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.