The Wire: “An amorphous series detailing society’s ills”

24Jan08

I’ve been remiss in my promise to blog about each episode of The Wire. I blame TiVo.

There was a scene in last week’s episode, “Unconfirmed Reports,” that I wanted to discuss at length, and I figured I could take advantage of one of TiVo’s coolest features, TiVoToGo, to transfer it to my laptop, edit down the scene, and then post it to YouTube. But technology delays involving my new laptop meant that I couldn’t get it configured until tonight. And then I discovered that TiVo copy protects some shows to disable the transfer function, and all HBO shows are protected! So it’s locked on my TiVo. Nobody else has posted the scene, so I’m forced to go old school & just use words – if I figure out a way to get the scene posted, I’ll update.

Before discussing the last two eps beneath the fold, I want to link to a few good articles on the show. The Columbia Journalism Review has a nice cover story about the show’s treatment of urban journalism and the underlying animosity David Simon holds toward his old bosses at the Sun. Simon himself covers some of this ground in an Esquire article. And on more televisual issues, this excellent account of the show’s visual style and production practices is essential for anyone interested in such matters.

So I’m actually glad I didn’t post about “Unconfirmed Reports” before watching this week’s “Not for Attribution.” As is typical of the show’s long-form complex storytelling, my understanding of the earlier episode has become more nuanced after this week’s episode. The big stunner of “Unconfirmed” was McNulty’s decision to fake a serial killer to draw attention to the real crimes being perpetrated by Marlo. Like many other critics, I sympathized with Bunk’s incredulity and disgust – this is not our Jimmy!

But what “Attribution” provides is greater context, highlighting how much McNulty’s drinking is interfering with his judgment and leading him to sink to new lows. This resonates with the opening scene of “Unconfirmed,” with the recovering addict saying the list of things you think you would never do for drugs becomes a to-do list for an addict. McNulty isn’t turning tricks to get a fix, but his drinking has destroyed all boundaries for his ego – anything is justified to fulfill his sense of righteousness. My skepticism that Jimmy would ever resort to faking a crime scene disappeared when we see him drunkenly screwing a barfly on the hood of a car. My wife and I kept saying, “Jimmy!”, echoing Bunk’s stunned skepticism.

The other crucial dimension to the fake serial killer plot that “Attribution” establishes is the tone – the show is playing the story for laughs, serving as the pinnacle of The Wire‘s tendency to laugh in the bleakest darkness. Once Lester gets on board with McNulty’s plan, it rises to the level of Catch-22 procedural farce. I’m curious how it will play out, but I like the tone, making it feel like a drunk’s joke to survive a nightmare.

But the scene I wanted to post is from the journalism plot. Midway through “Unconfirmed,” the show provides a glimpse of a Sun editorial meeting. Executive editor Whiting argues with Gus about how best to cover the crisis in the Baltimore schools – Whiting wants a tight focus on a classroom to show how the system fails specific kids and offer potential reforms, while Gus argues for a broader multifaceted approach. Ambitious reporter Scott follows Whiting’s lead by saying, “you don’t need a lot of context to examine what goes on in one classroom,” to which Gus replies, “I think you need a lot of context to seriously examine anything.” Whiting argues back that tight focus will do more good in highlighting problems and potential solutions: “I don’t want some amorphous series detailing society’s ills. If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.”

In one way, this scene has little to do with the season’s plot – the actual story on the schools seems to be irrelevant this year (although it might return), with the meeting serving more to develop characters and the texture of the newsroom. While we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of texture of the workplace, which is one of The Wire‘s persistent strengths, the scene also highlights some of the season’s underlying debates over journalism. As highlighted in the CJR article linked to above, Simon has a distinctly different take on journalism than his former bosses at the Sun did – he believes that stories cannot be personalized apart from their contexts, and that social problems need to be reported as intertwined, not isolated with narrow focus.

Simon has left journalism for the world of fictional television, and this conversation is also clearly a meditation on The Wire‘s own storytelling. The scene opens with Whiting saying, “The word I’m thinking about is Dickensian,” a clear shout-out to the refrains comparing the show to Dickens works like Bleak House. The show embraces the highly contextualized mode of interrelated examinations, leaving it open to the critique that it is an “amorphous series detailing social ills.” Simon seems to be playing with his critics a bit here, acknowledging his storytelling strategies and positioning it not as Dickens, but as journalism. Of course, it may be both.

Finally, “Attribution” added another layer to this scene and theme. As McNulty tries to gain some traction for his serial killer story, we focus on the mechanics of storytelling – how do you frame a narrative, characterize victims and villains, appeal to an audience. While the premiere’s opening sequence set up the season’s theme as “selling the big lie,” I think the focus is also on the act of storytelling. This allows Simon a bit more reflexivity toward the entire series – bringing back quick cameos of old characters and providing meta-commentary on the show’s social function. I’m a sucker for reflexivity and meditations on narrative, so I say bring on more amorphous series detailing social ills!

And, of course, here comes Omar…



One Response to “The Wire: “An amorphous series detailing society’s ills””

  1. Thanks for the links, especially the Creative Cow piece. Good to get some perspective from a behind-the-camera person other than Simon or Burns. Clark Johnson’s Fresh Air interview is also thoughtful and full of insight. Hearing it made me even more glad to have him on the show this season. I have not heard the interview with Michael Kenneth Williams yet.


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