Friday, December 19, 2008

Life Imitates Art Folder

We've had quite a bit of life imitating art imitating life recently. First, Aaron Sorkin models his West Wing character "Josh Lymon" off of Rahm Emanuel, a political fire eater in the Clinton White House. Then the West Wing's Matt Santos (modeled off Barack Obama) "wins" the next election over "western state centrist Republican (aka John McCain)" Arnie Vinnick. Santos appoints Lymon as his Chief of Staff. Who does Obama appoint a couple years after The West Wing has been canceled? Rahm Emanuel, of course.

The Wire has spawned numerous life imitates art situations, most of which appear on the Baltimore Crime Blog. But Illinois Governor "Hot Rod" Blagojevich blatently stole from Simon's character Clay Davis today in a press conference in which he dramatically announced:
"I'm here to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing, that I intend to stay on the job, and I will fight this thing every step of the way. I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath."
Like the fictional Maryland Congressman, Blagojevich blamed "a political lynch mob" with all the insinuations that come with mentioning such a mob: hysteria, discrimination, and swift (in)justice without due process. Perhaps we would be more convinced if the "mob" wasn't made up of a well-respected Federal AG and the evidence wasn't a four year+ investigation, wiretap quotes, and corroborating testimony from Blago goons.

And remember Clay Davis reaching back to the past to appropriate some history and literature for his own uses. Carrying Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound into the courtroom, he explains the work by A-see-lee-us:
"It's an ancient play, of the oldest we have. It's about a simple man who was horrifically punished by the powers that be for the terrible crime of trying to bring light to the people."
Blago has his own version:

"Rudyard Kipling wrote, If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you and make allowance for their doubting, too; if you can wait and not be tired by waiting; or being lied about, don't deal in lies; or being hated, don't give way to hating.

Now, I know there are some powerful forces arrayed against me. It's kind of lonely right now.

But I have on my side the most powerful ally there is, and it's the truth."

Give that man an Oscar. And fifteen years in the federal pokey.

Via New Package:

Melissa Harris-Lacewell recommends viewing The Wire to learn more about the current crisis. Cop the last minute on the video.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Politics of the Wire

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who rocks, has a post on whether The Wire can be viewed as a "conservative" show. He thinks that by the end it's just nihilistic, but I don't things are so bad. Repetitive yes, but nihilistic? Those are some strong words. In the words of Walter Souchek: "Nihilists! I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."

His post had quite a bit of discussion. Nice to see that The Wire can still generate some passion. Here's my comment:

Wow, it's great to see this much discussion on The Wire long after the end of the show (and Generation Kill). When is Simon's next project up?

I really don't think The Wire can be a blank slate on which anyone can project their own political slant. And I definitely don't think you can argue that TW is conservative at heart.

In my opinion Season 4 is the biggest argument against a conservative idea that in America, anyone who really sets their mind to it and works hard can rise to great heights. The four boys showed they had many skills to offer society, and the desire to do so, yet only one- Namond has a chance to attend college and leave West Baltimore.

Similarly, libertarians rejoiced when Bunny Colvin legalized drugs in Hamsterdam. Yet, this wasn't the freedom from government that makes up the libertarian utopia. It was merely new regulations about where people could or could not sell drugs. Nothing was utopian about Hamsterdam.

Simon attacked unions in season 2. The Democrats' longest running interest group could not stem the tide of capitalism and deindustrialization.

And don't even get Simon started on centrist politicians. Other commenters have mentioned the false hope embodied in Carcetti's New Day or the thinly disguised corrupt political machine operated by Clay Davis. Simon couldn't even muster up much vocal support for Obama in various interviews. His view on politics was that "I think it is actually a little bit overly moneyed and broken."

Nor can we say the show is leftist, though I believe that if Simon lands anywhere on the spectrum this is the place.

Ultimately, I think the show doesn't accommodate all these political views because reality accommodates all political views. Rather, the show accommodates none of these views because reality can't be seen through Republican or Democrat glasses. It's messy but beautiful, and that's The Wire's brilliance.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Wire: The Scholarly Book

I just wanted to throw this out right now because the due date is June 9 (Edit: I found June 16 on another version of the announcement) and it seems very cool. A collection of essays on different (scholarly) aspects of the Wire. Very neat idea. Apply for it! I know I will, although I feel a little (a lot) out of my league. It's from literary/philosophy scholars, so I just don't know how their world works (um, is an abstract the same as history abstracts?). I'll go ahead and assume it is. Here is some of the announcement:

Please send a 500-word abstract or completed essay (4,000-6,000 words), plus a brief biographical statement (or c.v.), as e-mail attachments (in Word or as a Rich Text File) to both of the editors:

Tiffany Potter (
C.W. Marshall (
Deadline for abstract submission: 9 June 2008.

It's very strange that Canadian academics are writing about this (before Americans, no?). I'm also a bit surprised that I hadn't heard of it in the normal interweb avenues of Wire-fandom or my normal academic avenues (although I guess that's because it's English/literary/philosophy and not History/Social Science).

Here's the website I found it on:

and another with some commentary on this style and Continuum books who are publishing it

And an interview with the bo0k's editors who just published another book on Battle Star Galactica and Philosophy

Yay... scholarly Wire-ness!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Episode 5 - The Pager

First off, a quick apology for missing a day. I have had a few visitors in my apartment all this week, some less announced than others (Dave), but all were great guests and a lot of fun. Unfortunately, less time for wire watching/writing. Don't worry (all two of you), I'll be caught up today and this weekend.


Episode 5 - The Pager
In the opening scene, Avon grows increasingly paranoid about the police (or perhaps this is his daily M.O.). He even asks that a girlfriend's phone be removed after getting a phone call with no one on the line. Not without good reason as his nephew's pager gets cloned and tracked that day. Avon didn't rise to his position by being careless.

"...a little slow, a little late."-Avon Barksdale
Avon ruminates on the fragility of life, because he thinks that everyone is out to get him (and many are). Similar to Bubble's quote in the previous episode, the here today, gone tomorrow quality of the drug game come out in full force as Omar's crew both get killed in separate incidents.

"Seem like some shit just stay with you..."-D'Angelo Barksdale
"You got money, you get to be whatever you say."-Donette
This little interaction in an expensive Baltimore restaurant exposes how Dee feels illegitimate. It resonates with another scene from Season 4, but again shows that D'Angelo made from different cloth than his uncle. I think this gets at the importance of reputation in his world. On the street, people are immediately judged by their position and reputation. In this fancy restaurant you are judged by whether or not you can pay, as Donette points out.


This episode is called "The pager" because the device itself plays such an important role for the Barksdale organization and the police (especially in the final episodes). You could also consider Wallace the "pager" as he gets the crew of shooters to take care of Brandon.

Simon plays up the influence of surveillance and "big brother" in this episode (especially the final scene) more than in any previously. The clicking of the wire tap computers and the pay phones seems dehumanizing, as if the pagers themselves are killing Brandon (the viewer only sees numbers logged on computers, not the actual torture and murder of the kid). It's a pretty powerful scene for mostly including the beeps of technology punctuated by very short sentences and 12 second conversations. But at the end, we sense the slight sense of regret on the faces of Wallace and D'Angelo. Including Wee Bey's creepy clicking of handcuffs, it's an intensely human scene because they are about to snuff out a life. 'Tween Heaven and Here, indeed.

Episode 4 - Old Cases

"Between Heaven and Here"

The opening scene provides just a little taste of how the members of the detail work with each other. They each think the desk should be pushed a certain way and end up pushing against one another. They'll never have a chance with Barksdale at this rate.

Bubbs: "Thin line between heaven and here."

This line brings the show into a different context. Bubbs reminds McNulty that suburban soccer and the projects occupy the same city. In fact, it's a thin line between life and death as well, a theme which manifests more in later episodes with Wallace, Kima, Brandon, and others finding out how quickly life comes and goes.

Also featuring the infamous "fuck" scene between McNulty and Bunk. I don't know if you credit Simon's writing or the acting more, but incredible nonetheless. It's also some damn fine po-lice work. I don't have a problem with profanity, but some of the show's critics didn't appreciate it. Whatever.

I particularly enjoyed re-watching another scene: Herc and Carver's raid of Bodie's grandma's place. She seems utterly unfazed by two of Baltimore's finest fighting a war on drugs- the "western" way. This scene impressed me in a few ways. At the beginning, it's a classic "CSI" raid, but then The Wire does things a little differently and the audience learns more about Preston 'Bodie' Broadus. He's always been an angry person. His mother was an addict. While Bodie is a criminal, Simon shows that his "game" is rigged. The raid also shows how the drug war effects those not specifically in the drug industry. A fact Simon wanted to get across.

