The Wire! Part Six!

by zunguzungu

An excerpt from the finished part of the paper I’m struggling to finish so I can deliver it tomorrow:

…it’s become a cliché to call The Wire the best TV show ever made, but the real thrust of statements like that is the claim that the show has transcended the medium of television; that, in contrast to the mediocrity of TV more generally, The Wire approaches the status of real literature. Now, I wouldn’t be giving this paper if I didn’t think this were true on a certain level, but such claims sort of miss the point: if “TV” is being defined by its mediocrity, then calling it the best TV show ever is damningly faint praise. And by measuring it according to the question of whether it is or is not like “other TV,” the complexity of the show’s generic lineage gets flattened out into a simplistic assertion of the show’s quality. In this sense, when the show’s writers and critics have pointed out its affiliation with social realism, American naturalism, and Greek tragedy, the point has generally been simply to establish the show’s credentials as real literature. This isn’t CSI, they tell us; The Wire is Dickensian, muckraking journalism, or High Tragedy.

These are the important reference points for the show, I think. Critics are not wrong to liken The Wire to the kind of social realism of a Dickens or a Balzac, since, as an interviewer put it (to Simon’s approval), the show does “swoop from high to low, from the mayor’s office to the street corner-and the street-corner dealers are shown more empathy and compassion than anyone has mustered before.” And even The Wire’s form — serial and episodic with a multitude of characters but aiming at producing a unified narrative of a unified social order — is Dickensian in the way it integrate the uniqueness of the part into a synthetic narrative of social totality.

The show has also been compared with twentieth century naturalists like Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, or Frank Norris, and here, too, the parallel is instructive: David Simon is a self-identified muckraker, the show’s aspiration to show “how the other half lives” is a profoundly Riis-ian ambition, and the American tragedy narrative of the show has a great deal in common with a Dreiser or Norris. In addition, David Simon has himself called The Wire “Greek tragedy for the new millenium,” emphasizing that “the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces…the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces…always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed.”

If we bracket off television’s perpetual inferiority complex, however, it’s worth noting not only that each of these generic modes are irreducibly different things, but that none of them quite describe The Wire. For one thing, the show’s urban spaces are unquestionably a very different kind of cityscape than Dickens’ London or Balzac’s Paris; as cities defined by their “greatness,” they could serve as metonyms for France and Britain at their imperial peak, the most highly developed capitalist economies in the world. But the Baltimore of The Wire is a city defined by its peripheral isolation, a forgotten city wedged between Philadelphia and DC and left to rot. Its problem, in other words, isn’t the discontent of American civilization; its problem is that it is located outside of America (as characters in The Wire often bitterly remark).

And while The Wire might also share with American naturalism a voyeuristic fascination with social breakdown (rather than social realism’s faith in its essential coherence), those turn of the last century novels were still basically structured by the telos of modernity and the inevitability of progress: as with Dickens or Balzac, Sinclair or Norris’ worlds were embedded in a capital h History which moved in one direction only. Progress might be a terrible thing, as William James put it, but no one doubted that it was coming; that history moves forward as inevitably and as remorselessly as the wheels fate.

In The Wire, on the other hand, history is moving backwards: the most omnipresent landscape feature is the “vacant,” shuttered up apartments left to rot and ruin, and the corners where drug slingers set up shop are invariably boarded up store fronts. The second season is literally a Greek tragedy about the decline of the American working class, the fourth is about the collapse of the school system, and the fifth is about the auto-cannibalism of American journalism. And over the course of the five seasons, the drug narrative is one in which relatively sympathetic and legible mob bosses are replaced by Marlo Stanfield, a character who is not so much evil as empty, an illegible cipher. If there’s one thing that unites the show as a whole, in other words, it’s the sense that things, as they have always been, are falling apart. Yet if things fall apart, and if the center cannot hold, is it therefore the case that mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world? Or is some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born? In other words, how do we aestheticize, historicize, and analyze collapse?