POST MORTEMS—Revisiting The Wire / John Steppling

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The Wire was an American television drama series set in Baltimore,Maryland, where it was also produced. Created, produced, and primarily written by author and former police reporter David Simon, the series was broadcast by the premium cable network HBO in the United States. The Wire premiered on June 2, 2002 and ended on March 9, 2008, with 60 episodes airing over the course of its five seasons.  Each season of The Wire focused on a different facet of the city of Baltimore. They were, in order: the drug trade, the port, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, and the print news media. The large cast consists mainly of character actors who are little known for their other roles.

A review by John Steppling, Senior Editor, Arts & Culture

thewireThe rise of a marketed reality continues to impact life in the West, and by extension, in the rest of the world.  The corporate model is now a poltical model as well.  It is also, and this seems less talked about, a cultural model. Culture has become so commodified that it has lost almost all contact with daily existence — by which I mean the civil society most westerners, certainly Americans, exist in, is one of such ephemeral values and of such superficial relationships, that it has left a populace more and more desperate in their search for meaning. I am reminded, whenever I ponder such stuff, of MTV and its endless array of reality shows. *Parental Control* or *Next* or *Date My Mom* (someone got a big raise for coming up with that title). What one sees, and it is quite clearly staged and encouraged, is the hyper-kinetic narcisissm of the rudderless ego — the fragmented atomised non person, advertising him or herself.

The corporate model also promotes a moral invisibility; for profit and results matter above all else. The collateral damage, psychologically speaking, for such profit drive, is an increasingly unhinged ego. An ego without signposts for even rudimentary moral evaluations. It should be no surprise that such an ego will naturally find comfort in simple jingoistic messages and in resentment.

Political winners are those who have raised the most money. This is part of what is internalized in the managed world of the 21st century west.  But this, by a circuitious route, brings me to the HBO series, The Wire.

A series quite different I would argue, from The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, or NYPD Blue and the like.

Adorno pointed out the bourgeoisie desire to ground ideas like *freedom* in an oppressive rationality. One form of oppression is replaced by another. This is linked closely to the rise of science and technology, and a growing belief in this system, which in turn is of course linked to production.

There is always a tension or paradox in interpratation — and it resides somewhere around the Marxist accusations of *obfuscation*  (vs *instruction*).  The CIA may have helped promote Jackson Pollack, but the residual unease of abstract expressionism cannot be analysed away, nor can it be dismissed as simple open ended mystification. The residual unease of a Diego Rivera, by the same token, can exist without ideological stress.

Now, The Wire remains a corporate product, put out by HBO. What is different about it, as a piece of genre serializing, is that so much of what one has been conditioned to expect, is absent.

There are fewer TV hacks involved, and even with a sense of dilution by season four, the sense of core disrupting tropes is hard not to feel. I would argue that has to do with the sense of storytelling involved. The first season returned again and again to the orange couch sitting out in the middle of commons yard, in the projects. Dope dealers hung there, and messengers, a la Sophocles, would run in from off stage to report on events. Now, why is this different from the permanent sets of other shows? I suspect because in most corporate TV series, including the fashionable such as The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, the story returns to these places as a way to restore equilibrium, while in The Wire, that equilibrium is never to be restored. In fact, it was never posited as there. The narrative in The Wire is highly elliptical in the sense that psychology is only a symtpom of societal malaise — or in large part it is — not the other way round. The Sopranos fetishized the gangster genre, and criminality — a post modern gangster show, where meaning was suspended. The Wire is fatalistic. People change, or they dont, but material conditions carry them along regardless. The surprise one feels watching this series is explained by just how conditioned we all are to think of story as it appears on TV as one where individuality is the final determiner. The Wire, like greek tragedy or Dante, or Raymond Chandler, sees the individual as caught in an historical moment that destroys his sense of individuality. Characters reflect on themselves, but usually arrive at only deeper existential confusion and pain. Hence the missing moments of psychological resolution. Six Feet Under, for all its surface radicalism, still adhered to the presentation of a managed reality and to a human model approved of (and created by) the culture industry and advanced marketed capitalism. It was managed storytelling.