Though we don't come away feeling pity for Bodie, Simon gives a glimpse into his humanity. In the context of Season 3 and 4, this little scene fills out Bodie's character and gives him a past. It also starts a love-hate relationship with Herc and Carver (well, continues it in a more personal way) that lasted 4 seasons and got progressively deeper and more complex as all 3 "grew up" in different ways.

The pace of the episode was quick with several important events: reviewing the old homocide cases, Polk and Mahone's shenanigans, the decision to clone pagers, Avon putting a bounty on Omar and his crew, and D's tale of murder to the low rise hoppers.

One final note on this tale. By juxtaposing Dee having to tell everyone that he's a hard gangsta with Bubble's intimate knowledge of Omar's nature (without Omar going around shouting his story from the rooftops), we get another theme that becomes very important in season 4 and 5. Your name and reputation. It's one of those things that if you gotta tell someone- you don't have it. Omar and Wee Bey got it. Dee doesn't (despite having murdered two people). In an environment of such economic poverty, reputation takes on an expanded importance (in the Cop Shop, Freamon's reputation did not precede him).

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Episode 3 - The Buys

The most important aspect of this episode is its increasingly dismal treatment of Institutions. The title refers to the constant buying and selling of "favors", "suction", and "owe-you-ones" in order to accomplish real police work within the Department administration. Who you know and how they like you is far more important than how smart or how good at police work you are .

Of course, the title also refers to the "Buys" of drugs made by Sydnor. The police have some success in making hand-to-hands, but as soon as the bosses get word of it, they decide to use the info and raid the projects. This will start the investigation back at ground zero (because they don't have enough info to roll low level players higher than the street), but this is what the bosses want.

"The King Stay the King"

This episode also features Dee teaching Wallace and Bodie how to play chess. It's one of those great moments, like the Chicken Nugget scene, that Wire fans love and remember. Bodie thinks that if the pawn gets to the end, it wins. Dee reminds him- "the King stay the King." The lesson here is that institutions don't run on a system of merit, and it's actually impossible to rise to the very top (only become the Queen, aka Stringer Bell's position).


Like the other early episodes, this one is important for characterization. It introduces Cool Lester Freamon as more than the dude who paints doll furniture. Lester solves the mystery of Barksdale's photo by checking out a friend's boxing gym. He also writes down a phone number in the suspected, but now empty, stash house.This is also the first episode where McNulty learns that Kima is a lesbian. There have been many who lauded Simon for including more than a token homosexual character, and I have to agree that Simon does a good job of including the issue of homosexuality without highlighting it artificially.

Finally, Simon introduces another homosexual character in this episode. Omar and his crew check out the low rises and are not impressed. They later rob the stash house (and blow off a knee cap just for good measure) again proving that Dee is not a real gangster like Wee Bey. The introduction of Omar is not overly flashy, but he would become such an important and fascinating character that it's noteworthy.


This episode is directed by a different director, Peter Medak. Medak is not a famous director, and it seems he defers to Simon's style without too much of his own touch (I'm sure its there, I just couldn't recognize the similarities between The Wire and Zorro: The Gay Blade. The hand-held buy scenes are some of my favorite, visually. You know... that "verite" style. Most of the scenes in the low rises just look beautiful for a reason I can't put into words. Very open, yet poverty is so evident. The orange couch is quite a throne on which D'Angelo sits. I also like how Simon juxtaposes McNulty and the drug crew at the late moments of the night. Simon shows that The Wire is about more than the actual game of cat and mouse between the two, or the business of the drug war (Stringer Bell: "This shit is forever, Dee"), but about how we live together in cities. More tomorrow.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Episode 2 - The Detail

"You cannot lose if you do not play"

This episode focuses on members of the narcotics-homocide task force assembled to take down the Barksdale operation. If we're talking about action- well, on the surface not a whole lot happens this episode. McNulty and the Bunk bring in D'Angelo for questioning and he writes a letter to "the children" of William Gant (he has no children) saying that he is sorry for the murder and wishes he could have stopped it. Several members of the detail also show up at the tower late at night to "conduct field interviews." These go pretty poorly and the final result is Herc and Carver end up hurt, Prez half-blinds a kid.

But the most important part of this episode is how it drives character. I'll discuss three events that have a resonance far beyond their relevance to the season's plot arc. These include the couch discussion about chicken nuggets, Bubbles hat trick, and the Barksdale church barbecue.

The Chicken nugget story is a favorite for many Wire fans. In this scene, Dee, Wallace, and Bodie are sitting on the orange couch, as is their normal position. Wallace thinks Chicken nuggets are the bees knees and that their inventor must be raking it in. Dee doubts this and opines that the inventor is just another contract worker for McDonalds. He's in the basement of some building working hard to make the fries taste better. Like the three of them, he's working so that the owners of the company can make a ton of money. Marx might call them the "proletariat," but I don't need to outline this well known capitalist critique as it relates to the American myth. The little story also shows that Dee is no fool, he knows his place but tries to rise above it. He's also schooling Wallace and Bodie in a strange way. The orange couch is a weird classroom, but iconic and effective nonetheless.

Bubbles also shows that dope fiends can be clever and compassionate. He impresses McNulty with his "hat trick." While Kima snaps pictures, Bubs tries to sell hats to the dealers. He puts a red hat on the players, regular hats on people of little or no importance. This provides names and faces for several of the players who go on the large corkboard. Besides using the clever trick and impressing McNulty, Bubbs disproves some of the myths about addicts. The media represents addicts as unfeeling beings who only care about their drug of choice and do anything to score for it. While they often will go to great lengths for the drug, this does not make them any less human. Bubbs cares about his friend Johnny and his "police" work is personal, not for the money (or the drugs it will buy).

The third bit of interesting characterization happens at barbecue sponsored by the Barksdales. On first glance, this could be any barbecue held on Sunday in a church basement. But this one was organized by the Barksdale crime organization, who had killed a man the day before just to send a message that snitching would be answered with murder. Avon Barksdale, who'd ordered the hit, was all class, helping prepare the food himself, asking about Dee's kid, and telling Donnette, Dee's wife, that she needed to get some ribs because she was too skinny. Avon and Stringer, two very evil men, also had a softer side in which they "put family first."

These three events mark the show as radically different from other cop shows. This is a show from the dealers and users perspectives, not just the cops. Not all drug dealers are the same, Dee is a somewhat reluctant gangster even if he's willing to kill. Bubbs is an addict who will pull any scam to get his fix, but he definitely has a sense of right and wrong which goes beyond his sickness (addiction). Even Avon and Stringer (ostensibly) have motivations beyond money.

On the flip side, several of the cops are characterized in a different way. Herc, Carver, and Prezbo are seen as the bad guys- beating on citizens who had done nothing to them, yet having no remorse for it. McNulty and Daniels don't trust each other. Finally, Freamon, Foerster, and Polk are basically worthless as police. Definitely an interesting characterization against the grain of traditional cop shows. The cops are not all good, and the bad guys not all bad.

Visually, Clark Johnson continued using the hand held camera in the projects to great effect. The instability of the 2am terrace fight makes it much more exciting. In including The Guess Who's "American Woman" leading up to this fight, Simon is sending an interesting message as the song was originally written as an anti-war tune.


In one of the final scenes, Daniels eats dinner with his wife Marla (could she be a female version of Marlo?? All ambition, little regard for relationships besides what they can bring her. Probably not... but we'll see). She tells him not to take the case seriously because the bosses don't take it seriously. If Daniels wants to advance, he should follow what the bosses want and not worry about solving the case. If you don't play the game, which is rigged, you can't lose. This could apply to the drug game as well. If Gant hadn't testified (played the game), he wouldn't have lost his life. But this has another side, in West Baltimore, the drug game is so pervasive that even someone who does nothing with drugs eventually witnesses something and has to speak up. Bodie and Wallace have to join because they've got no other path to take coming from the low rises.

Although this episode does not advance the plot significantly, it does build upon the multitude of characters introduced in the Pilot. The two institutions are being sketched out, character by character. Simon is building a house and all the pieces matter. More tomorrow!

Season 1 Episode 1 - The Target

Scene opens with a pan up a trail of blood and flashing lights to a dead body.

This is the opening of what some have called the greatest drama of this decade, or the greatest television show ever, or the angriest show on television, or... you get the point. A lot of people who watched it, think it's pretty darn good.

The opening scene sets the up a show that definitely breaks the mold of "cop show." We get the story of snotboogie, a citizen of Baltimore who has a greed for money which ultimately kills him. It's a tragic tale which elicits more questions than answers for McNulty, the assigned homocide detective. How'd he get the name snot? Who killed him? Why'd they even let him play the weekend dice game, when he snatched pot every time it got big. Those assembled would customarily beat him up except this time. McNulty does find out why they let him play: "You got to. This is America."

