The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reading "The Wire: Season Four"

I don't watch broadcast TV- I wait for the DVD's so I can dive into a show as if into a big novel. Recently I caught up with "The Wire"- a show that has profoundly moved me over three previous seasons. I've been waiting a long time for this fourth season and felt electricity crackle through my fingers when I plucked the disc out of its plastic container, dropped it into the player tray and pushed the button marked ">".

I never learn. Each season I start thinking ‘hmm, this is kind of boring’ and consider stopping after an episode or two. Perhaps, you’ve been there. Perhaps you even gave in to the desire to give up. Perhaps you never got to the next stage: the moment. And the last stage: bliss.

Each season is constructed in a similar way, (although the series is becoming more and more like itself, finding its unique way and ditching the hallmarks of ordinary television, ordinary film.) We follow a score of characters about their business: the business of getting up and walking your little brother to school before you take your place with the drug runners; the business of arresting drug runners and then trying to grapple with the ridiculous court system; the business of running a court system with a ridiculous amount of crime to deal with and not nearly enough money or resources; the business of administering government money in a way that ensures you don’t lose any votes in the next election; the business of trying to get city hall to listen to what’s going on in your neighbourhood. As we cut back and forth- between senators and mayors, little kids and older kids, teachers and principals, police officers and police administrators, drug users and drug sellers, prisoners and guards, mothers and fathers and husbands and wives (of prisoners and drug sellers and little kids and lawyers and politicians), ministers and social workers, bureaucrats and lobbyists, prostitutes and johns, developers, and etc…, and etc…, and etc….- we are overwhelmed at first. It’s too much; and it’s not enough. Too much is happening- it’s hard to keep track of all the characters; and not enough is happening- at least not in the Hollywood way of simple scenes of good guys and bad guys acting out one of the standard ‘narrative arcs’. It’s just folks on ordinary days doing their thing. This is the first stage-where you might give up.

Then there’s the moment. I imagine it’s different for everybody, depending on which character you ‘click with’ the most, or on how well you’ve been paying attention. But it suddenly hits you. You remember a little thing from one scene that completely colours a little thing that’s happening in another scene- and that spike into the intersubjective nature of reality lets the entire city burst through into your consciousness. You’ve seen the interconnectedness of things and there’s no going back. Suddenly all the ordinary things that are happening and all the ordinary things that have already happened are plugged in, electrified by the living force of social nature. The tattered textbook the school kid is holding in his hand is connected to the budget meeting the politicians are holding is connected to the phone call the lobbyist made is connected to the money that came from a developer is connected to an eviction notice that is connected to the school kid’s not having had breakfast that morning. It’s a whoosh. It’s a jet engine. It’s a vision of the here and now in urban North America that is so complex and complete that it expands your mind and heart. The way you feel about everything is an overcrowded tenement is a city hall committee meeting’s overfull agenda is a police station’s white board of homicides overflowing onto taped-on Bristol board. Everything is connected and the things are piling up and the connections are piling up. It’s exponential, but it’s one thing.

Post-moment you are in the final stage, where every second of the ordinary lives of people matters in a thrilling way. A kiss changes the world. A sigh. A gunshot kills everything. A punch. A kind word becomes a Molotov cocktail becomes the look in someone’s eye when they realize their dream just died. “The Wire” doesn’t have happy endings. Or sad ones. Or any kind of endings. Life is ongoing. People going about their business. The world cooking along. And it’s bliss to experience. There is pain and suffering, enlightenment hasn’t blinded you to the realities of urban dysfunction- but is has become part of a singular sensation that is so big it stretches the mind- the bliss is ‘wow’ taken to the extreme.

