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.