The opening story sets up some of the show's ultimate themes, like the brutality of the city, "games," and the false opportunity of America's myths. These might be a bit pretentious for a cop show- but remember "It's not TV. It's HBO." The opening also provides a compelling (true) story about human life, and one which likely never made it into the paper. If Simon is a journalist, then this is the human interest story on A1 of the West Baltimore Sun. And the story is one of the many true tales which Simon and Ed Burns introduce from their experiences in the institutions of Baltimore.

The opening also never features into the overall narrative. At all. In TV world, the pilot (which this basically is) must provide all of the necessary backstory, introduce the main characters, and make an argument for filming episodes 2-13. Apparently snotboogie's story didn't help this because HBO initially declined to pick up The Wire. It later would authorize the show after Simon's begging letter convinced them.

"...when it's not your turn"

After the credits (also worth discussion on another day), we find ourselves in the courtroom. In the case of D'Angelo Barksdale, the jury found the defendant innocent even though he was guilty as sin. This was another example of witness intimidation by the Barksdale crew. But the interaction between String and McNulty shows that, no hard feelings, this is just business.

Back to an unidentified block and Kima, Herc, and Carver introduce themselves. Kima is cool, calm, and all business. Herc and Carver play the role of beat'em down, take no prisoners, "the Western District way" cops. This is a successful narcotics bust- reminiscent of typical cops shows, but fairly small time stuff.

Back to the Barksdale court room for the jury's decision- innocent. Then onto the Judge's chambers where McNulty begins discussing Barksdale, the real Barksdale, Avon. This is one place where the opening quote, "...when it ain't your turn" applies. McNulty could play dumb and not stir up trouble with Judge Phalen, but instead he tells him about Barksdale's power and success in the towers. If this were a Greek Tragedy, it would be that one act by the protagonist which leads the gods to strike him down in Act III. Later in the episode, we get another example of a small act with long term consequences. When McNulty tells Sargent Jay Landsman where he doesn't want to go, the boat, it surprises no one that McNulty eventually ends up here.

I particularly like some of the exchanges, including:

McNulty: Think about clearing the court?
Phalen: On what basis? It's an open court, a free nation of laws.
McNulty: I thought it was Baltimore.

This sets up a theme that Baltimore is not the same as "America," at least as America considers itself (which I've written on).

Later, the Bunk decides to answer his phone (even though it wasn't his turn) after hearing a body was found indoors- unfortunately it turns out to be a vacant. This little turn is an example of the realism that Simon tries to bring to the show. According to the DVD commentary, every detective in the country knows why Bunk prays for the indoor body because he has a much greater possibility of solving the case.

Up to this point the show has introduced four different cases in rapid fire, none of which have much importance (the Gant case being the exception). In the world of network procedurals, this would be a big no-no. But it soon becomes The Wire's bread and butter.

The episodes also introduces my blog's namesake, Bubbles. He's a happy
go lucky dope fiend with the skills to successfully hustle his daily
fix, but he's also a teacher. He's trying to "school" his new white
friend name Johnny. When Johnny fails at the fake money scam and gets
beaten within an inch of his life- Bubbles decides he will turn on the
Barksdale crew. This is another example of how "all the pieces matter."
A theme which will be discussed more in later episodes.

One other theme, that would achieve larger significance is how institutions function. AKA "shit rolls downhill." The narcotics crew makes note of this, but you don't get it in full until McNulty and Dee get reamed out by their respective bosses. Both McNulty and Dee get "punished" for their errors in judgement. we also learn about "chain of command" from Major Rawls, Burrell, and Lieutenant Daniels.

The episode closes with what will become a well known feature- Bunk and McNulty's drunken bullshit sessions by the railroad tracks. Bunk tells another true story, this one about Bunk shooting a mouse with his service nine. More importantly, McNulty almost gets run over by a train. A symbol that I have also discussed on numerous examples. This is an instance when the symbol, representing the institutions of Baltimore, comes closest to rolling over McNulty in reality. But in a symbolic sense, the episode shows how Baltimore's cop shop is slowly massing against him.


In plot and theme, the show is a far cry from "the cop show," even at this early episode. But in the show's look and feel as well, it's a very different world. This episode, directed by Clark Johnson, used a very gritty and real style, favoring hand-held shots, wide angles, and footage from natural sources (like security camaras). As many have said, it's a world where we all are increasingly being listened to and watched. But in the show's music it also treads some fresh ground for TV. All music must come from natural sources- car stereos, boom boxes, etc. This is very different from network procedurals which use music to lead the viewer by indicating suspense, resolution, and conflict.

The show is different in its characterization as well. Simon introduced a whole trove of actors in the first show, most of whom will make further appearances. This includes- McNulty, Bunk, Landsman, D'Angelo, Avon, Orlando, Stringer, Wee Bey, Stinkum, Savino, Phalen, Bubbles, Johnny, Kima, Herc, Carver, Daniels, Freamon, Burrell, Poo, Bodie, Wallace, Coles, and about 20 more in addition. The only characters who seems to have a main role in bridging between the different worlds at this time is McNulty and Bubbles. The procedurals feature a small cast of notable detectives and a revolving list of crooks who float in and then float out after the police catch them and solve the cases.


To sum up, the first episode introduces some very big themes that later episodes and seasons will address. More importantly it introduces a style outside of the traditional cop show in plot, characters, visually, and even in sound. The Wire staked new ground on television with this episode and broke many conventions. But the show had greater aspirations than to be "not your average cop show" or "better than Homocide." These came out in later episodes which I'll keep discussing tomorrow.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Ok. Anyone who has read my blog previously knows that I'm big on comparing the Wire to Western "classics" and other aspects of this genre. I guess it makes sense that I'll continue doing so in an episode by episode format.

One aspect of The Wire which I enjoy immensely, and I think this is something I appreciate in all creative outputs, is messing with genre conventions. Casting Brad Pitt in a role where no one can understand a word he says (Snatch). Brilliant.When Salvador Dali creates the perfect replica of the Venus De Milo, but as a dresser- I dig that. When Ray Charles played all the biggest hits of Country and Western music- as straight country as Hank Williams ever did, but coming from Ray... Yeah!

I think David Simon digs this streak of individuality as well. In the commentary to the first episode, and in a letter he wrote to HBO begging to give The Wire a chance, Simon sees the show as going beyond "the cop show." This genre was the networks' bread and butter, but TW was HBO's chance to stick it to the big boys. If Simon and his team could create a better show than CSI or Law and Order- well, then "it's not TV. It's HBO."

However, Simon did this by going so far outside of the cop show genre that he was not so much playing against this genre as creating his own by the fifth season.

But genre does mean something. In certain ways we could substitute the word genre for "commodification." If genre is a set of conventions that a creative work reflects or organizes itself around- then genre often translates into how a work of art is consumed. Think of movies (I like comedies, I hate horror) or music (Jazz sucks! Soul rules!). Stores sell art in these packages so people know a little about what they're buying into. Artists often use genre because it's sometimes easier to create a Sonnet than throw a bunch of words together.

Of course The Wire is organized vaguely around season long investigations into drugs, politics, schools, the docks, and the media. But it rejects many of the genre conventions. They "renounced the theme of good and evil," which is the heart of a cop show, because it bored them. In fact, people didn't really live or die based on their good or evil- just how they interacted with institutions. Commercial success is not Simon's primary goal (though I imagine he's doing just fine).

But Simon did play off many other genres- The Western being my favorite to discuss and one of the most prominent (um, also the Greek Tragedy I guess). The Western is such an interesting choice because it represents the two competing myths from my last post. Namely that if you're smart, do it better, work hard, and sacrifice, you can "win." If you don't there's still a place for you. The West symbolized this world of opportunity, individuality, ruggedness, and promise of the "pursuit of happiness." According to Frederick Jackson Turner, it was the frontier- this moving line of settlement- that brought about America's unique democracy without resulting to class or ethnic wars like those of Europe. (It turns out that Turner wasn't quite right about the lack of class/ethnic conflict in the West or really the whole frontier bit, but that's for a blog on another genre, History).

So by making West Baltimore into the new Monument Valley (where John Ford filmed most of his Westerns), Simon creates an anti-Western. By making the good bandit into a short, homosexual, African American- Omar- we get an anti-Western hero. By turning the inner city into a world where the law exists only tangentially, where men carry guns and the will to use them, where you need your wits to survive- well, it ain't Dodge City, but you see where I'm going here. Of course, the whole thing is not one big Western- as much as I seem to think it is. So as I review the episodes, the theme will wax and wane, and how Simon uses it- either the "anti-western" or homage to the Western. I will discuss certain facets of this theme in greater depth:

Trains: I've mentioned this here, but Trains are particularly important to Westerns. The Wire likes (hates) Trains. Trains are also important to industrialization. The Wire loves industrialization (hates de-industrialization).

