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?

Friday, February 15, 2008

When the Trains-a-comin'

Simon uses images of train tracks and train horns frequently throughout all seasons of the wire. I think its an interesting choice of metaphors in both a literary and historical sense.

In his book on the history of Chicago, Nature's Metropolis, William Cronon argues that railroads themselves partially made Chicago the largest Midwest city. Chicago was the eastern terminus of many western railroad systems and the western terminus of many eastern railroad systems. In Cronon's "birds-eye" view of Chicago, railroads were gigantic symbols of capital. For Cronon: "At the most abstract level, the railroads' hierarchies of corporate wealth and managerial power respresentated a vast new concentration of capital... As perceived by those who ran it, a railroad was a pool of capital designed to make more capital." (1) More than this, railroads represented the industrialization and pooling of capital that was to build the great cities, bring culture together, "progress" into a new American Century, etc. For 19th Century Progressives, railroads were the iron knight in shining armor to haul America (and its wheat) into a new world economy.

With the collapse of this industrial order, highlighted so poignantly in season 2, comes the collapse of the inner city. There are no longer jobs to be had and children like Dukie don't know where to turn if not to the drug trade. Nicky Sebotka knows that his son will never become a stevedore because that job, like the dinosaurs and his union, is no longer found in Baltimore.

Train horns are often utilized at important moments in the show. The standoff between Omar and Brother Mouzone is a good example. In this case, the train horn fills the silence, seems to push the moment to climax, and adds to the many western film elements in the scene (stylistically this is a wild west gun fight at high noon (or one held at midnight in Baltimore). Trains are a major symbol in the western film genre as well. They symbolize the coming of the east and changes to western society, particularly the lawless independence mythologized in the cowboy. I will certainly talk further about my theories on Simon's elements of the western film genre in a future post.

Besides these examples, trains seem to represent an unavoidable fate for the characters. The train is coming and Baltimore is left standing in the tracks. The train tracks is indeed a common place for McNulty-Bunk drinking sessions, and these often involve complaining about what is ru(i)nning their life and job. The point in this instance is that they, like a boxcar, are not in control of where they are going in their career or life.

These are only a few ideas on the use of trains and transportation in the Wire. I'm sure ideas in this post will be added to or modified in the future. One point of this blog, I guess.

As far as this season goes... one certainly gets a sense that the train is indeed a-comin' though I don't think many are going to make it off the tracks.

(1) William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton. 1991), 81.

Real Thugs - 6

Real Thugs analyze the latest episode of the Wire and I really look forward to this weekly Freakonomics post. The discussion in this post revolved around morality. It is interesting the way the men project a logic derived from the streets or prison in their analysis of politics. One comments that Carcetti should get Clay Davis in his pocket by letting him off the charges. That the only way to get ahead in politics is through deal making and displays of force on the street, ala Giuliani vs Dinkins. It's a very interesting no-holds-bar approach to politics that is maybe more reminiscient of European politics in the thirties, but nonetheless, they aren't too far off base in that politics these days is all about the image you portray to the public, and the power you hold behind closed doors.

This is not to say they don't value a sense of morality. They recognize and respect that Bunk, Omar, and Gus are the three men who live by a specific code. Even though such a strict code is an impossible goal in real life on the street.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Bubbles, played by Andre Royo is obviously one of my favorite characters. A more likable dope fiend has not been created since "Gary" from Simon's earlier HBO miniseries, "The Corner" (Gary was a real person though). When most people discuss Bubbles, they throw in words like Shakespearian or Dickensian, but I think he can speak for himself. Andre Royo has done numerous interviews over the years, but this one is particularly great. The interviewer seems a bit condescending or silly ("did you do research on this role har har") but Royo is simply classy.

Royo is a seriously great actor and some of his scenes are the most poignant of the show. You can be sure that this won't be the last post about Bubs.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Media Angle

Columbia Journalism Review has a great/expansive article on David Simon and The Wire. Some have criticized the current season for its portrayal of the media and particularly the portrayal of Baltimore Sun Executive Editor, "James Whiting" and Managing Editor, "Thomas Klebanow." These characters are virtual stand ins for the actual Sun editors during Simon's time, John Carroll and Bill Marimow. Carroll recently tried to fight layoffs at the LA Times and resigned himself. In an open email of sorts (couldn't find the link to it that I read a couple days ago), he shows himself to far from the corporate stooge Simon writes him as. Simon's criticisms of the bottom line ruining journalism is echoed by Carroll. The journalism community also holds Marimow in high regard. The main disagreement between them seems to be one of journalistic style. Marimow and Carroll have written some of their most successful stories on individual phenomena, which brought real substantive changes, issues "you could take a bite out of." Simon's most powerful work, like Homicide or The Corner paints in much broader strokes, or according to Simon “problems and people portrayed in all of their complexity and contrariness.”

