledge from the viewer to mean anything at all. Is the essence of McNulty that he is arrogant and drinks? Surely this character is more than this restricted picture. I cannot see the evidence of the “Romantic” storytelling style presuming that McNulty already knows himself that the writer describes. Similarly for Omar – a more self assured and self aware adult version would not have committed and then overturned the robbery. I can’t see simplicity or innocence in this scene.

    However, I’m not sure I fully understand the writers thinking in the third and fourth paragraph. To me innocence and the idea of self awareness throughout life being deterred by external (societal) forces are opposites of one another but seem to be presented here as the same thing. The writer questions when innocence became part of this show. I think there has been innocence from the beginning – one of major tragedies of the first season stems from the loss of innocence that Wallace, Bodie and Poot face and while these characters are far from innocent in many ways glimpses of their childishness are present throughout.

    The prequels are doomed to fail if your expectation is for something comparable to the series as a whole in under 2 minutes. Likewise they will disappoint if your expectation is for each to encapsulate a character and reveal more of their past with depth and insight. However, taken as a lighthearted teaser for the forthcoming series I found much to like in them and I was pleasantly surprised by the (albeit limited) depth I found in two of them.

    I also wonder who was responsible for producing, writing and directing these clips. Especially given that each clip requires the casting of new actors (albeit bit players for the McNulty and Bunk one) which seems a lot of effort for such limited usage. It was also gratifying to see “No Heart” Anthony on screen. I’d like to point out that Omar did not put his gun on his brother but the older boy that accompanied them – at the end of the clip the boy tells Anthony that Omar is not cut out for their line of work. I wondered on youtube who the third boy was and was met with the suggestion that he could be John Bailey – Omar’s fellow stick-up artist from season 1 – which I thought was a stretch, but interesting.

    I think I’ve now written more than the original post so probably should stop writing!

  13. brent Says:

    I think you’re all circling around the answer. The difference between the clips and the show itself is a matter of structure, not specifically content or execution.

    Characterization in the series is normally flawless because characterization is secondary to story. The drug game is important. The corners are important. The people (plural) are important, but in the world of The Wire, the person (singular) is of lesser value. I think the great gift of Simon/Burns/et al is to look at things holistically, not worrying about why one character gets more screen time and not stopping to spell each character’s motivation. They aren’t completists – they’re master story tellers.

    These promotional clips flip that precise focus on story. These exist only to provide further background on character for the pure purpose of building character. That does not happen on the series. People come. People go. As we’re all very aware at this point, The Wire isn’t trying to be a standard TV show. It’s something else.

    I think this is why everybody seems so uneasy. It’s not hard to imagine these moments in these characters’ lives. But on the series, story drives characters, not the other way around. In these clips, we don’t have our Baltimore stories to fall back on. All we have is character. And for The Wire, that’s downright bizarre.

    I say enjoy the clips for what they are. You’ll never get this on the show.

  14. Shoals Says:

    That says part of what I was saying better than I did. These shorts imagine these characters, in their most distilled form, away from any narrative world we know. That’s weird, since characters in The Wire are jumbled and determined by events around them. If anything, the narrative is the absolute in shaping them, not some tidy version of what they stand for.

  15. christycash Says:

    dudes, dudes, respectfully! these clips are totally just FOR FUN. i really don’t think we’re supposed to be taking them as SERIOUSLY as all this. and yes, i know, as a blog, we traffic in the serious. i don’t think these are supposed to show us *anything* about character development or background or anything. i think this is Simon & co. fooling around, having fun, and knowing that fans will enjoy a little teaser to get back in the spirit of the show before the season starts. let’s save our serious hats for, you know, stuff that’s serious…

  16. christycash Says:

    I meant to add that the very fact that they are on amazon is evidence of my point. but it also introduces a new point, which is, i’m surprised that amazon would put videos with profanity right there where little kids can find them. i would have thought it would have been a more “family friendly” website.

  17. Mr. Six Says:

    I can’t agree with you on this one, Shoals.

    I find the prequels pretty much in line with what you and brent just described as part of the essential nature of The Wire. Whereas, any other show would have made this kind of short to expand on the character, the creators of The Wire know that they’ve already told you everything can and will ever know about who they are. So instead, the prequels offer you more story, not more character. I really enjoyed seeing a fresh example of the Jimmy McNulty arrogance that got this whole thing rolling; how a man born to make a deal expressed that as a kid; and how a spirit like Omar’s would have fared in the fourth season.

    Plus, I liked a lot of the small details snuck into them. Prop Joe went to private school. Omar already had that scar when he was that young. Jimmy became murder police because the PD did something right in the wrong way. There’s quite a bit packed into each of them.

  18. Shoals Says:

    That Jimmy detail was kind of rad, I’ll grant you. Again, though, I didn’t like the feeling that these were defining moments that have since faded.

    I didn’t think Prop Joe was in private school.

  19. Mark Says:

    Anything short of the new season would probably be a disappointment for all of us patient fans. But yeah, these seemed really out of the typical Wire element. Someone has probably already mentioned this, but these are so clearly only meant as advertisements for the show.

  20. Shoals Says:

    Why didn’t someone call me out for writing “foster home” when I meant “group home?”

  21. jetsetjunta Says:

    see, this is what makes me uneasy:

    “We set the bar with ‘Big Love’ last year,” Malhotra said. “It was really an incredible test for us to evolve our marketing to storytelling (and) multiplatform marketing.”

    but whatever. game recognize game, or something.

  22. Tito Landrum Says:

    I agree with christycash. I believe these were just meant to be fun.

  23. JON Says:

    I think these were just meant to be fun. But on a more philosophical level, not sure if Simon meant for us to get this into these shorts, but the basic character, outlook, and attitude towards life is formed very young in every person. The remainder of our lives is spent conforming to or fighting these traits, whether consciously or unconsciously.
    Like that first scene when Michael and Marlo come face to face. Michael can still go either way, he can become part of the game, or he can leave it, either way he is a force to be reckoned with. Marlo can see that this is a determined kid who will become important in whatever field he chooses.
    Prop Joe was always a salesman, McNulty was always an arrogant prick, and Omar was always the criminal with a code of honor.
    Prop Joe could have become Clay Davis or Comm. Burrell, if he hadn’t found the street.
    We’ve all run into a McNulty in every job we’ve been in.
    And Omar, well none of has probably ever met anyone quite like Omar.

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