"Law and Order"- ok, obviously this is more in the cop show genre, but I think Westerns use it a little differently. Because in the West- law and order are just a bit more ambiguous. Not unlike Bill Rawls sexuality.

Guns- specifically how people talk about guns, fetishize guns, etc. My "six shooter" has become my "nine."

The Establishment vs. "the real people"- in Westerns people hated all of those back east. In the Wire, people hate those in DC or NY (or, in an ironic switch, the "county".

Nostalgia- in the West, everyone is always resisting the coming of civilization. It always "used to be better." Civilization could be represented by trains, towns, or people in suits. In the Wire, civilization could be represented by Johns Hopkins, condos, or people in suits.

Characterization- Omar is one such western characterization, Brother Mouzone is another one (the outlaw who is a member of the Nation of Islam and reads Harpers, right). Is Marlo The Wire's railroad baron?

Ok- that's good enough for now. We'll see how it actually plays out and get a read on which seasons featured more or fewer homages to the western.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

It's all in the game

"The Game still the game"-Marlo

This is one of my favorite quotes and what I say to people whenever they ask how things are going (they usually look at me funny).

"Game" is a theme that certainly plays a role in the whole show. From the dice game to the many times "game" is used to describe a situation with consequences bigger than winning and losing.

I think "game" gets at the heart of Simon's critique of American capitalism. On the one hand, there is a myth that if you're smart, work hard, get an education, do the right stuff- you will make it. You will win "the game." On the other hand, if you don't quite have it- there's still a place for you in this world. The idea is articulated by Simon directly in his introduction to Rafael Alvarez's _The Wire: Truth Be Told_.(1) These most American myths of opportunity and equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are based on the "winning" (or getting the participation award) of American life. These myths assume that the field is level. The Wire tells us "the game is rigged."

Of course, American cities (or America itself) don't have a patent on this myth, but according to Simon, at their best they represent "the ultimate aspiration for the American community... from rugged individualism to the melting pot." (2) So we will see how the concept of "game" gets played out over the course of five seasons.

(1)Rafael Alvarez, _The Wire: Truth Be Told_ (New York: Pocket Books, 2004), 5-6.
(2)Alvarez, _The Wire_, 4.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Religion is a theme I hope to address somewhat over the next sixty days (starting June 1). I don't really know what I'll come up with, but I think Simon uses religion in an interesting fashion.

Traditionally, the African American church has always held an important place in uplifting the poor of black society (this is not race specific, of course). Between Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Malcolm X, and Black Liberation Theology of the twentieth century; even further back to Nat Turner (used syncretic African religion to help start a slave uprising) and using religious imagery to resist slavery (the story of Moses leading people to the promise land became code for escape to the North, along with many other examples), the Black church has been an agent of radical change at times (and a bastion of conservatism at other times). The church is also an institution whereby a general good is done for the community, rather than the evil of other institutions (police, drugs, politics).

This does not fit into the story Simon wants to tell- of post-industrial institutions laying waste to Urban America and its underclass. Or "how we live together in cities." But instead of neglecting the church completely, Simon writes it in, but mostly as a secularized institution. The church is where NA meetings occur, it tries to give Cutty a job, candidates attend it for political reasons, but it almost never shows up as a religious institution- barring a few lines from the deacon to Cutty.

I think this is quite different, and so as we go through the sixty episodes, I'll try to flesh out the role of the church in Baltimore. I don't know if ultimately I'm being critical of Simon's portrayal, but I do think its one of the areas he takes more liberty as a "journalist" telling a story about the inner city.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Baltimore is a Country, revisited.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the differences between Stringer and Avon, and their respective philosophies- innovate the drug business and rise out of the ghetto vs. run the drug business with maximum respect. After writing the post, I felt that I oversimplified some of the arguments/intellectual strains. So forgive me for that.

This week I want to revisit the fifth season. Many have critiqued it, and the newsroom action more specifically, as the weakest season because the characters were flat, the plot too farfetched, and the action too compressed. But I continue to defend it. No, it's not my favorite season (Probably 4, maybe 3 or 1, I'll let you know after I rewatch them), but some of the themes Simon has explored really come together in 5.

Basically, Simon brashly critiques a lack of citizenship in the Baltimore inner city. Here, I define citizenship as the ability to vote and have representation in city, state, and national government, but also to have a voice and representation in the media. While the media is not directly connected to the behavior of citizenship, I'm pretty sure the journalism majors out there will support me in saying it's an essential pillar of informed republican citizenship (there's something about freedom of the press in the Constitution, I think).

In season 5, the irresponsibility of the press and of local government come to the forefront. In one corner, the media is completely oblivious to America's "invisible citizens". I'm not talking about the homeless either. I'm talking about the murder of Omar Little, a incredible character that Wire fans (universally) love. I'm talking about the murder of Proposition Joe, after being given up by his sister's only son. I'm talking about Baltimore's mayor rejecting millions of dollars that would save an education financial crisis, because it would diminish his chances of winning a gubernatorial election. And, oh yeah, the mayor is telling the police department to juke the stats in return for political gain. The media writes about none of it. But we do get a fake serial killer (which the administration buries), the homeless, and an article on a former drug dealer earning development money in return for political contributions.

Ok, step back. I'm not suggesting that all media needs to uncover every murder or write omnisciently about an industry which takes great pains to stay mostly invisible. I'll also agree that the journalists include some of Simon's weakest characters, a plot that is less realistic, and a subplot which exists for psuedo-revenge's sake. But these criticisms are not what the show is attempting to do. I'll agree that it's less exciting to have the actual story be "in the silences" of the main story, yet, there is a story here, and a group of people (I guess we'll call them the underclass) whose vote doesn't count and whose story does not get written about (see season 4).

Besides not having a voice in the media, the people don't have a voice in government. Mayor Carcetti has heard some of the citizens' complaints and initially does a great job of fixing them. But as his term continues, a budget crisis (brought on by his political hubris) cuts into services for the inner city. Schools limp on, barely missing teacher lay offs, but certainly without enough money to fund special programs (see season 4). Carcetti no longer acts in Baltimore's best interests, but in his own interests. Instead of the media calling him on it (free press' function in a democracy...), Carcetti gets elected on a fake homeless issue.

So I defend the fifth season's message, but not its substance. But really, the season was not as bad as many said, and I'm pretty sure that many of the journalists ("where's the internet in the newsroom?" "that's not how a story gets confirmed by the army") miss the main points in nitpicking. And I actually think the visual aspect of it was some of the strongest of the five seasons. Some of the montages were a bit indulgent, but also some really great shots. In sum, quit beating up on that season!


Here is my first blog post from scribe fire. This seems like it may be kinda cool and much easier for posting within firefox.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Coming Soon

So I obviously haven't posted here much. But I'm getting set to do my long promised episode review a day- starting June 1. I've been rewatching stuff and I'll post on some of the themes I hope to discuss this week. I really hope I can get a little interest going and maybe even some comments. So ..please do comment.

Monday, April 28, 2008

What city is the Economist writing about?

I was excited to see a recent article from The Economist (h/t) on Baltimore. In much of its analysis, The Economist provides a deep look at political, social, and economic forces which shape global society and newsworthy happenings. However, this article makes it seem like Baltimore is enjoying the "New Day" that The Wire joked was coming soon. For readers of Baltimore Crime, the cities streets don't look a whole lot safer (although the 28% Murder reduction is a serious success). While statistics may paint a rosier picture, they didn't dry a Baltimore Circuit Court Judge's tears:
Something is wrong... But one of my favorite movie lines is where Jack Nicholson says, "You can't handle the truth." And I just think in many ways, we are ignoring the truth that's as plain as the noses on our faces.

And so what this case represents to me was -- and I don't doubt that Nakita is an intelligent young woman -- but what it points out to me is the crying need for early intervention. I reviewed the psychological report. I reviewed the court file. I reviewed the report in her prior case. This young and gifted young lady has needed help for a long time and not gotten it.
For a Judge who has seen it all, a case of Middle Schoolers beating a fellow busrider really got to him. While many might think its ludicrous that David Simon chose middle schoolers as the age where kids might turn bad, here's a case where elementary school was the critical age. You can read more about the case from Jean Marbella.

So while the article is correct that Baltimore has improved its policing efforts, clearly many steps need to still happen. It also misrepresents The Wire as presenting a solely negative Baltimore. As anyone who watched the finale knows, Simon loves focusing on Baltimore's beautiful spaces. From the Inner Harbor to the Cylburn Arboretum, plenty of beauty can be found among the "distressed" areas.

Finally, the quote by Sheila Dixon, current mayor of Baltimore sounds ridiculous:

Ms Dixon, the mayor of Baltimore, dismisses this idea. She pins her hopes on development. The ghetto is shrinking. The city's largest private employer, the Johns Hopkins hospital and university, is expanding into the eastern district, bulldozing derelict blocks to build nice homes for biomedical researchers. It will be an economic engine for the area, Ms Dixon says.

