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The Wire, dissected (again)

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 10, 2009 04:12 PM

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Omar, a character on The Wire

At The Valve, Aaron Bady argues that critics of the (late) television series The Wire allowed their commentary to be overly influenced by comments the creator of the series, David Simon, made toward the end of its run. "Citing Camus and the honor of going down fighting," Bady writes, summarizing a speech Simon gave at Berkeley last fall, "he told us that his title referred to the need to commit without hope of success, the fact that while the end was predetermined, 'you might as well scream about it on the way down.'" Grim stuff.

Bady notes, however, that Simon has not always been so fatalistic (existentialist?) about the characters in his series, which focused on the lives of poor black drug dealers in Baltimore -- from low-level runners to kingpins -- and their social networks, but expanded as it went on to encompass, too, the travails of mostly white dockworkers, students in a dismal public school, and even a big-city newsroom. "[T]he DVD commentary in the very first episode," Bady writes, "shows us a David Simon who is much less pessimistic and much more careful in not foreclosing what the show does and does not proclaim about the future. In his words, the show is 'about how we live together and it's about how institutions have an effect on individuals and how regardless of what you are committed to, cop, longshoreman, drug dealer, politician, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.'"

While he doesn't slight parallels to works of serial realist 19th-century fiction (well, maybe he does, a bit), Bady winds up arguing that a more useful cultural form or frame to think about when watching the show is the Western. The cops often act in cowboy-like ways or use cowboy-like language, and these echoes wind up having the following effect: "By reproducing the idea of America as an object of nostalgic loss, [the show's] faith in the coherence of those ideals -- and its assertion of their continuing viability -- gets hidden in plain sight."

Is this because Westerns themselves manifest the original myth of America, and so Western-movie tropes in a post-industrial, blighted city by definition bring about feelings of "nostalgic loss"? I don't agree with -- or perhaps follow -- every twist of the essay, but it's a smart, serious piece about a smart, serious show.

The Valve, by the way, is sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, a group that has reputation of being made up of English-department traditionalists disdainful of literary theory, pop-culture studies, and race-class-gender stuff. Yet here's Bady, a Berkeley grad student, treating TV as a serious subject for study while also discussing "imperial" centers and peripheries, "late capitalism," "troping," and homoeroticism among male characters. Either the ALSC isn't as crusty as I thought, or the MLA, to which the ALSC was founded as an alternative, is really out there these days.

(Warning: there are spoilers in the essay.)

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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