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The Tragedy That is The Wire

November 2, 2011

So, I just finished watching David Simon’s The Wire. Sure, I’m about a half-decade late. Am I a horrible, terrible hipster because I’m coming to something widely regarded as a masterpiece, the best television show of all time, the apex of the medium, about 5 years after it concluded? Maybe. Whatever.

The point is that I’ve finished the series, and now feel compelled to discuss it “like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know” what everyone else thinks about it. The Wire that is. Though I’ve diligently avoided others’ reviews for fear of spoilers (and some overarching theme “spoilers” are included hereafter), I feel that the reasons The Wire is regarded as such a success has less to do with its subject matter (i.e., a procedural cop drama) than the overall sense of gravitas and authenticity that permeated each and every scene. It had the same power as a stage performance; each line was delivered with deliberateness and precision and pathos. Of course, the acting was superb through and through, but moreover, the vernacular writing was both natural and important to the authenticity of the show.

Perhaps authenticity is the best word for it after all; The Wire promised not to pull any punches with its audience practically from the get-go. It stood for the opposite of the manufactured saccharine mind-wasting that the rest of TV has become. And the realism and authenticity of the show’s treatment of its subject matter (i.e., the War on Drugs™) grew exponentially when each season progressively zoomed out and added a layer of players that exist in the real world. And even though this show has tightly constructed twists and turns of intrigue, the conclusion bears out what the audience expects the whole time: that the whole enterprise is cripplingly cyclical and futile.

With all that prerequisite adulation out of the way, I can say that I don’t normally care for these kinds of procedural cop dramas. They are usually manichean portrayals of good vs. evil and lack any of the subtlety and ambiguity necessary to construct a moral gray area in which the characters can operate. I am sure that, like other “dramas” on TV, there is some loose overarching story line to these shows that demonstrates some of the private failings of the protagonists (you know–to give them some “depth”). But that doesn’t mean that these characters present with any any true puzzle or conflict for the audience to puzzle out on their own. There is no truth to be found in these shows, which is why The Wire dazzles so vividly, out of place.

In Nietzsche’s theory of classical tragedy, audiences look to tragedy, deep into the abyss of human suffering, and collectively affirm the existence and even validity of such tragedy, thereby passionately and joyously affirming the meaning of their own lives. Tragedy serves as a way to live presently and passionately in the world while acknowledging that it is filled with imperfections.

But, in the ordinary course of the normal slew of police procedurals like Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, etc., justice is done on a week-by-week basis, and an audience gets very shallow catharsis from such manufactured fluff. The plainly apparent lack of realism in these shows take them out of the category of tragedy, wherein an audience can come to a greater realization about themselves or the world around them, and turns these shows into mini-morality plays with no emotional resonance or educational purpose whatsoever.

Some, including myself, would consider these shows hilarious for their inauthenticity, thus undermining their ostensible purpose.

Of course, what makes The Wire so different is that each character lives in a very accurate rendition of our world. And because The Wire is rooted in that reality, the pain on display feels very real, practically tangible. Many times during my viewing, I thought to myself that The Wire, as fiction, is more real and has more truth to communicate than most non-fiction. Such has always been the purpose of fine art: to allow us to reach greater truths about ourselves than to keep us preoccupied and distracted in 30- and 60-minute chunks.

But what also feels significant about The Wire, aside from its clear and sober presentation of the myriad complexities and tragedies of the War on Drugs, is the that there is apparently universal perception that The Wire is a quality work of art. Such acclaim is evidence of the vanguard desiring quality in art that has been growing steadily for some time (see also Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc.). And there seems to be something objective about that desire, in that I’ve never heard of anyone reacting to The Wire with ambivalence or really anything less than abject admiration. That seems to suggest that there is something more inherent to quality in art than the set of internal pop culture references is in the zeitgeist at any particular moment. Moreover, it suggests that Americans can still recognize and seek out art.

That we live in a world where an audience demands quality programming is cause for celebration. That we live in a world where not everybody does is a tragedy for another discussion.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ariel S. permalink
    November 2, 2011 10:03 pm

    A classic definition of tragedy is when a character tries to avoid his fate, but in doing so his actions actually cause the fate he tried so hard to avoid. The Wire exemplifies this perfectly–all the efforts made to fix the problem of Baltimore’s “broken neighborhoods” just end up contributing to the problem, because in fact every level of the society The Wire captures is also broken in its own way.

    It’s interesting that you thought of The Wire as a procedural. To me it wasn’t a show about crime, it was a show about the dynamics of power. That, and the simply gargantuan scope the writers were able to successfully cover are what make The Wire a masterpiece.

  2. November 16, 2011 12:03 am

    🙂 glad to hear you got through it.

    What always got me about The Wire is how well it held that mirror up to American society and observed: “your comfortable, productive institutions are no more clean than your floor after you’ve swept everything under your rug”.

    “Got to. It’s America, man.”

  3. John Aho permalink
    December 12, 2011 11:10 am

    I finally finished it last night, and I was pleased to have been totally wrong about the final season (much better than I initally anticipated). No other show even comes close to it in exploring issues of race, class, captialism and drug policy.

    I would also highly recommend David Simon’s book “Homicide” (on which the NBC series was loosely based). Now I can finally fully discuss my favorite show!

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