Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"Americans are a stupid people, by and large.": The Wire

First, a couple of notes. . .

Unlike most critics, I have seen nothing of The Wire's fifth season beyond the first episode (I plan to watch the second episode on demand at some point, but Rock Band is currently dominating the television). As you probably know if you watch the show, The Wire succeeds because of the cumulative effect of the show -- it's good in single episodes, but it becomes great or even transcendent when you watch episode after episode after episode. It's only from the accumulation of time that the show's careful considerations of the failures of the American system grow to have actual tragic weight.

To that end, I really won't be able to say which plot points are going to become insanely important at some point (the answer: all of them), and I may overlook things that in retrospect will seem ridiculous to be overlooked. If there were any show that I wish I could do 5,000 words on weekly, it's this one. Sadly, though, I've become much too busy, so this one will get weekly glosses (hopefully in a more timely manner than this week's episode).

While we're at it, I've worked for many a newspaper. While I'll try to keep my nitpicks to a minimum (I generally find this "style" of criticism sort of irritating), one or two may creep in. Forgive me if this is the case.

Follow me after the jump for thoughts on the season premiere. . .

For the first episode, I'm GOING to focus on those newspaper scenes, which I thought centered in on something that The Wire does well -- detail work. The way of the world is to do good work and focus in on the things you love doing, getting down into the nitty gritty. One of the best things about The Wire is how detail-oriented it is, how happy it is to get down into the procedures of day-to-day life in the institutions it covers. David Simon has said that the show uses the framework of the Greek tragedy to tell its stories -- it substitutes the gods who dictate the fate of Oedipus and pals for giant institutions. But the way you prolong your life in Simon's world is just to do good work.

That's why the newspaper scenes were so thrilling to me. While we were introduced to the newspaper folk (especially Gus, played very well by Clark Johnson) in a scene where they
gossip about buyouts and bitch about the declining quality of their product ("Someday, I'd like to work for a real newspaper," mourns one of them). Later, Gus comes across people standing to watch a fire, not having called someone to go and look in to what's going on. His anger at them is palpable. People grow comfortable in their jobs and forget either what it was that they started out doing or just the tiny things that need to be done to keep the machine humming. When you don't make that call, you're almost saying you no longer care about what you do or about trying to stand up to the gods themselves.

Gus' later catch of an item on a city council agenda (where the city is making a deal with a known drug lord) is one of those perfect journalism moments that those in the profession live for -- when everyone comes together at the last minute to pull off some seemingly impossible task (I love the way that the young reporter is happy with just a contributing line). I also liked when the old copy editor pointed out that you can't evacuate people, but you can evacuate people. The details, as always, remain important.

If there's one thing I don't like in the newspaper scenes, it's the opportunistic reporter from the Kansas City Star. He strikes me too much as a character I've already seen before, and I'm willing to bet he gets caught making up stories or something in his attempts to move on to the Post or Times (speaking of which, why hasn't someone made a movie of the gloriously, goofily tragic Janet Cooke story?).

As for the rest of the show, I want to wait a while and see what transpires. The Wire always begins with a little pause before the storm, even if a major plot point was set up at the beginning of the episode (with the shutdown -- again -- of Major Crimes). I'm interested to see how far McNulty goes before he reaches his breaking point, and I'm fascinated to see if the scattered MCU guys can bring down Marlo.

But it's the newspaper stuff that got me in the premiere. It's just RIGHT, from the rhythm of the dialogue to the various characters in the newsroom. This is a solid, solid portrayal of an institution that's gotten too little portrayal on television, and I hope it continues in this vein.


Andy Asensio said...

One of the things I loved in the newspaper story, and one that I surprisingly have yet to see mentioned in any of the analyses I've seen of this episode, is the irony of the actual story that represents the Sun's job well done. In the same episode where Carcetti, Bond and the cop hierarchy demonstrate that pinning a politician's pelt to the wall is more important than the murder cases, and it's shown as this travesty and the consternation of Daniels and others, the story held up as a shining example of great journalism by the paper is, at its core, a story pinning a politician's pelt to the wall.

It's a smart way for DS to demonstrate that there's never one pure definition of what's good and right. In the same way that no character on The Wire has ever represented pure good or pure evil, there are always many different ways of defining what's good and honorable, depending on your situation. What the right thing for the cops is, and what the right thing for the paper is, can often be different, should be different. Whereas public corruption might deserve to rank low on the totem pole for the police, Simon is making it clear that a newspaper has multiple goals, and serving as a watchdog certainly is one of them. Since everybody always likes to point out how the different institutions on the series are so similar - cops vs. drug gangs vs. schools vs. a newspaper, etc. - Simon needs to make it clear to people who make that analogy that if you assume they're totally identical, you're missing the point. Institutions may be similar, but they all have their unique details, and the details always matter.

Carrie said...

I don't feel comfortable commenting on a few of your thoughts since I've seen episode 2 and don't want to give anything away, but I just wanted to talk about how thankful I am that this show is back. One interesting and different thing is how much quicker the show seemed to move in the premiere (and episode two). Perhaps it's because they only have 10 episodes this season instead of the usual 12? I wish HBO would have given Simon the extra two eps to finish the show exactly on his terms. Instead we're getting 1,001 episodes of Gabriel Byrne as a therapist. Joy!

Filipe said...

Andy, your comments are spot on. I still don't get how so many fans seems to simple take Daniels remark as simply true. Poor Lester is saying "follow the money" since season one, after all. They are both very important investigations that one can't truly compare. There's a pretty good small scene on episode 2 that gets a little into that (don't worry, it's not a spoiler) where Sydnor and Lester start to work in the Davis case and Sydnor is complaing and Lester explains to him that it's a career case, but we can sense that Sydnor is still bored, he knows it's a big case and it's very important and all, but his out of his turf and would prefer to be doing survaillance on Marlo or Chris.

Todd said...

Man, if we're going to have such insightful comments, I'm going to have to step it up. Great thoughts, guys.