Fast Train to Nowhere: Watching 'The Wire' Aesthetically

James Arthur Williams

Every scene, no matter how seemingly throwaway, no matter how seemingly unimportant, contributes to a larger vision, a complex set of patterns and narratives. Which is why The Wire is both totally fascinating and utterly unrealistic.

It’s been about a year and a half since The Wire -- HBO’s crime series about the trafficking, sale, and policing of illegal narcotics in an American city whose best days have long passed -- ended a five year run in which it won critical acclaim but failed to find a broad audience. Despite its lack of popularity the series lasted long enough to realize the vision, and the complete story arcs, of its creators David Simon and Ed Burns (in past vocational lives, the former a newspaper journalist at the Baltimore Sun, the latter a police detective and public school teacher) -- a fact for which Simon and Burns appear deeply grateful. Though Simon has, in some circles at least, a reputation for an irascible and choleric temperament, at the conclusion of the show he posted to its HBO website a gracious thank you letter to fans that is further evidence of the powerful intelligence and ambition that informed and shaped the program. Here is an excerpt from that letter in which Simon reflects on the aims of the last season and the series as a whole:

This year, our drama asked its last thematic question: Why, if there is any truth to anything presented in The Wire over the last four seasons, does that truth go unaddressed by our political culture, by most of our mass media, and by our society in general?

We've given our answer:

We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them. [.....]

If you followed us for 60 hours, and you find yourself caring about these issues more than you thought you would, then perhaps the next step is to engage and to demand, where possible, a more sophisticated and meaningful response from authority when it comes to such things as the drug war, educational reform or responsible political leadership. The Wire is about the America we pay for and tolerate. Perhaps it is possible to pay for, and demand, something more.

In this passage, and elsewhere in the letter, Simon makes it clear that he and his colleagues believe that watching The Wire, or at least that watching The Wire properly, is hard work -- hard because it presents vast social and cultural and political problems in all their grim complexity, hard because it demands that the viewer follow often byzantine plot lines, and hard because it offers almost no wholly sympathetic characters but, rather, ones who alternately disgust the audience and evoke its admiration (sometimes in the space of a few moments). And though Simon never says so outright, it is clear that he believes that part of the challenge of watching The Wire and what makes it such an anomaly in the larger landscape of contemporary television is that it is an ethical undertaking -- ethical, at least, in the sense of being deeply concerned with viewers’ responsibility to ask themselves a tough question: Why does the show exist and what social good might come of watching it?

Simon’s answer, suggested here and in interviews, is as simple as it is provocative: to compel audiences to demand more responsible and effective policy and vision on the part of the various authorities that manage and govern modern America -- politicians, police departments, school boards, courts of law, and so on. More specifically, The Wire wants its viewers to recognize the terrible consequences of the “War on Drugs” -- the murderous toll it takes on (mostly) young black men, the corruption and criminality it encourages in once strong but now dying blue-collar industries, the way it absorbs resources that might better be employed in rebuilding crumbling civic infrastructure and city neighborhoods. And it wants viewers to take the lessons they’ve learned about what is happening on city streets and in city halls and on docks and in schools by virtue of watching the series and translate them into protest of the quick fix and band-aid solutions to urban crime and civic malfeasance and incompetence that are all too common in cities throughout the country.

Before considering The Wire in light of Simon’s vision for the series -- what he proclaims its intent to be, how the fiction it presents should interact with the reality it so carefully mirrors -- I’ll confess a prejudice up front. Like many of its fans I think The Wire is simply the best television program ever made. This is a bold, and perhaps ridiculous, claim, but in its polygot presentation of the idioms of an astonishing range of ethnic, vocational, and socio-economic groups, in its central premise that deeply consequential stories reside beneath the surface of mundane life, the series deserves a place in discussions of the finest fiction the United States has produced: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby.

When we talk about The Wire we are, quite simply, talking about a project that fulfills the criteria for what an earlier age of criticism would call a national epic, a work that captures the ambitions and values, competing impulses and essential contradictions, of the historical moment and society in which it was created. This is hardly an original observation. Since its inception reviewers and commentators, finding little else on television with which to compare it, have reached for terms like novelistic and literary to capture the complexity and ambition of the series. Indeed, in the commentary that accompanies the first episode of the season Simon unabashedly proclaims that if viewers want really to appreciate the series they better suspend the expectations for how television should work they have developed from viewing network fare and learn a lot of patience -- the kind of patience that it takes to appreciate a work like, well, Moby Dick (no one has ever accused Simon of lacking self-esteem).