As Robert O. Self and Tom Sugrue have written about in their studies of post-WWII deindustrialization (American Babylon and The Origins of the Urban Crisis, respectively), urban poverty cannot be solved by moving it around. The underlying factors behind the poverty- lack of jobs, de-funding of education, de-funding city services are partially a result of the movement of capital to the suburbs, the decline of heavy industrial jobs, and the rise of the service sector. Ultimately, it is not bulldozing and urban "renewal" which improves neighborhood conditions, but an investment in that communities existing structures. Whether this means FHA style loans to improve dwellings (not just for purchasing new homes in the suburbs), investing in quality education, or financing improvements to infrastructure that bring outside investment, simply bulldozing troubled areas and throwing up middle class housing for bio-tech workers will not decrease overall poverty.

I will admit that this is a step in the positive direction for increasing the City's tax base. Between JH increased revenue and middle class researchers moving into the city proper (particularly areas where many abandoned buildings once stood), the City promises to make a pretty penny. Assuming that some of the increased taxes go towards helping the poor who were just forced out of their homes, this could have a net positive effect. But to say "the ghetto is shrinking" does not communicate what is really going on here.

The Depo

First, I want to thank Jim King for pointing out that my blog does not use Bub's spelling of "Depot." It was just me being sloppy and I've duly made the change.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

New Stuff over the transom

Two new items came over the transom this week (via Play or Be Played). I normally don't just echo PoBP, but these are some really quality stories.

The First is a top 25 list of Andy Sayer's favorite character's from The Wire. He makes the good point that many shows don't have enough quality to write a Top 10 favorite characters, yet there's still quality actors left out of Sayer's article. The fact that Norman Wilson (Carcetti's Black Political Conscience) and Butchie the blind bartender don't make the list are a bit criminal, but you can't fit them all in. Also, my man Bubbles only makes no. 10 (should be in front of Kima, IMO). Despite these reservations, Sayers manages to discuss all of these characters WITHOUT SPOILERS. Quite impressive, indeed. It helps that he doesn't mention any characters in Season 5. I should probably learn a thing or two from Andy in writing without telling the whole damn show, but it just spills out.

The Second article looks at The Wire with a uniquely British sensibility. It's very analytical and lauds Simon for analyzing the postindustrial American Dream in all its failings and successes, not through a war movie or a western, but through a show about the postindustrial American Dream. I really do love its British tone, evident in quotes like this one:
This is the heart of The Wire - the memorialisation of an army of young men and women for whom death itself is a rite of passage.
Aidan Gillen leans into the voracious politician Tommy Carcetti like a mariner heading into a gale, an all-forward-movement performance, while Clarke Peters' detective Lester Freamon is a sedentary piece of winningly hambone stoicism.
But be aware. Kent Jones analyzes each of the seasons and makes no bones about throwing spoilers around. While he does a fantastic job on the first four seasons, his complaints about season 5 are typical of whats already been written (unrealistic, just Simon with a bone to pick, too compressed, etc.). Despite that, read through the end. Very well done and indicative of the show's growing global audience (this blog has received visitors from Sweden, the UK, Australia, Canada, and even Croatia). I wonder if The Wire will ever be Big in Japan?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Baltimore is a Country

This week I've had a canuck sleeping on my couch (the link goes to couch, which I highly recommend). We got to talking about the condition of African Americans in cities and I referred her to Sudhir Venkatesh's Gangleader for a Day. This blog has also featured some of Sudhir's other discussions with "real thugs" on The Wire. Needless to say, she inhaled the book. So I made her watch an episode of the show as well. This brings up another point. If you only have one episode to bring out the show, which do you choose? A highly stylized, but brilliant episode liek Season 3 episode 9? Or do you want to get the themes of the show across ala the pilot? Maybe the utter heartbreak of the show via a later episode in season 4?

Well, none of those ideas went through my mind and I randomly chose a season 3 disc. Episode six, Moral Midgetry. Which is an incredible episode in its own right. Avon and Stringer's internal conflict with who they are and who they want to be becomes external and physical. Something Avon said to String really resonated this time around. And I'm paraphrasing here: "you aren't hard enough to live in this country and maybe... maybe you aren't smart enough to live in theirs."

This resonated primarily because I just read Nikhil Pal Singh's Black is a Country. Singh argues that the "Long Civil Rights Movement" failed in part because white America did not come to terms with black America's double consciousness, that America's identity, that civilization is universal , was never extended to African Americans.

Stringer's struggle to "rise" underlies much of the first three seasons. From the use of Roberts Rules of Order to the ultimate symbol of Black mobility, a college education, Stringer "wants to run" (the opening episode quote was "Walk, Crawl, Run-Clay Davis") and wants to be a part of the mainstream America that makes millions cleanly. When Avon comes home, his new apartment ("in his name") becomes the Pivot around which String and Avon's worlds turn.

To give another example, the conversation String and Avon have in the Apartment before Stringer is killed, echoes these same themes. Stringer and Avon look out on the city and think back to their childhood together. Avon remembers them shoplifting from a mall, his own version of sticking it to the man. Stringer looks out on the city and wishes he had purchased property in the recently gentrified neighborhood. Avon responds- "you always were into that black power shit." So we come to understand that Avon wants to rise within the black community. Keep the Barksdale name and reputation strong. Stringer wants the money and power of mainstream America. He wants to be "above the bullshit" of the streets. To rise out of the projects. He is willing to do anything to get there, even to order the killing of D'Angelo and openly disobey Avon. As we come to understand, Stringer gets shot because he went back on his word to Brother Mouzone and didn't obey the "Sunday Morning Peace" with Omar (among other transgressions). But at its core his ideology renounced the Streets. Avon must give him up to keep his reputation "with New York."

So Stringer's "fatal flaw" is his desire to rise or greed if we analyze this in the Greek Tragedy sense. Yet if we look at Season Three from another view, he dies because he is "squeezed between two sides." His failure to succeed in legit America and his failure to keep his street reputation. To put it another way, the political and drug institutions crush him.

The Avon/String dichotomy in Season 3 vividly illuminates their disparate values. Part of the shows purpose, imo, is to provide a window into this world which is ignored by the mainstream America (clearly this is not a specifically white/black issue, though it basically is). When Stringer starts to become most visible to white America is when he becomes obscure to Baltimore. Though these values are not from different planets, maybe they are different countries. The Country of Baltimore?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Wire News: RIP Ashley, Savino Stabbed, the Academic Wire

Some may wonder why I continue writing about The Wire even though it ended weeks ago. Well, stuff keeps happening, and I'm pretty sure TVonDVD will extend the show's life by about a decade. Also, I have more to say. So that's that.

In the stuff keeps happening category: My deepest condolences to the family of Ashley Morris. Ashley was one of the fine writers at Got That New Package, he also started, which may have even helped convince HBO to re-up for a fourth and fifth season. His death was all too sudden and surprising, he will certainly be missed. Even David Simon surfaced to give his respects. The man left a wife, three kids, and a New Orleans community which will surely feel his absence. If you feel it's appropriate, I encourage you to donate here.

In other news, Christopher Clanton, aka "Savino", was stabbed at a Baltimore party. While he thankfully seems to be recovering, the problems of Baltimore continue. I do think that introducing so many great Baltimore actors to mainstream film is one of The Wire's more important legacies, but for every Idris Elba or Robert Chew, there is a Christopher Clanton (who did really great work). I think this aspect of the show is best illustrated in a DVD commentary by the "four kids" from Season Four. Instead of commenting on the show, they spend more time discussing "the craft" and lamenting a lack of work for black actors. It's pretty 'meta' and I encourage watching/listening to it.

Finally, Harvard is hosting a symposium on The Wire (hat tip: A Thousand Corners). I think this is just great. I kid that I will eventually write my dissertation on The Wire, but in all seriousness, I think it can support such academic rigor. Certainly in the world of Pop Culture Studies, it's high art compared to Pro Wrestling (no offense to you Hulk-a-Maniacs out there). Though Simon often joked he would end up teaching screen writing at a community college, I think it's interesting that he has ended up at Hahvaad.

Clark Johnson, director of the Wire's bookends (pilot and final episode) and the actor playing Baltimore Sun editor "Gus" has also gotten into the academic game when he appeared at the recent Organization of American Historians conference. He participated in a session entitled "Film, History, and the African American Experience." In the American History world, the OAH is a pretty big deal with thousands visiting. That a history conference featured a show that got off the air a few weeks ago is fairly unprecedented. I'm sure Johnson talked about his work outside of the Wire as well, but nonetheless, very cool.

