Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Do you believe Satan walks the earth in a fleshly form?": Two weeks of The Wire

(Hey, guys. I've been falling behind because of the Blog-a-thon, but I'm going to try to get pieces on In Treatment and Breaking Bad up sometime soon. -- ed.)

I think it's interesting that the fifth season of The Wire is so concerned with the price of fiction, with the way that fiction makes unrealistic promises that we can never see fulfilled. It's most interesting because The Wire is obviously a fictional account of a city falling into ruin, but it's also interesting because this is the most blatantly fictional season of The Wire yet. Brazen and satirical, the show makes fewer and fewer of its trademark concessions to realism as the season wanders on, and that's, perhaps, because the show has had its characters realize fiction is as good a way to dull the pain as any, until its lies catch up with you and you are subsumed.

The Wire has always leaned toward the "drama" half of the docudrama occasion (I realize others have already said it, but the Hamsterdam experiment was a blatantly fictional creation), but its concessions to being more like real life have always elevated it a bit more than it deserved to be elevated in terms of veracity in the minds of its most ardent fans (present company included). The Wire isn't really what life is like, not quite, but it comes close enough to what real life FEELS like that our minds fill in the gaps. And that's why plot points like Hamsterdam or the fake serial killer can jump out and assault us so.

Yet, at the same time, don't you think that's exactly what David Simon wants to do to us?

Before season five was even written, Simon was fond of telling people that the fifth season would be about the media and why we've never learned about the things we saw in the first four seasons of the show. It sounded pretty incredible, yet it doesn't quite match what we've seen in the first six episodes, where the newspaper storyline doesn't take the lead position that, say, the school storyline did in season four. But I think Simon was telling the truth about this season. The simple reason we never learn about the world The Wire presents is because fiction, even fiction that aspires to come close to realism like The Wire, is so much more comfortable of a way to confront such things than non-fiction will ever be. Confrontation with the utter failure of American to care for some of its weakest won't sell you papers (though it'll give you good stump speech).

This, of course, is not a terribly new notion, but it's impressive to see all of the characters confronted by the power of fiction in one way or another, be it because of McNulty's lies or because of Omar building up his legend on the streets or because of Marlo trying to smooth talk his way into power. Fiction is inextricably intertwined with truth in all of our lives, even in all of these fictional lives. Fiction is what we use to tell ourselves that everything is just dandy.

Even the newspaper editors, those bastions of non-fiction, long for fiction in a way. They keep asking to see the "Dickensian" in everything, when it's obvious that Dickens' novels were not deeply true documents (just look at what happened to poor Randy, the closest thing this show has had to a Dickensian character). Someone like Scott can come up with something that is true and good and right (his Iraq War vet story), but the lure of fiction is too strong. A drug it is.

The Wire, of course, is one of the few shows out there that argues that everything ISN'T just dandy, and in its final season, it's offering the thesis that we haven't realized this simply because we prefer fictions. Like The Wire.

I realize that's not a ton to write about two weeks of this incredibly dense show, but the plot recaps are everywhere around the Internet, and this is what I'm feeling most strongly about the show at this point. Hopefully, we'll get to something meatier next week.


Jason Mittell said...

Todd - I totally agree that this season is all about the meta-Wire, sort of the Simon-esque equivalent of Seinfeld's arc about making the sitcom. Everytime Whiting says Dickensian, he's not only referring to the way he imagines good reporting is done, but the high-faluting claims about The Wire itself.

To indulge in the meta, I'll quote my own blog talking about the same issues: in reference to the intersecting plots of McNulty & Templeton's lying, I wrote "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?”"

You with me?

Carrie said...

Great article, Todd.

Randy broke my heart into a million tiny pieces this week. I knew this is what he would be like now, but it was really, really, REALLY hard to see it.