The Accidental Native

It goes without saying that The Wire is a show proud of its insider authority. If there is such a thing as “realistic” in television, this is it—down to the slightest detail, the show tries to make itself resonate with the people it’s based on. Sometimes this takes the form of subtle touches, other times it’s about references or gags that only an insider would get. And yes, I equate a regional sensibility with “insider,” even if there’s usually a populist/elitist divide that springs up there. Take anything colorfully regional outside of its element and, in today’s cultural climate, it very quickly becomes a sought-after commodity.

For viewers, this aspect of the show is part of what makes it so engrossing. Plenty of folks look upon it as some form of exoticism, whether we’re talking cops, robbers, or pols, and whether race or region are even the main point. The back room dealings of city government are, for most of us, unfamiliar and mysterious. Feeling that The Wire isn’t trying to translate them into outsider-speak both alienates and attracts us. Again, the show’s exclusivity gives it a kind of credibility that more accessible programs lack. It’s not just a justification, or an excuse—it’s the thought that rings in your head through every second of the show.

Of course, the show’s triumph comes in its ability to make us understand, to pinpoint the universal, etc. And yet there’s a third part of viewer-dom that’s rarely discussed: Our desire to feel “down”. Hell, the very existence of the show was, until last season, this kind of cult phenomenon. The assumption being that to know The Wire was to in some way belong to its orbit. For sure, there are fans of the show who didn’t need to synthesize this effect, and respond, maybe even defiantly, to art that acknowledges them and treats them like human beings. But it’s been said (more or less) that the show’s audience consists of two kinds of people: Drug dealers and fancy critics. And any time there’s race and class involved, especially when it’s related to the outlaw life, there’s going to be appropriation.

Whenever I read a review that riffed on the character’s “impenetrable, slang-laden dialogue,” I’d think to myself “not for me!” Of course, all that changed when Snoop showed up, but I digress. While this is most true for the street side of things, it’s remarkable how much this holds for other realms. Bunk and Jimmy make cop buddy-dom into something enviable, and Norman makes me want to rethink my career choice. It’s dangerous to utter these words so close to a show known as unflinching and pessimistic, but about half the characters succeed in making themselves—and their line of work—vaguely heroic. Or at least something we can secretly aspire to.

Will this happen with the news room? Too soon to call, obviously. The real Baltimore Sun seems to think not; as someone who has in the past written for a collapsing Knight-Ridder paper, I might not be in the best position to judge, either. A journalism mentor of mine once said he enjoyed Shattered Glass because it made deadlines and fact-checking into high drama; there was something perversely exciting about that, but I don’t know if I’d want it displacing the fantasy posed by Marlo or McNulty.

Maybe it has to do with the content—there’s really not much romance left in daily journalism, even from afar. Even saving bright minds in inner city schools has more aura to it. Writing for The Atlantic, Mark Bowden suggests that Simon’s visceral rage (or “vindictiveness”) might get the best of him here; I could certainly see that standing in the way of his more darkly rhapsodic touch. A flying duck told me once that over-eager satire is the enemy of literature.

Or maybe it’s just that, for the first time, I don’t get to play the game of penetrating someone else’s world. For once, the show’s speaking to me.

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7 Comments on “The Accidental Native”

  1. anonymous Says:

    Something to consider in weaving the Atlantic piece into any further contemplation:

    Bowden’s essay argues that who Simon is and what he experienced at the Baltimore Sun — and his emotions about same — will misinform the Wire rather than inform it. Perhaps. But what’s good for the goose is good for that gander. If Simon’s work is to be evaluated on the basis of an ad hominem assessment then consider:

    Mark Bowden is a career-long colleague of the two editors that Simon has openly and consistently expressed his low regard for, John Carroll and Bill Marimow. Indeed, Bowden was recently hired by Marimow for a gig as a columnist at the Philly Inquirer. Similarly, Bowden’s book was given a glowing review by the very reporter that Simon openly accused of fabricating stories — and being sanctioned and defended by Marimow and Carroll — at the Sun. More recently, Bowden blurbed that reporter’s book.

    Ad hominems are seldom the best way to be objective about anything, and it’s entirely possible that Bowden’s arguments are unaffected by his allegiances and employment. And perhaps his assessment of Simon’s anger is precise. But if subjected to the same analysis-by-ad-hominem as Bowden attempts on The Wire, how is his Atlantic essay to be regarded?

