Oh, Indeed: ‘The Wire’ and False Choices

Grantland’s ‘Smacketology’ bracket for determining the ‘greatest character’ from The Wire is an exercise in futility; nevertheless, it begs the question(s): What makes a character great, and how can there be only one?

For starters, Alex Pappademas’s March 5 posting on the gloriously seething culture-trap that is Grantland about HBO’s The Wire (and let’s consider that branding for a second, rarely do we feel compelled to write “NBC’s The Office", nevertheless, Home Box Office must be acknowledged), Smacketology, is a beautiful piece of work. Riffing on Bill Simmons’s impressive get of an interview with Barack Obama -- in which the president acknowledged that, yes, Omar Little was the best character on that show -- Pappademas expands into a eschatological experiment that’s really just an excuse to:

A) Confuse the non-schooled.

B) Pop off the kind of comparisons favored by culture-miners of the High Fidelity and Clerks school; i.e.: “If The Wire were the X-Men, Omar would be Wolverine.”

C) Finally find something interesting to do with brackets in March.

D) Start an argument for no good reason other than to resurrect discussion and debate on one of America’s greatest cultural artifacts.

Admittedly, Pappademas acknowledges that the whole setup in which everyone gets to vote on their favorite characters is unfair and highly Manichean. Looking at the bracket of characters divided into their four quadrants, the arbitrariness is apparent: How does Bunny Colvin, the drug-legalizing urban policy martyr of Season Three end up in the Ports while city politico Clay Davis is over in Hamsterdam (the free-dealing zone that was Bunny’s creation)? And Proposition Joe was nothing if not a creature of East Baltimore, so again his landing in the Ports makes sense for no other reason than mathematical and geometric necessity. Also, putting Jimmy McNulty up against Cedric Daniels in the first round is just plain unfair -- these are both guys who deserve to make it into the second round, at least.

Not that this truly matters, of course. The fundamentally frustrating nature of Pappademas’s exercise is this: What makes a character great? Some matchups can be decided faster than it takes some stash-house hoppers to toss the re-up out a window before Omar huffs and puffs his way inside. Snoop vs. D’Angelo? Snoop in a heartbeat. The Bunk vs. Brother Mouzone? Even though Mouzone was no slouch, Bunk was arguably the scarred conscience of that beaten and battered police department; particularly once Lester and Jimmy… well, you know. Avon vs. Prez? Nothing wrong with Pryzbylewski, especially that fourth season rehabilitation of his, but Avon as the heart of that West Baltimore crew (Stringer being its brain) made for some of show’s more wrenching drama.

Other choices are tougher, though, and not just as a question of which character made for more enthralling drama. For instance, up in the Ports quadrant, Tommy Carcetti is put against Duqan “Dukie” Weems. Your choice of character here is really a deeper question about what you take from them. With Carcetti you get the whole fascinating range of frailties that afflict that modern politician who believes he cares (are his ideals truly to make a difference or are they just a different manifestation of towering ego, and does it matter?). But in Dukie you see every kid who, for all his heart and generosity, slips unnoticed between the cracks in a city that can’t be bothered to care. Who is the greater character? This is an impossible choice.

But, still… Dukie.

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