Policing the Wire

by zunguzungu

I love The Wire, good lord I love The Wire. But I continue to be struck by how often the conversation about the show insists on rehearsing a narrative of TV transcending TV, one of David Simon’s favorite hobbyhorses. Here he is, for instance, in the introduction to the new edition of the a book first published in 2004 (h/t), darkly castigating television’s slavishness to the commercial break:

“As a medium for serious storytelling, television has precious little to recommend it – or at least that has been the case for most of its history. What else can we expect from a framework in which the most pregnant moment in the story has for decades been the commercial break, that five-times-an-hour pause when writers, actors and directors are required to juke the story enough so that a trip to the refrigerator or bathroom does not mean a walk away from the television set, or, worse yet, a click on the remote to another channel.”

And of course he’s not wrong; The Wire could only be the show that it is by getting past the very constraints of the medium which he is here identifying. The Wire’s narration is novelistic in a specifically Benedict Andersonian sense: it interpellates “us” in the same way “the wire” connects the criminals to the police who are watching them, producing defining categories by the very process of surveillance and communication. Anderson argued that the “rise of the novel” coincided with the imagination of national communities, because people had to learn to think of themselves as occupying the same national space as their compatriots, the same way a student has to learn to think of all the characters and events inside a book as occupying a single “novel.” The novel and the nation, in a crude sense, are both pedogogies that teach people new ways to apprehend themselves and their place in space and history. It’s interesting, then, that Simon sees the work of the show as teaching us:

“The first thing we had to do was teach folks to watch television in a different way, to slow themselves down and pay attention, to immerse themselves in a way that the medium had long ago ceased to demand.”

Again, I don’t think he’s wrong when he asks “how can a television network serve the needs of advertisers while the hollowness at the core of American politics, education and newspapering is laid bare, and it is made entirely clear to viewers that they are a disenfranchised people, that the processes of redress have been rusted shut, and that no one – certainly not our mass media – is going to sound any alarm?” The kind of cognitive dissonance that a commercial break in The Wire would produce is truly difficult to imagine, and I really think he is right: the show simply could not work without the sense that everything was happening at once, the extent to which it causes you to forget the texture of its medium. This is why, I think, The Wire could never be self-reflexive about that medium (in the way The Conversation is, for example): it imagines place and collective political possibility through the very simultaneity which it artificially produces.

At the same time, to argue, as Simon does, that “The decoupling of the advertising construct from a broadcast entity was the key predicate for the political maturation of televised drama” is to make the particularities of The Wire’s ideological and aesthetic choices into a narration of maturation in a way that could benefit from being considered more critically. Simon writes, for example, that this “calculating restraint offered viewers a chance to do something that television rarely, if ever, allows its audience: They were free to think hard about the story, the different worlds that the story presented, and ultimately, the ideas that underlie the drama.” But any time the creator of a text talks about how his or her readers/viewers are “free” to interpret, well, I get nervous; if you think you are both teaching and liberating your readers/viewers, well…

Bonus The Wire Content! #1 — Apparently Harvard is teaching a class on The Wire! (h/t) But instead of being taught by some dumb flack in an English department, it is being taught by William Julius Wilson, who is pretty much the shit.

Bonus The Wire Content #2 — Have you guys read Policing the Crisis? What a book, man, what a book. It’s sort of an advanced critique of The Wire’s anti-capitalism, and reading it is at the root of all my “The Wire is nostalgic for a liberalism that never existed” ethos lately. I may stage a debate between The Wire and the CCCS, when I get around to finishing Policing.