“The Wire” is the “War and Peace” of our time, our equivalent of those big novels from earlier centuries that tried to take in everything the author knew about the world. Only, really, honestly, there’s something better about it. Because nothing beats TV for realism. A sentence of prose can’t take in the world in quite the same way as a camera shot can. It’s the look of a freshly scrubbed kid on the first day of school, the sound of a gun scraping between the bars on a grate and plopping into a sewer, the feel of a police car ride through a night boulevard. The way the light hits everything. Everything. Those sentences picked those things out of the fabric. The accepting nature of the camera keeps them in context. I know there are filters and angles and all kinds of things a director and a cinematographer can do to slant reality. But I think they have a harder time. More of reality creeps in than their artistic efforts attempt to limit. There are other kinds of art where the limiting is the beauty: the simple line drawings of Picasso; haiku; Stravinsky’s fracturing of the orchestra into restricted ad hoc ensembles. But in the kind of art that tries to maximize, art that’s greedy to include everything, a picture proves to be worth a thousand words and add the soundtrack and you’ve topped your game.

The creators of this TV show- the writers and directors and actors and technical people have built something very special and we owe them a debt of gratitude. It takes a giant mirror to show us ourselves. What a show like this doesn’t have, which is what makes it different from “War and Peace” and, in some way, less artistic, is a unified vision. But that’s the point. Time will tell whether the collaborations of our interconnected world achieve the same artistic recognition as the singular efforts of creative individuals. Our idea of what art is will have to shift a bit.

The Wire isn’t so much ‘set’ in Baltimore as ‘is’ Baltimore. The particular strand focussed on in season four is education. The season doesn’t let go of the show’s connections to drugs, policing and politics but it steps back to look at how the younger folks are socialized into those ongoing worlds. The chances they have and the chances they don’t have. And because of this focus, there’s a new aspect to the Wire, in this season. I found myself crying in a couple of spots. The whole sad futility of generations following each other into misery hit me. The nodes of interacting social forces are individual people. The tug of war between crime and punishment, black and white, rich and poor is played out in real lives. By the time season four ends some of the boys we saw playing in an alley at the start, hitting cans with rocks, some of those boys are dead, some are on their way to being hardened criminals, some are on their way to being teachers or policemen, some are on their way to being politicians (maybe even good ones) and some haven’t budged an inch.


Anonymous Anne C. said...

I'm going to have to give that show another chance! I watched a couple of episodes, and it felt a little too much like macho fantasy. Was I too hasty?

Wed Dec 19, 05:20:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

I've never seen The Wire, but God damn if I ain't glad that you have, Andrew. Wonderful post. Thanks for reminding us of how things connect, flow into each other, keeping us on our toes, paying attention as if we have the luxury of a whole season on DVD. Phew! Shazam!

Wed Dec 19, 10:32:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

A powerful piece of writing, Andrew, about what seems to be a powerful series for you. I haven't seen it but I can sense the fullness of it from your description: the interconnectedness of people and events, the futility of trying to "fix" things, the fact that life just "is."

Wed Dec 19, 11:34:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger TitaniaWrites said...

Andrew - I am right there with you! I started watching Series 1 a few weeks ago, crammed in all the episodes, and am now on Series 2. I love it, it is astonishing, War and Peace just about describes it. I know that the next season will be the last. All good things, eh...? Great blog post, made me very happy!


Thu Dec 20, 04:10:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

When I happened upon this show, it was on one of those nights I couldn't sleep, 2am maybe. CTV I think. It was hard to focus because that seasick-inducing cinematography is hard to watch; the grainy angry lighting a bit too much at that hour. And yet I did. The angry bull-moose cop; the sleazy underlings...all in the name of 'good.' All of us, just trying to keep up. I have only watched about a dozen episodes, tops. I liked it well enough after a while, but like with all TV shows, I just don't have that kind of attention span. Except Arrested Development. I watched every season of that and the commentary. A couple of times.

Do you watch Intelligence? In many ways, I think it's inspired by The Wire.

Thu Dec 20, 02:48:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

Haven't seen The Wire. The cable service attached to our maintenance is pretty widesweeping, but with a few glaring omissions, such as the BBC channel and whichever channel broadcasts The Wire. Perhaps this will be rectified by the new black box Rogers has installed in every residence this Nov.
The shows I've watched devotedly (and where possible have on DVD/VCR) are Buffy, Angel and Oz. How does The Wire stack up with them?

Sun Dec 23, 02:14:00 pm GMT-5  

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