Classes, taxes & The Wire


I’ve been swamped lately planning for Spring classes – because of Middlebury’s Winter Term, our classes start late, so tomorrow’s my first day of the Spring, despite the 0 degree temperatures. My two courses are Theories of Popular Culture and Media Technology & Cultural Change – feel free to play along at home with the online versions.

[edited out rant about taxes, removed by editorial hindsight]OK – spleen is empty and the important stuff about The Wire is below the fold.

My taxation lamentations do relate to The Wire, of course – the whole rationale for this season is that watchdog institutions like the police and the media are forced to do more with less, partly to avoid raising taxes on upper-middle-class and above citizens. Of course, the institutions are also corrupt, bled dry by people like Clay Davis skimming off the top, by Mayor Carcetti making policy decisions to serve higher political ambitions, by editor Whiting striving for Dickensian storytelling regardless of truthfulness, and even by Marlo inflating drug prices simply to assert power.

The last couple of episodes have ratcheted up the black comedic satire to levels approaching Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22. The moment in ep. 5 when McNulty looks at Templeton in recognition of a fellow bullshit artist made me laugh more than anything since Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, as the sheer ridiculousness of the story escalates beyond all rationales. But that’s the point – the only way to get anyone to notice a crime story is to make it stretch beyond credulity, a critique that’s aimed both at newspapers and television fiction. I feel like McNulty’s crazy scheme is partly David Simon’s way of saying “you Emmy voters & Sopranos fans won’t buy into our gritty realism, so how about this crap?”

Fans are split on this season, with many claiming shark-jumping in the wake of Simon’s journalistic vendettas (and the accurate critique that the newsroom scenes seem too dated as pre-internet relics) and the farce of the serial-killer storyline. But I see it as part of the show’s long history of exaggerations and extremes for dramatic & comedic effects – you think drug dealers really use Robert’s Rules of Order? Would a cop really try to create Hamsterdam? Would Baltimore really elect a white mayor? The show embraces hyperbole for grand statements, but always ties them to the human costs – the drawn-out sequence of McNulty kidnapping & relocating a disabled homeless man was shocking in its extremities, but ultimately showed how much Jimmy and Lester have fallen, dehumanized by their attempts to fight the good fight.

But the most gut-wrenching moment in episode 6 was the short scene with Bunk and Randy in the group home. Randy was my favorite of season 4’s kids, seemingly the most likely to pull himself out of the ghetto by his bootstraps. But in less than a minute of screen time, we can see he’s been destroyed, lost all will to do anything but survive. Pushing the kid on the stairs to show his toughness might be as heartbreaking of a moment as the deaths of Wallace, Frank, and Stringer – Randy’s soul is dead, but he still survives as a walking reminder of what could have been.

OK – more soon about the post-writers strike world of TV (hopefully)…

2 Responses to “Classes, taxes & The Wire”

  1. Glad to hear you wanna help pay more taxes, Jason — when I get around to filling mine out, I could certainly use a friend to help me pay the New York City taxes 😉 Seriously, though, I get your point. The myth that taxing the middle classes equitably would push them into the lower classes is rendered somewhat ludicrous when countries like Canada, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland are demographic wonderlands compared to the US, yet all tax much higher.

    As for The Wire, I deliberately waited before watching this season, since I wanted to binge. While I waited, I heard grumblings from many who don’t like it. And while the serial killer plotline is a little excessive, I agree with you that this is hardly new for Simon (Stringer reading Adam Smith and attending night classes on economics?), nor does it hurt the story for me. Instead, I’m really impressed that though all the hype said that Season 5 would add the media, Simon’s clearly added homelessness too. That scene with McNulty in the shelter in DC, as you say, is heart-wrenching, not only a sign of how he’s stooping, but also of how the very poor become mere pawns to be moved here or there.

    Like you, too, I found the Randy scene hard to watch. Just as watching Duqie hurts. Or just as watching Bodie’s murder at the end of S4 does. Yet as hard as it is to watch, it’s also captivating and so very refreshing to see storytelling that’s willing to examine the limits placed around characters by their institutions: Presbo couldn’t save Duqie, the boxing instructor can only offer “hopes and dreams” to Michael as he says (which wasn’t enough), Bubbles will always be damaged and alone, and so forth. If this were an episode of Saved by the Bell, Duqie would be class president, Michael would find a new mother in a charming white woman with lots of money, and Bubbles would end up a community leader. The Wire would only be guilty of jumping the shark if these all happened in this season.

  2. Hi Jason,

    I just wanted to say, “thank you” for… well, for being so easy to understand!

    Last term when I was researching an essay for my cultural theory course and I came across some articles that were written by you. (actually, it was frustrating, because I was trying to make points that had already been made by you – but I was fascinated by the fact that someone else in the world was on my wavelength!) I am from the States but I’m currently in an MA program in Ireland and I had never taken a theory course in my life before Fall ’07. My professor was wonderful, but I felt so far behind other students in the course. He made me want to learn more about cultural theory – and then I came across your work!

    I have linked into your blog since then and I am learning so much! I just thought I would let you know that the way you write and present things makes theory understandable and I appreciate that. You are reaching people and helping to change the way we see the world. I plan to use the resources you provide in my future research. Thank you. 🙂

    thanks for your time ~

    the articles were on narrative discourse in prime time television, in case you’re curious.

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