Development Hell: Taken Right from ‘The Wire’

“We were more interested in the idea of systemic problems, not the idea that if you get rid of one bad cop, or if somebody has their appropriate emotional catharsis, all will be well.”

–David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire, from The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

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Brian is one of my closest friends. We went to high school and college together. We lived together. We performed in a comedy group together. He is the only person I know who I could have spent that much time with, without wanting to throw something at his head.

the-wireBut now that we are much older, Brian exhibits a personal, creative aesthetic that infuriates me. He knows how disgusted I get when he goes on a rant about how The Beatles were worthless and Stanley Kubrick was a hack.

I’m much more adept at dealing with his general evisceration of everyone and everything in the creative arts, save for classical music, which he holds in high esteem. I just say things like, “Yeah, right, Kubrick. 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film was soooo boring. Anyway…” And I change the subject, to avoid my blood pressure from spiking.

Part of what also keeps me calm about Brian’s highly questionable criticisms about creative artists I hold near and dear is that his own preferences—and there aren’t many—are extremely idiosyncratic. He expressed sadness that the Korean TV series he has been assiduously watching on some Bay Area station is coming to an end.

So I rarely recommend anything to him on TV, in part because he does not have cable or satellite TV. But last year, I noticed that the HBO series The Sopranos was being re-run weeknights, and I began watching it again. I found it to be as engrossing and unique and smart as when it first aired. I watched it from the middle of season two all the way to where I began.

Brian begrudgingly acknowledged that The Sopranos was “pretty good,” which to my mind is like saying that Bach wrote some fairly decent music and Rembrandt did somewhat memorable paintings.

We don’t think of television as “art” for good reason: The people who air it are concerned with ratings and the people who create it work in committees. There is no singular, authorial voice. I was happy to see that the Writers Guild of America members were recently polled as to what they thought were the 101 best television series of all time.

The Sopranos was number one. My actual favorite is The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan was a British secret agent, kidnapped and brought to a quaint but unrecognizable village where other agents and spies were supposedly kidnapped and given numbers in place of names. It was a marvelous, paranoid, droll, at times gut-wrenching, beautifully produced summer replacement series that aired just after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It saved me from a summer of pure despair about America.

The WGA named it number 90.

Over the last year or so, Brian has inveighed against my refusal to watch a series on DVD that I have heard great things about but never bothered to follow: The Wire.

Well, a number of events conspired to convince me to take out Series 1 of The Wire from the Studio City Public Library. I had loved rediscovering The Sopranos. I experienced a pleasure in “binge viewing” the first two seasons of Homeland. (The first season of said series may be one of the best in the history of television drama.) And Brian had occasionally benevolently watched my TV and film recommendations, although he never seemed nearly as enthusiastic as I in his appraisals.

Finally, what sealed the deal on watching The Wire was my seeing Eugene Jarecki’s brilliant documentary, The House I Live In. In it, he ties togther the prison-industrial complex, variations in drug sentencing for whites versus racial minorities and economic conditions that breed drug usage. His doc shows that communities generate income by locking up people for victimless drug usage, while ignoring hard-to-solve systemic problems and violent crime. And David Simon’s sociological observations as an interview subject in The House I Live In were crystalline in their brilliance.

So, over the course of a week, I entered into the world of David Simon’s Baltimore, in The Wire. I knew it was a multi-layered look at not just the police trying to clean up the heroin traffic in a West Baltimore project, but an exploration of the cops, the dealers, the users, the innocent locals, the DA, the defense attorneys, the local and state politicos. And per the quotation that opened this column, Simon has clearly stated for the record that the series he wanted to create was not about the kinds of dilemmas and redemptions that typical TV cops experience, be it broadcast or cable.

Simon’s analysis of the various power structures in The Wire is complex, like a novel, and it is uncompromising in the way it condemns law enforcement effectiveness. A typical series on cops has a couple of corrupt characters making it harder for everyone else. Simon does not shy away from looking at corruption, but he frames it in a unique way: He is showing, as far as I could see in the first season, that the way people do their jobs is sometimes predicated on the way it is always done, and that can allow the system to fail. To buck the system, in The Wire, is to incur the wrath of superiors and many others, who prefer the expedient to the effective.

Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), one of The Wire‘s major characters, fills a mold we have seen before, to a certain degree: He is the cop who is hard-drinking, has problems at home and invests himself totally in the work. But what West’s McNulty also does is something that cannot be done in a feature and is rarely done in series television: his purity of heart and refusal to obey superiors actually condemns the system in which he works and threatens to tear it apart. As audience, we partially applaud his efforts and partially shake our heads sadly, knowing there is a certain level of futility, despite whatever successes he has in West Baltimore.

And we know damn well that West Baltimore is not an isolated case. I asked a writer friend of mine if he had ever watched The Wire and he said no, just as I would have said two weeks ago. I asked him why. “It’s too dark,” he murmured, perhaps with a note of shame.

Too dark? It’s a procedural with grace notes of characterization, reflecting the world we live in, even if we are vicariously experiencing the miseries of The Wire‘s characters. Do we not hear horrors every day if we choose the local or national news on TV, in papers or on the Internet?

But I knew what my friend meant. His subtext was, “I like my condemnation of society on series TV to have a kind of reassurance. I don’t mind if the characters I root for have minor flaws. But I don’t want to be reminded of a variety of systems that do not work well, limiting our success as a democratic nation.”

And so, for those who have heard The Wire is a good series, the impediment may be that it is political, whether it’s about cutting a deal in court or in the decimated courtyard of a high rise project, where kids not old enough to drink are selling heroin.

Another thing that struck me about the series is that there are, at least in season one, few shootings and chase scenes. Characters slide in and out and return. If Charles Dickens grew up in Baltimore and knew David Simon, he’d have been a staff writer on The Wire.

It’s not easy TV. It requires a special focus for the viewer. In a way, it’s made for DVD viewing, rather than the once-a-week kind when it was on HBO.  I know that the other four seasons focused of different aspects of city life in the series, while still investigating drug dealing. And after I get some more of my own writing done, I will be going on to the second season.

And not just because the WGA named it the ninth best TV series of all time.

Okay, Brian, you were right. It’s pretty good. Like Leonardo Da Vinci was pretty good.

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