  2. anonymous Says:

    At first blush, the focus of Season 5 didn’t seem like it would be the one that engendered the most frenzied damage control and wagon circling, you’d think the cops or the unions or the school system would be the ones loudly proclaiming Simon a dirty, dirty liar, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the media were the ones who would freak the fuck out over Simon’s fictitious but informed by experience depiction of the newsroom. The Sun’s attempt at loudly proclaiming “nuh uh!” was some weak ass cheese, to be sure, but it might have suceeded in muddying the waters a bit and damaged the credibility of the show with a few people. The Atlantic piece sounds like it’s much more transparent of a hitjob, and possibly more strenuous in its objections, but it’s telling that the first real challenge to the credibility of the show comes from the one institution that has come under Simon’s microscope that should be embracing it rather than trying to keep it at arm’s length.

  3. Ty Keenan Says:

    I’ve always assumed the show is mostly “real” for the reasons that Shoals gives regarding how the actual people react to the show, but the particulars of that reality have to be different. For instance, the Major Crimes meetings have always struck me as a little fake — not because they had to explain progress to Daniels, but because the people who were working on the case together (all good police) had to explain basic protocol and such to each other. And maybe that’s how it really happens, but they felt to much like exposition to me. Those narrative concerns are too often forgotten when people talk about this show, I think. For me, the insiderness mostly functions as a way to let me accept the reality of this world instead of spending most of my time analyzing narrative structure (which I of course do anyway because I’m wired that way).

    Right now, I don’t see much of a difference between Rawls and the Sun editors. If you watch the first few episodes of S1, Rawls is basically a gaping asshole; the depth only really came later (particularly in the hospital speech, which is still probably one of my favorite things in the history of the show). I’m willing to give Simon and Co. the benefit of the doubt, but I do hope his biases don’t affect the characterization this time.

  4. Shoals Says:

    It is a little suspicious that Season Five is catching shit when, to me, Season Four certainly had some “flaws”. And yet that was carried through town as television’s greatest achievement ever.

  5. jetsetjunta Says:

    I think something we will need to tackle, especially in these first weeks while the media explosion is bound to be hitting hardest, is how the dialogue has altered over the course of the series, from a few critical voices touting the awesomeness of the underdog show to more and more word-of-mouth to a quite large critical embrace last season to the inevitable (but rather late in the game) backlash we seem to be seeing lately. Partly this could be true enough in terms of things getting carried in directions not expressly kosher with the show to date (even I get tired of hearing Simon trotting out the same spiel over and over, however true and necessary his message is at heart, so if this season feels a bit more granstand-ey than prior seasons I won’t be too shocked), but part of this is having something to say other than whatagreatshow and part of it is also the certainly overstated assertions that the show is totally “real” and that it aspires to be anything but the product of artists making art.
    I like to kick around the Sopranos but that show never had to defend its placement in the pantheon of social commentary, because it never got accused of trying to make much in the way of social commentary, but when the whole point of the show is holding up a mirror to American life, politics, social dynamics, race relations, and criminality in a serious, and damning way, it’s kind of amazing there haven’t been more voices crying foul (which has been said here in terms of unions, education folks, local pols not acting up like the crybabies at the Sun).
    Then again, writers love to bellyache about being misrepresented almost as much as they like to misrepresent, and I say that as a writer.
    Anyway, I don’t think anyone who likes this show would like it if it pulled punches, and I don’t expect that this season will do so. Resistance is not valuable without some intelligence, but this show’s always had both, and I don’t expect Simon’s personal anger is really going to cloud good serious commentary on how the media operates any more than Burn’s anger (and I’m sure he’s got some) could cloud his takes on police work.
    Also no one has talked about Herc yet. The malignancy of stupidity, underqualification, and greed personified, he may be more over the line on those items than many characters, but he represents something at work in all these systems, and goes toward explaining HOW things fall apart, which is more than the empty woe is us feel some people seem to think Simon is preaching.

  6. Ty Keenan Says:

    It might just seem that there’s more backlash from newspapers than from the other institutions because, well, journalists have access to outlets for their dissatisfaction that union reps and policemen do not. I seem to remember some employees of Baltimore making similar claims on one of HBO’s pre-S4 specials, so I doubt that everyone was hunky-dory with how they were portrayed. It’s just that the real Frank Sobotka (or Rawls, or whoever) can’t easily write an article and have it published in a major newspaper as a preview of the upcoming season. Plus, the show hasn’t really ever been popular enough to make the outrage of dock workers a news story.

  7. Sahu Says:

    here is a piece from the news hour on PBS today about the wire….

    [audio src="http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rss/redir/http://www-tc.pbs.org/newshour/rss/media/2008/01/02/20080102_wire28.mp3" /]

    right now they only the the audio not sure if they add video after the tv airing.


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