Friday, January 11, 2008

The Wire: What Does It Mean To Be The Best Show On TV

ON SUNDAY, THE FIRST episode of the final season of The Wire aired on HBO. Much has been made of the elliptical Baltimore-based series, now in its fifth year. Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News claims it is the best show on television, and Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, has called it "the best show ever broadcast in America."

Even so, The Wire's visibility on the red carpet of popular culture is far overshadowed by the better dressed Mad Men, Dexter, The Sopranos (even in death; perhaps especially in death), Lost, Rome, and Pushing Daisies. In fact, The Wire made none of the top ten lists of 2007 on Metacritic. If so many viewers and critics appreciate the show, why don't they love it? Is there something about The Wire that both impresses and repels? Perhaps it is not possible, even in 2008, for America to fully embrace a project that foregrounds poor African Americans, violence, urban corruption, and an ambivalence about the drug war. Perhaps America is only ready to confront some of its values.

At its core, The Wire is about value: the value of human life, the value of drugs, the value of law, the value of the political machine, and, perhaps most importantly, the value of values. In a capitalist culture in which everything has a price, what is a life or a package or a vote or a body worth? What are neighborhoods worth? What is the value of skin color?

The show sets out to explore these questions, but we rarely get answers. The Wire is no morality play. Unlike The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Dexter, which present themselves as theater, The Wire refuses to position itself. For new viewers, this be confusing, but it is within the show's nebulousness that it arrives at clarity. That is, from no position, it can interrogate everything.

The Wire navigates the uneasy waters of drama, documentary, journalism, and comedy. We don't always know its argument; we don't understand all of its themes. We rarely know how to feel because the show upends typical value systems. In so doing, it enacts what we might call an "emotional ethic." By this I mean the character of the show, its project, is strong enough not simply to advance its own ethic but also to enable us to view our own ethical spectrum through the world of the show. The Wire makes the irrational rational, the ugly beautiful. It can make what should be wrong, right, and, sadly enough, the opposite.

One of the main plot points of the third season involves "Amsterdam," a moniker for an area of drug and gang-ravaged Baltimore that an aging police chief secretly converts into a legalized drug zone. It is a rogue move. None of his superiors know about the experiment because it flies in the face of the department's standard practice of juking the arrest numbers. But, on many levels, the experiment works. Hoppers and Cornerboys leave the corners. Residents fix up their houses and return to their stoops. Violence drops dramatically; in part because cops monitor Amsterdam. One of the great ironies of modern television is born--cops overseeing the legal sale and distribution of drugs to the benefit of local neighborhoods.

This is a provocative story line for any show, and in any other program, such a plot would have come off as farce. But, because The Wire embraces complexity and ambiguity, they can tackle themes that other shows merely bungle.

Their most important theme in this regard is race. No other show on television excavates the deep connections between race, identity, class, capitalism, and family like The Wire. Though scenes switch quickly--sometimes without commentary or exposition--from the White world to the Black world, the main focus are poor African Americans in inner-city Baltimore. Last season, the show moved away from the flashier subjects of sex trafficking and drug legalization and honed in on the daily challenges of teachers and students in an all-Black middle school. Here, every student is on the cusp of every possible bad choice. Every teacher is handcuffed by horrible facilities, atrocious funding, and a mandate for higher test scores.

The show follows the lives of four young men, 12 and 13 years old, as they deal with their White teacher (a former cop from the previous seasons), the insanity of their home lives, and the pull of the corners. The layers of complexity in the lives of each of these boys could fill an entire season; so overwhelming are the obstacles around them. The show's brilliance lies in its patience. It takes its time peeling the onion away, revealing disturbing layer after mortifying layer. A palpable bravery lies in the decision to circumscribe what might happen. Some of the scenes in the classroom are exceedingly uncomfortable. David Simon, Ed Burns, and their team of writers possess an uncanny ability to capture the hoplessness and ennui of trying to teach and learn division and multiplication in this school in this city to these kids.

In many ways, The Wire resembles the social novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries more than other contemporary television shows. Savvy viewers will see similarities in Zola, Dickens, Sinclair, and Ellison, especially in terms of how, even in the 1800s, we spend our children. Even the pace and plotting feels literary. So dense are the issues, so interwoven the stories, so precise is the detail, the narrative needs the patience of a novel to correctly unpack its story. The rise and fall of Frank Sobotka in season two is high tragedy Sophocles and Shakespeare would crib from.

To be the best show on TV, then, is to be not like TV.

I suspect when The Wire is no more, it will get some of the attention it deserves, but, just like the students in that middle school, it may not make a difference.

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