The Wire has been fairly critical of the academic world. For example, the Season Four portrayal-
"Sociologist: Even though the program didn't make it into all of the schools, this is going to provide a really great study.
Colvin: So a bunch of other people are going to sit around and study your study? ::shakes head::
It's ironic that even the very top of America's educational food chain can't fix and doesn't even understand the bottom. Following Colvin's hamsterdam experiment in season 3, Johns Hopkins denies him a job because he is "too controversial." Simon demonstrates in season four/five that he is one of the show's greatest "teachers" (his education of Carcetti, the sociologist, the corner kids, Carver, and eventually Namond are Colvin's true legacy). Despite his skill, he can't get a job in Baltimore's most famous/best school.

Despite this (pretty well aimed) criticism of the ivory tower, many professors, grad students, and other academics (me, asywak, Ashley Morris, to name a few) have been crazy about the wire. I can think of many history professors, in particular, that really love the show (Steve Reich, Scott Nelson, Eric Rauchway). Sudhir Venkatesh is another academic whose work intersects very closely with the show. For me, this blog is an attempt to promote an academically rigorous view of the show (which, in the tradition of most academic work, reaches almost no one). In 10 years will there be a class on The Wire? I'd say, hell yes! Call it- The Wire as Literary Text. Or maybe, Baltimore's Underclass: A Subaltern Study. If you have any suggestions as to what you'd call an academic class on The Wire, comment away.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Authenticity in the Wire: A Parallel with Westerns?

David Simon went to great length's to make The Wire's Baltimore of as true to life as he could. His team did extensive research, drawing from years of experience in the very institutions they depicted (from Ed Burns' time in homicide and public schools to Simon's newspaper days to Bill Zorzi's political insight). This push to achieve authenticity had many goals. For one, we can look at The Wire as journalism (of the type which tells stories the 'real' newspaper world misses in the fifth season). We can also see The Wire as a type of ethnography, much like Simon's books, The Corner (or the miniseries) or Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

But if the use of authenticity was to promote these aims, well, Simon's work for the Sun (like his piece on Melvin Williams) does better as real journalism, and the books work better as ethnography. The Wire uses its authenticity for another reason. Only through exhaustive attention to presenting an 'authentic' Baltimore does Simon derive authority for the themes he presents. Only by rendering the computer technology of wiretaps in the most accurate details does Simon have the authority to criticize the Police Department.

But authenticity works two ways. To arrive at authenticity, both the objective history (which is always up to interpretation), and how the consumer shapes that reality with their pre-conceived notions come into play. What popular culture 'knows' of Baltimore (crabs, inner harbor), contrasts with the 'reality' Simon creates.

Westerns also derived their thematic authority from authenticity. With the release of The Great Train Robbery in 1908, the Western film genre was born. In fact, the movie came only three years after the event on which it was based.(1) In the thousands of Westerns since, urban viewers have fantasized about the mythical West and the romance, independence, freedom, violence, and opportunity it represented. As Richard Slotkin writes in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America,
Cultural Tradition defined "the West" as both an actual place with a real history and as a mythic space populated by projective fantasies. Expectations about Western stories were therefore contradictory: they had to seem in some way realistic or "authentic" while at the same time conforming to ideas of setting, costume, and heroic behavior derived from literary fantasy. (2)
By using "real" Indians (often white actors in "red face"), "real" clothing (often very inaccurate historical clothing), and "real" settings (spaghetti westerns?), Westerns evoked the West of opportunity. I kid about the poor attempts, but Westerns really did go to great lengths for authenticity's sake.

In the same way, The Wire creates images of Baltimore which represent a reality, but also literary constructions. The idealized, bling of popular culture drug dealers does exist to a degree in The Wire, but Simon molds it to his own designs. Namond uses the "fashion" of drug dealing and bling (compensating for his not so dealer sensibilities), but a real player like Barksdale downplays it so as not to draw attention to himself. The cop world has its own stock characters, The Irish Cop (McNulty), the quiet but brilliant investigator(Freamon), the straight shooter boss(Daniels), but Simon adds to it, the closeted (maybe) department politics warrior (Rawls), the ultimate middle manager (Landsman), the man with the code (Bunk). It is reality behind the images which lend them power.

It can be argued that authenticity is an important part of any dramatic situation. But few genre's focus on authenticity like the Western (and the Wire). While The Wire's cop show genre cousins, CSI and Law and Order, try to portray reality, they put a bare minimum of effort into it. Most cop shows also put little effort into authenticity outside of maybe costuming and weapons. In many other television genres, authenticity plays a minor role. The type of toaster used in a suburban situational comedy does not matter. Some other HBO shows have also been praised for their authenticity, namely, The Sopranos. While it may indeed be a good look at mob life in New Jersey, other accounts disagree. However, the Wire and Westerns both go to lengths to create a reality based on a real place and myth. The old story is that when a group of Indian actors performed a stunt chase particularly well, the director congratulated them on such an authentic chase. Their response: "we tried to do it realistically, just like in the movies!"

What connects the uses of authenticity is a desire to show a life unlike the viewer's own. More importantly, authenticity supports the themes of the Western or The Wire. By showing the promise of the frontier (and by extension, America) in all its historical accuracy, urban viewers could imagine themselves personally, and America as a nation, progressing to greatness and wealth. In the Wire, the use of authenticity reinforces the failures of American democracy/institutions and by extension, America itself.

(1) Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 231.
(2) Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 234.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Put the F***en song on, Hugh!

Happy St. Pat's Day...

One of my favorite scenes from the finale. ::spoiler::

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jury Nullification in History (Part I)

Well, it's good to see that a few of you are still lurking in the shadows (according to google analytics), even if you don't comment. So I will continue writing. I had hoped to make this into one post, and had started writing it weeks ago, but I honestly need to do a bit more research on jury nullification in the twentieth century in the United States. So here is Part I of a hopefully 2 parter to roll out next week:

Shortly after the Finale of this season, David Simon and other members of the Wire Braintrust wrote an op-ed in Time Magazine. They suggested jury nullification as a way to combat the current drug war on the American underclass. Much of the current discussion revolves around its use in the drug war, its legality, and its effectiveness. Recently, in an interview with the website "Play or Get Played", David Simon elaborated on Jury Nullification as a form of civil disobediance. Though some think it to be an impractical tactic, as the nullifier is often directly asked whether they will convict solely on the evidence at hand or on the law's fairness (especially in death penalty cases). The nullifier is forced to tell the truth and be tossed off the jury, or lie and risk being held in contempt of court. Simon feels the technique could provide some benefit and at a certain tipping point, becomes effective in making life hard for prosecutors because they can't get a jury together without some nullifiers. He cites the prohibition of alcohol as an example where this sidestepping of the law (Volstead Act) worked.

Jury nullification is not new in American history, and came (like much of our legal system) from English Common Law of the 18th century.(1) One of the more famous instances involved the trial of John Peter Zenger, a printer of unauthorized materials in New York. Printing of unauthorized materials (criticizing the New York Governor Cosby) was considered Sedition and Libel (even if the material was true). Zenger's lawyer, Alexander Hamilton (yeah, that guy on the $10 bill), advised the jury that "they have the power to nullify the law in situations when strict application of the law would yield an unjust or inequitable verdict" (2). Hamilton won what was considered to be an unwinnable case using the tactic, increasing his own stature and that of the nullification. Incidentally, the Zenger incident is sometimes credited with helping codify Freedom of the Press in the U.S. Constitution.

Jury Nullification has been used ever since the Zenger trial for a variety of reasons. In the 19th century, the supreme court limited the right of jurors to nullify. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story felt it was the job of jurors to decide on the facts of a case and the job of the courts to determine interpretation. However, he was more concerned with juries attempting to convict a dependent for an act the legislature did not intend to criminalize rather than juries acquitting based on their position as "conscience of the community."

Despite the dimmer view of jury independence, 19th century juries tried to remain autonomous. One of the more prominent instances involved abolitionists attempting to nullify fugitive slave laws. While these efforts would work in the jury trials of state specific fugitive trials, most of these occurred in far northern or western states. In fact, personal liberty laws were often more effective, requiring that judges and officers of the law ignore slave fugitives in certain states. Some states mandated that jails could not be used to hold fugitive suspects. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (part of that Compromise of 1850), all trials were held before federal judges rather than juries, negating any chance at nullification. However states continued passing legislation hostile to fugitive slave law. Wisconsin's Supreme Court even declared the law Unconstitutional (an act which was unconstitutional itself). Despite the efforts of many states, the new Fugitive Slave Act forced many runaway slaves to head for Canada rather than the North. Of course, the Civil War made this pretty null and void.

Though the Supreme court looked poorly on jury independence in the late 19th century, nullification did not disappear. Many have claimed that juries acquitted white southerners accused of murdering African Americans. I will report on that, it's use during Prohibition, the civil rights movement, in other cases, and in the present day next week.