Declarations of the complex design and profound artistry of the series are absolutely fair and I will return to a consideration of these aspects of the series and their effects on viewers. But for now I want to suggest that the very brilliance of the show compromises and ultimately undermines Simon’s professed didactic aims for The Wire. As much as I admire the series and as much as I want to believe in Simon’s claim that The Wire will realize its ultimate and best purpose in provoking social change by prompting Americans to take a stand against those bureaucratic, political, and economic forces that dictate the terms on which we live our lives (and for the worse)... I just can’t. I think Simon’s letter completely misses the great power and appeal of the series for fans and, importantly, its creators. Put simply, the significance of The Wire has little to do with its power to provoke reform or even outrage at the status quo, the way that civic institutions routinely betray both the constituencies they are intended to serve and their own highest ideals (indeed, I am deeply skeptical that it has such power).

Rather, the significance of the series lies in the way that it transforms the at once horrific and banal, the terrible and the utterly mundane (not to mention tedious) realities of the underbelly of a modern American city into fascinating drama; the way that it casts the occurrences and events that routinely happen in “the modern urban crime environment” in a lurid but fascinating light. This is problematic, I will argue, because when it comes to watching The Wire fascination is the enemy of the kind of ethical response Simon claims to want the series to engender in viewers. The appeals of The Wire are aesthetic -- that is, they present a complex and fascinating pattern that allows the viewer access to experiences that, are in Richard Posner’s criteria for assessing powerful literature, “more charged with significance” than lived life. For this reason, it is my sense that instead of encouraging reform the series redeems its often sordid subject matter in the dubious way that all great fiction redeems reality.

I have already noted that from very nearly its debut The Wire prompted a critical response and close analysis of its larger themes and resonance with socio-economic realities rare in the world of television. And this kind of response -- predicated on a belief that The Wire demands an intellectually searching engagement on the part of audiences -- is perfectly in keeping with the vision of the show as expressed by its creators. In interviews, Simon has repeatedly described The Wire as a “postindustrial American tragedy” and I suspect his word choice is not accidental. Despite its contemporary usage as anything terrible -- or, increasingly, simply unfortunate -- “tragedy” gestures toward something more than mere bad occurrence or circumstance. It indicates a worldview, an understanding of humanity and its place in a cruel universe ruled by inscrutable powers. Tragedy is the study of how human beings -- terribly beleaguered and abused by destiny -- seek for some dignity and wisdom in the midst of awful suffering. Which is to say that it is not about learning easily digested lessons in appropriate behavior or comportment. After all, if one only took a salutary lesson away from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex -- “Killing your father and sleeping with your mother is bad news!” -- one would be treading in pretty shallow water indeed. But of course this meager instruction in negotiating the perils of the family romance is hardly the point of Sophocles’ drama.

At least one larger point lies in an essential question that it prompts us to ask: can there be any kind of redemption in situations that are already so far outside the realm of the normal tribulations of a human life that all of the rules and proscriptions we live by are utterly useless? Whether or not Oedipus finds any redemption is of course up to the reader or viewer to determine, but this acknowledgment only leads us to another, more fundamental, question tragedy puts to audiences: is the compulsion that motivates our scrutiny of the human subject in the extremis of suffering motivated merely by fascinated repulsion or is it motivated by a desire to see the human spirit secure some solace, some triumph even, when pressed to the limits of endurance and comprehension?

We may seem to be a long way from The Wire, a show that, at its most basic, can be grouped in that catch-all genre “crime drama” (thereby rubbing elbows with assembly line schlock like C.S.I. and the various Law & Order series), but when Simon speaks of The Wire as a tragedy he seems to be trafficking in the notion of the individual’s perilous negotiation of terrible events beyond his or her control. If, however, in Greek tragedy the inexorable forces that human beings face to work out whatever redemption they can are destiny, fate, the inscrutable will of the gods, in the world of The Wire they are much more mundane and familiar, though no less terrible for that fact. Here is how Simon describes the relation of the series to classic tragedy: “Instead of [the gods] whipping it on Oedipus and Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions... those are the indifferent gods.” In other words, the crises and struggles of classical tragedy are not simply the matter of the literature class or scholarly essay; they are the very essence of modern daily life but with a different cast of victims and oppressors.

And those oppressors are the very social structures that are supposed to ensure the safety and well-being of American citizens: police departments and schools, city councils and city newspapers. They are oppressors, however, not out of malevolence but out of the incompetence and pettiness and greed and personal ambition and a failure of imagination on the part of their constituent personnel. Good people -- or at least competent and capable people -- exist everywhere, The Wire suggests, and everywhere they are met with stupidity and intrusive meddling and incompetent bureaucrats who desire only to maintain whatever power they have and, when the opportunity presents itself, grasp for more. And in this the parallels in the series between street battles for corners and neighborhoods in which to deal drugs and the constant turf battles waged by police administrators, politicians for promotions, media attention, and so on are hardly subtle.

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