Its a little disappointing that Simon's normally ambiguous writing has made such good-bad/right-wrong characters in the newsroom, but I don't want to pass judgement yet. Indeed, I think he had to go to the Sun in this season, and it certainly fits into his model of institutionalization and bureaucracy (hint: it's bad). And maybe the characters will achieve more complexity in the coming episodes. Maybe Scott Templeton will grow some conscience. Maybe Gus will be a little more evil. Maybe the editors will start doing more with more. Maybe the newsroom subplot won't turn into Simon settling a grudge with his bosses from ten years ago. Ok, probably not.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Wire and History and Real Thugs - Part 5

Sudhir Venkatesh is back with another segment of What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire - Part 5.

Venkatesh is a Sociologist at Columbia and the author of Gang Leader for a Day, which explores the Chicago drug trade and gang life. It's gotten great reviews and I look forward to reading it. He has also written several other books on the economics of the urban underclass and the ghetto in general. You can read a few articles he has written at his Columbia faculty site.

Another interesting article that I've come across is Joseph Spillane's "The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900-1940" in The Journal of Social History Vol. 32, No. 1. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 27-47. Spillane's article is mostly narrative, but it shocks because of the similar terminology and situations as in today's drug war.Interestingly and perhaps true of Baltimore as well (the great grandfather of Bubbles?): "By 1908, the phrase 'as crazy as a West Side dope fiend' had entered the lexicon of city residents" (1). Also in 1908, the Chicago chief of police vocally made a complaint that many a police chief of today's drug war has uttered under their breath: "'we can drive out every occupant of the 22nd street district in forty-eight hours. But do you want us to drive them into the lake as has been suggested? Do you want them driven to the resident districts? What do you want done with them? Isn't it better to keep them corralled in one spot with their names and histories tabulated?'" The parallels with season 3's Hamsterdam are obvious.

The Wire treats history in an interesting fashion. The action itself is certainly in the present without the use of flashbacks, but there is a glorification or nostalgia for the past. A pantheon of drug dealers from the seventies and eighties are often invoked by Prop Joe in Season Three for their ability to make drug-dealing into "just business", without the murder, guns, and games that come with its current incarnation. Of course, the attempt by Stringer to go back to this idealized past ultimately dooms him.

This same theme is played out in Season Two by Frank Sebotka. He felt he was breaking the law for all the right reasons to preserve the stevedore/working class future for his family. Of course, he doesn't save the dying occupation.

Simon has set up a world where institutions obliterate individual agency, but it is also a world constantly becoming worse. A sort of declension theory ("decline of the American Empire"). But Simon seems to tie this decline to more recent phenomena. The war on drugs, the weakening of the working class, the failure of inner city education and resegregation of schools, and mass media's transformation all become fodder for Simon, but as Spillane points out, these same battles have been fought in inner cities for well over 100 years.

For the past 4000 years, every old guy thought "it really used to be better in the good ole days" or.. "simpler" (conversation repeated 38 times daily at Colonial Williamsburg: "boy, they really knew what was important back then" "yep, it was a simpler time"). Often, it ain't quite like you imagine it (conspicuous lack of horse manure and raw sewage in the streets of CW?).

...a few more thoughts on this for a later time.

(1) Spillane, "The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900-1940," Jo. of Soc. Hist. Vol. 32, No. 1. (Autumn, 1998), 29.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

NPR Interviews characters from The Wire

The darling radio network of educated, white, upper-middle class suburbanites (ok, that's me), NPR, has given The Wire a large amount of press during its seasons. I guess some of its producers are big fans and it makes sense with the NPR headquarters located less than an hour away in DC.

-Michael K. Williams plays "Omar" and discusses the character's internal fragility despite his brash actions, the first kiss, and how he got his scar.

-Germaine Crawford plays "Dukie" and talks about giving real children like Dukie a voice in the show. In an online only clip, Crawford talks about his fellow cast members outside of their characters.

-NPR's Fresh Air interviews David Simon and George Pelecanos from 2004.

-An older Fresh Air interview with Ed Burns. And one from 2006.

-Clark Johnson, director of several episodes and "Gus" in the current season.

The interviews can go into great depth... and if you search the NPR site you can find interviews with "Snoop", "Marlo", and others. I can't really think of other shows where so many of the actors and creators have been interviewed. And oddly NPR has chosen some of the more minor characters (I don't know if this has anything to do with availability). They certainly are fans, which is nice to see.

The Wire

This blog will pretty much be an extension of my obsession for David Simon's "The Wire." I hope to look at the themes it brings up, analyze it on the level of great film, and generally be a sounding board for some of the criticism that is already out on the internet.

My thoughts on the show will come at a later date, but for now enjoy Sudhir Venkatesh's interviews/sessions with actual drug traffickers and what they think about The Wire. Start with The First Episode and move through to the current one.

Here's a quick link to actual Baltimore Crime as well.

That's all for now, but stay tuned as I unleash many more links/info on the "best television show in history."