I know everyone awaits with anticip...

(1) Irwin A. Horowitz, "The Effect of Jury Nullification Instruction on Verdicts and Jury Functioning in Criminal Trials," Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 9, No. 1. (Mar., 1985), 26.
(2) Ibid.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Realism vs. High Greek Tragedy

Ok, I was going to just respond to Adam's comment in the comments section of the last post, but my comment was about Post-Length, so I figured I would throw it up here.

Adam's Question: The Wire is lauded for its attention to detail and how close to real life it gets (see the "Real Thugs" posts on the freakonomics blog). However, David Simon is always talking about its grounding in Greek Tragedy. Which one do I see Simon using most?

I think Simon does both and succeeds. He uses the idea of the Greek tragedy not so much for The Wire's style (which is obviously gritty, realistic, West Baltimore), but for logic and the force which drives the storyline.

In Greek tragedies (brief crappy primer on Greek drama follows), a very specific moral sensibility played out in which a character's fate is often determined by the cruel and capricious Greek God's (in The Wire, the God's are the post-industrial city's institutions, like the copshop, Sun, schools, drug industry, etc.). It was often a character's hubris and one fateful act (which they usually didn't recognize at the time) which sent them down a path to destruction.
For example, Frank Sebotka puts the window up in the Polish church which eventually causes him to lose his union, his family, and even be killed (see season 2 storyline).
Another quick reference which shows my point- O-MAR and MAR-lo are both fairly common names in West Baltimore and "realistic", but they are also referencing the Roman God of War (Mars). Pretty appropriate considering that their characters survive on their reputation for war/battle. Another little tidbit involving Omar in Season 2, while waiting to testify against Bird (one of my favorite scenes of the show), Omar has this response with a security guard doing a crossword puzzle:

Guard: Mars is the god of war, right?
Omar: Planet too.
Guard: I know it's a planet, but the clue is "Greek God of War"
Omar: Aries. Greeks called him Aries. Same dude, different name is all.
Guard: Aries fits. Thanks.
Omar: It's all good. See, back in middle school I used to love them myths. Stuff was deep. Truly.

Ok, maybe that's not the most realistic conversation ever. But great nonetheless. For that bit and the rest of the courtroom scene via youtube:

Thursday, March 6, 2008

You asked for it

I said I wasn't going to do any predictions for the finale. I made it clear that I am not so literarily inclined to guessing. I don't have Bulfinch's mythology memorized or Polti's Thirty Six Dramatic Situations on notecards. But Adam asked for it. Although terrible at this parlor game, I will give it a try. What will happen in episode 60?

Media story- Gus's contract will be bought out due to his increased friction with the bosses. And especially to bury any indications that Templeton fabricated his stories. Templeton will win the Pulitzer. The newspaper misses the whole McNulty and Templeton lying about the serial killers bit...

Cop-shop: The whole McNulty lying about the serial killers bit- obviously explodes internally. This can't happen at a worse time politically. Daniels is about to be promoted, Carcetti is on his way up, Rawls still hates McNulty but thinks he may have a chance at remaining the chief if its quiet. Some serious things are threatened, including Beadie's position in harbor patrol if McNulty doesn't go quietly. He does go... as in commits suicide. I mean, let's be serious, the bust he's sacrificed his career for is meaningless, his family has deserted him (both of them), everything he touches gets hurt- pretty depressing stuff. So he hangs himself on a doorknob. Or throws himself under a train. Cop funeral comes and goes- with a powerful speech by The Bunk. The day afterwards a rookie takes McNulty's desk, and he's basically forgotten. Lester is put on "the boat." Oh yeah, Pearlman occasionally sells grand jury information to lawyers- It's Baltimore, baby, no one gets out clean.

Marlo trial, etc- Marlo gets out on the illegal wiretap. After Levy comes to them alleging said wiretap, the state decides to drop charges rather than expose the serial killer fake plot. The Greek gets nervous that Marlo has gotten out easily and thinks he is turned. Without his muscle to save him, Marlo is killed by the Greek's people.

4 Kids- I think we saw the last of Namond last episode, he's proven successful, maybe we see him win another award or a scholarship to college (even though he's a little far away I think). Micheal lies low for most of the episode, but does end up connecting with Cheese as an enforcer. Dukie shoots up in the barn with the arabbers. He later gets caught by the police with some dope and sent to boys village. Unable to contact his parents, they try to get Prez to be his guardian, but Prez can't take on that responsibility and Dukie is lost within the system/addicted to drugs. Randy commits a crime and is put in jail somewhere in the episode or maybe the montage. In the montage we see what the point of their story is- 1 in 4 makes it out, 1 in 4 becomes a drug dealer, 1 in 4 becomes addicted to drugs/dies, 1 in 4 is in prison.

Political- A lot of people want Carcetti to be governor. He ducks the serial killer issue, plays up his "gains" in education. Tells the people that he's tough on crime. Basically it's a new day in Baltimore. The Montage features his victory celebrations and a high ranking DNC official telling him that if he plays his cards right, he might be looking at a vice presidency offer, or better.

Ok, some of this was more tongue in cheek, but I don't think I went out on any limbs here or made outrageous suggestions. I've tried to follow the general arc of the seasons' outcomes and various character's hubris. So I think all of this could happen and remain true to the show's themes. But I have a feeling that Simon will go in an unexpected direction (he always does). Now, wise and worldly readers, what do you think will happen in the last episode of the wire EVER? Will I look back at this post on Sunday evening and chuckle?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Wire as Muckraker?

I've touched on the feelings of Nostalgia in some of my other posts, but here I'm thinking about an older style of journalism for which which David Simon yearns. Much of his critique of The Media revolves around its ambivalence toward "the stories that matter" (as highlighted in Simon's interview here). The subplots of plagiarism, capitalization, buyouts, etc. are not the main story as articulated by Simon. Rather the biggest journalistic crimes are:
"the corrupt mayor asking for cooked crime stats, the elementary school test scores spawned from students being taught the tests, the deaths of Prop Joe and Omar -- all indicators of the city's real problems that never appeared in the Sun's pages"
I would hasten to add the failures and successes of hamsterdam, social services, and witness protection to the list. In fact, in almost every character there is a story missed by Sun in some way. If the institutions of Baltimore run the characters' lives, why doesn't the Sun report on these issues/institutions in a substantive way?

This style of reporting, muckraking, has actually been around for a hundred of years. For Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, it's the meat-packing industry as a metaphor on the failure of capitalism's promises. In Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives, the reader gets an expose of the New York City slums through a photoessay (an experiment in new media of its day). The muckrakers were related to the Progressive movement, whose figurehead was Teddy Roosevelt. Busting trusts, fighting for those without a voice, and being masculine, Roosevelt and the Progressives were determined to halt capitalism's largest crimes against humanity (and participate in a few of their own). Although their targets were powerful people in powerful places, the muckrakers were very much a part of mainstream journalism.
One can trace a similar vein of journalism to the 1930s (well, sorta). The consumer movement, symbolized by Stuart Chase and F.J. Schlink's Consumer Research group also critiqued capitalism. Though outside mainstream journalism, CR's newsletter and later Consumer Union's newsletter, Consumer Reports (which broke off of CR after a strike and personality issues, just read this to learn more). One of the more famous books to come out of this movement was F.J. Schlink and Arthur Kallet's 10,000 Guinea Pigs.

In the 1960s, Consumer Reports became famous from a different writer, current Presidential candidate Ralph Nader. His work on automobile safety, and what became Unsafe at Any Speed also critiqued the institution of capitalism. Another journalist/writer of this period included Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, which described the dangers of pesticides and lead to the outlaw of DDT. Carson also contributed articles to the Baltimore Sun.

Though my examples may be a little ahistorical, (and all you Media Studies and Mass Comm. experts out there can right my wrongs on the history of the media) I do think Simon sees this style of investigative journalism disappearing as a result of "doing more with less." I also think one could place The Wire in the same category as fictional versions of muckraking (like Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt). In fact, I think one of the reasons why The Wire is so popular with those of a more academic persuasion (even though it pokes fun at academics in season 3&4), is because of its muckraker roots. There are many strains of social science but many of us try to examine the lives of those who do not have a voice (or who's voice has not been heard). It's a goal the muckrakers would recognize.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Real Thugs 8

In looking at the comments, Sudhir Venkatesh has created a powerful institution in and of itself. Even those who have yet to see a single episode of The Wire can't help but wait for the next freakomics blog entry by the "thugs." Episode eight took it to a new level and his posts are more about the thugs than The Wire. Although I can't say I'm disappointed. Well, a part of me still wants their take on the show, but their own stories are so much better.