Alongside this comes the obvious social critique — free of the sentimental (mostly) and of the romantic. One of the problems with season two was the romanticizing of the working class that appeared at times in the story line on the docks. Happy and robust poor workers, with a larger appitite for life, etc. These are cliches of bourgeoise narrative. They dont appear in the inner city story lines, however. With an admirable restraint the introduction of child actors in a drama of adult corruption is remarkable for all the things missing. The war on drugs is seen, without overt explanation, as pointless and the corruption met at every turn is simply the condition of capitalism — profit. Characters desire both new gold chains, and they desire escape from commodity — and a life of crime, *the game*, is never dwelt on because it is the fatalistic background for the human tragedy that is acted out, inexorably, by those already condemmed. Escape is not possible.

Fourteen year olds are no more or less tragic for their wasted lives than adult police commissioners. The tragedy is there in a criminal justice system because, again, the very idea of *freedom* deterioates at each turn. The entire universe of life in a mediated and dominated system of exploitation must beg the question of freedom. In its often almost primitive style The Wire refuses the ornamentation of bourgeoise culture, at least partly. The moments of *release* from narrative tensions (cops late at night drinking in an open field, next to their parked car) really provide no release. In fact they intensify the feelings of dread that lurk at every plot turn. In Six Feet Under, for example, the daily world may be boring and drab (notwithstanding the backdrop of a funeral home), but it is established as a counter to the crises of characters in each story line. These crises however are always individual in their expression and in their intent. The conflict is external, or it is externalized. It is never really psychoanalytic, in the sense German Expressionistic cinema was.

Here we return to the bourgeois notion of character. A character’s behavior in a particular situation is objective while destroying the very importance of the objective world — or of history. The notion of freedom, or fate, or the tragic or responsibility — in its metaphysical sense, is never addressed. I might argue The Wire returns us to something closer to Bresson, film noir, or Val Lewton. By which I mean to something where the Universe itself is lodged in history. The impermanence of the world around us, something argued against by advertising, is the constant theme of The Wire, while it is exactly such an existential despair inducing recognition that goes missing in The Sopranos, SFU, or any Bocho piece of reactionary authority worship.

Police drama, in the form a Bochco or a Milch turn it out, is pure fetishized worshop of punishment. Six Feet Under of The Sopranos is certainly several degrees removed from that. In each, so as not to seem too hard on these prodcuts, at least the creation of character is allowed a formation that provides a sense of resonance in the audience, of at least genuine recognition, however limited one may feel the value of this. But in the end the contradictions of existence are expressed as false problems…..those problems that allow for solution. They seek like smart bombs, delvering a bromide of adujstment. When genuine existential alienation is treated as sociology, we have a basically dishonest narrative.

In the universe of The Wire, like in Dostoyevsky or the best film noir, the problem never has a solution. It cannot ever be put to use, its metaphysics cannot be packaged. Characters do not adjust, because there exists something outside the terms of oppressive rationality. The rationality that is co-opted and marketed as a form of authority.  The series weakens as it rolls on because of this very issue. A lurking dormant identification with authority seems closer to surface with each passing season. Police are more humanized and a vague but unsettling tone of moralizing begins to creep in.

Still, The Wire is a singular achievement in an era of total corporate ideology. That a depiction of working class life is presented, for the most part, free of apology, is worth our interest all by itself. But its the tragic sense that is most worth applause. The tragic, in an era of waste capital, merges with the grotesque (per Jan Kott) and The Wire expresses this, likely without quite knowing it.

“Not the least of the reasons why the idea of freedom lost its power over human beings is that it was conceived of so abstractly-subjectively in advance, that the objective social tendency could bury it without difficulty.”—Adorno

John Steppling


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