In the beginning the posts brought a different view of The Wire. The hustler's view of who was going to play who next (and they were often spot-on). But with the last few posts, Venkatesh subtly shows that The Wire is not merely a TV show. The Game is not a game. It's LIFE for many. In The Wire, success is making it to the top. Winning that Pulitzer, the Governor's office, supplying all of Baltimore with drugs, becoming chief of police. On the streets, success is: "if you woke up and you weren’t in jail and you were breathing." This is according to J.T., Venkatesh's friend in Chicago and a gangleader on whom he based his book Gangleader for a Day.

Venkatesh also addresses how difficult it is to cause any real change in this environment. Sudhir often felt "helpless, uneasy, and looking to do the right thing." Yet one of the other thugs responds to Venkatesh's thoughts: “You want to know what’s hard, Sudhir? Understanding that you just can’t fix [anything] — not always, and not right away. Live with that feeling you got, my brother, ’cause we’re living with it every day. I hope you suffer; it’s good for you.” It's powerful stuff that truly connects the imagery, and the literary symbols, and the plots twists to what The Wire is really about. Life in Baltimore. Life in the American City.

But this is not to merely lay pity at the feet of a drug dealer who isn't making it. The point is that (to bring it back to The Wire), like a Greek tragedy, Dukie could not choose his fate, and neither can some of these dealers who must hustle on the street to survive.

Season 5! Episode 9!

Ok, no spoilers here really... but I keep sitting down to write a post about this episode and how the arc of the season has reached its peak. Unfortunately, all that comes out is: omigoshomigoshomigosh! Followed by some tears shed or some teeth gnashing over my favorite characters. But this blog ain't really about that. Before you can sit down to analyze a particular season's themes, you've got to have the season in its entirety. So this season doesn't become grist for my mill until mid-March. And stay tuned for a full in-depth analysis of all sixty episodes, thousand corners-style. I might even do it in sixty days during the summer, but don't count on that level of organization from me.

I know. This kind of defeats the purpose of blogs being in the moment and diary-like thoughts of now. But come on, I'm a historian and when have historians ever been timely about analyzing events (The Big Names in the field still can't get enough of old, white dudes, and that's cool). So I will leave what will happen in episode 10 to those people on the boards at TWoP and the bloggers at New Package who are way better at foreshadowing what will happen. I mean... my only attempt at guessing was that Sydnor was going to get it and McNulty/Freamon's operation was going to fall because of it. For those that haven't seen 9... rest assured this is not a spoiler.

Having said that, please feel free to Kibitz to your hearts desire in the comments. Just make sure to tag any spoilers/info that is in ep 59 or 60.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

American Gangster

I just watched American Gangster tonight. Very enjoyable movie, great acting, decent directing, good script. I think because of its popularity, it could bring a little extra interest to the Wire after the fact (I do know people who started watching The Wire because they liked American Gangster so much). It is obviously very reminiscent of The Wire, and not just because Idris Elba plays a drug dealer who gets killed. It's the "true" story of a notorious drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and his eventual capture by Richie Roberts. With Lucas as an informant, 75% of the NYC DEA was convicted of a crime related to the case (according to the movie, note to self: do some research on the movies facts because its such a darn good story). Many of the "composite" characters are similar: the dirty cops, the brilliant drug lords, the family connections, and the flashy dealers. The scenes of the city poverty along with the ruthlessness of the drug trade make powerful statements. Indeed, the ability of institutions to crush individuals is also there. Roberts refuses to take dirty money and thus becomes alienated by his department full of dirty cops. Lucas sees his boss, Lumpy, crushed because he never got out from under the thumb of those higher up on the food chain.

Yet, American Gangster is ultimately about two people who bucked their institutions and came out alive. Though Lucas did 15 year in prison, and much of his family also did significant time, the movie portrays his decision to snitch as a good one, downplaying the prison time. Roberts is doing very well at the end as a DA (his first client, Lucas). This is a far cry from Simon's bleak view of Baltimore's end. No individuals seem to have escaped thus far (we'll see at the end). Some have criticized Simon for being so impossibly bleak, arguing that for all of the bad ends his characters meet, in real life there are people who manage to get out. American Gangster shows two examples of such from history. Yet even at the end (the alternate added ending on the DVD version only, I think), the two walk on their old stomping grounds 8th (Frederick Douglas) Ave and 116th St. Instead of drugs being sold on the corner its "$100 dollar shoes" and "cafe lattes." They also meet some of the new generation of street toughs who haven't disappeared from this newly gentrified scene. So one wonders if this new happy capitalist world is that different structurally from the old neighborhood. The movie certainly portrays this as a definite, despite the free turkeys thrown out by the dealers in the old neighborhood.

Of course these two series are both fictionalized (artful) accounts of mostly real events. So we can't really analyze them as real events. Yet one can realize that these are distinctly different times. Lucas comes of age in the Vietnam era, selling the marijuana, heroin, and coke popular at the time. He is incarcerated throughout the 1980s and the crack epidemic of that time. Many have pointed to this period as much worse than those that were before or possibly even after it. Simon also portrays the 70s ghetto as a much warmer and friendlier place in his miniseries "The Corner" (we don't really get any flashbacks in The Wire, although the S5 prequel teaser clips show a more nostalgic time perhaps).

What can we learn from these portrayals of American Ghetto? Well, maybe its not all doom and gloom, maybe it is all about capitalism and being the biggest guy on the totem pole. But for my money, Simon has the more powerful piece. Artistically, and it seems like more attention has been paid to detail. The 1970s was a different time, and maybe it was a time where one had social mobility and could break out of their institutions, but in the 21st century, Baltimore remains Baltimore. A place where the Gods will not save you.

Friday, February 22, 2008

David Simon on S5

There is a new interview with David Simon by Newsweek on the interweb this week. In it, he addresses the problems many fans have had with the media plot line. Simon is adamant that its not about the Sun or getting back at a few editors he had years ago, but addressing an important problem in the newsroom. He's arguing that fabrication is more prevalent than many in society and the journalism community would believe. Furthermore, he tears into Devin Gordon, the Newsweek interviewer for privileging some of Simon's other "bad" characters as being more nuanced than the lying Scott Templeton:
Is the reporter who makes s--t up to serve his own ambition not going to be hateful to some viewers? Is Marlo not hateful for being a sociopath? Is Major Rawls not hateful for serving only his own interests? Are these characters somehow more nuanced?
While Simon is obviously correct that many of the journalistic types have been reacting negatively to the media plot, whether consciously or unconsciously, because they are necessarily defensive about their culture and its drawbacks. It is also interesting how Simon frames this lie against a larger societal lie, the War (you know which one, but it could be that other one too).

But I guess when I think of the failure of the newsmedia, it is not the Scott Templeton's of the world which bother me most. Yes, fake journalism is bad, ambition that ignores ethics is bad, but Templeton is not one putting Britney Spears on A1A, while Darfur is pg 15 below the fold. Yes Scott Templeton is a product of the media institution, but I don't know if his transgressions elevate him to antihero.

It's "angry" Simon at his best, and a very enlightening interview. Go read it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Wire Movie?

The Wire The Movie? That was the gossip earlier in January. Some might say that The Wire's long arcing storylines, subtle character revelations, and novel-like qualities wouldn't fit in a movie's 120-200 minute format. I disagree. Primarily because I got that itch which only more Wire scratches (got that new package! Prequel!).

I also think it would be successful artistically. I think much of why the Wire isn't taken as seriously as it maybe should be is because it is a TV show. There have been film departments and cinema studies programs at many universities for quite some time, while television studies is a more marginalized discipline (often folded into media studies, mass com., pop culture, or sociology departments). Of course, this does not necessarily mean The Wire will get any more play in academic circles, but I do think it might make it available to a wider audience of the public primarily and the academic audience second.

I also think the shorter runtime would force Simon to tighten up considerably. I do love the slow pans, the long dialogue, the multiple storylines,... it basically makes The Wire what it is. But I also think if these elements were tightened and distilled to their best... a greater product would emerge. I also wonder if Simon is a bit afraid of the cinema genre. I mean, its not as difficult to be a giant among the TV gods (Seinfeld, David Chase, Matt Groening) as among the gods of cinema (Bergman, Lynch, Kubrick, Hitchcock) or maybe its difficult in a different way. It's not an easy leap, particularly for someone used to writing in the novel format, or short chapters of a novel. A movie script is a piece of art in many ways, and not a simple case of putting 3 episodes together.

I think it would ultimately end up like another long time TV favorite, The Simpson's Movie, very watchable, entertaining, deep, but not as sublime as maybe some of the best episodes. Likewise, I don't know if a Wire Movie would ever reach the power of episode 11, season 3 ("Middle Ground") or episode 13 of season four ("Final Grades"). Despite that, it would be great to see how all the characters in the first season got to where they got. How can you vote against more Wire?