August 05, 2009
I was trying to watch with my wife the DVD of He’s Just Not That Into You, which is to romantic comedies what Watchmen is to superhero flicks: a confusing bundle of plotlines about the upscale romantic entanglements of what used to be called yuppies. To pass the time while a heartbroken Ben Affleck moves out of Jennifer Aniston’s condo and onto his sailboat in the marina, I asked, “Where’s this movie set?”
“The non-Wire parts of Baltimore, I guess.”
The Wire, a crime drama about drug dealers and the cops who bust them, ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008, and is now more popular than ever on DVD. The Wire‘s rating by Internet Movie Database users, a fine measure of Geek Guy opinion, is a stratospheric 9.7 out of 10, the highest score I”ve ever seen on IMDB.
The show has had such an impact on a certain segment of the public’s imagination that my son runs into other high school students who claim to be from Baltimore, even though, when questioned closely, they turn out to be from suburban Washington D.C.’s leafy Montgomery County, where the typical teen trouble is signing up for too many Advanced Placement classes.
The Wire has frequently been anointed Best Series Ever, most often by D.C.-based neoliberals such as Matthew Yglesias. For example, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg declaimed in 2005, that The Wire is “surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America.” (I like the “surely” part.)
The Wire is the stuff that white people like. Indeed, Christian Lander came up with the concept for his blog/bestseller while bemoaning with another white person The Wire being on the verge of cancellation for its chronic low ratings. Similarly, The Wire was Barack Obama’s favorite TV show, and Omar, the implausible gay Robin Hood with the heart of gold, was the President’s favorite character. (Who did you expect Obama to say he identifies with most? State Senator Clay Davis?)
That The Wire was always only marginally profitable is part of its allure. If you didn”t know that it only appealed to a select few, you might complain that it seems kind of … low budget.
Visually, the show is forgettable (although, at least it goes easy on current Shaky-Cam clichÃ©s); the music is what you”d expect from its Baby Boom creator David Simon (for unexplained reasons, the thirtyish characters seem to like best the 1970s classics that they were, conceivably, conceived to); and the largely unknown actors” performances are fine but lacking in major star power.
Compare the casting of The Wire to that of another HBO show, The Sopranos, which enjoyed triple its ratings. The Sopranos could afford to hire Steve Buscemi, one of the best character actors in Hollywood history, to play Tony’s cousin Tony in 16 episodes.
In contrast, David Simon, the creator of The Wire relentlessly spun lemons into lemonade by trumpeting how his actors were hired straight off the streets of Baltimore for maximal authenticity. (Amusingly, though, some of the most important white ethnic roles are played by British actors. For instance, Jimmy McNulty, the main working-class cop, is portrayed by Dominic West, an Old Etonian).
Most of the scripts are crafted by Simon and a retired Baltimore homicide detective named Ed Burns, with help from crime novelists of the Atlantic Seaboard White Ethnic School, such as Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Richard Price (Clockers), and George Pelecanos (Night Gardener).
The writing, of course, is very, very good, if you don”t mind leisureliness and occasional self-indulgence. The conventional critical comparison is to Charles Dickens. (The Wire reminds me sometimes, though, why Evelyn Waugh couldn”t stand Dickens, and how, by studying Hemingway and film scripts, Waugh worked out ways to tell a complex cross-section-of-society story using only about one-third as many words as it would have taken the great Victorian.)
Simon is The Wire‘s tireless promoter in the press, where he has proclaimed his show’s social significance so often that Maureen Miller parodied in McSweeney’s what a Simon DVD Commentary for He’s Just Not That
Into You would have sounded like:
He’s Just Not That Into You is really about subtext. … The characters talk incessantly about whether or not they should get married, so what are they not talking about? Bingo”they’re not talking about the fact that the local media and advertising industry is collapsing, or that no one is paying any attention to the changing demography of Baltimore. … It’s almost like Greek tragedy … Where’s the collective guilt here? It’s completely absent, and that’s what should distress you, not the resolution of the crisis in their relationship.
Still, for all Simon’s chest-thumping over his show’s realism, you can”t help noticing that The Wire‘s central thread is old-fashioned Jewish liberal sentimentality straight out of a Stanley Kramer message movie from the early-1960s. According to Simon, it’s The System that keeps the typical crack dealer from becoming what he always, deep down inside, aspires to be: a nice Jewish boy with a B.A. in English from a state flagship university. (Simon, the son of a B”nai B”rith PR man, graduated from the U. of Maryland and became a Baltimore Sun reporter.)
An occasional blog called Jeopardy Green Room points out:
The Wire is simply repeating liberalism’s oldest and most discredited tropes: … [Early 1960s] liberals fully expected that one day “blackness” would simply disappear as a public phenomenon and with it all of the coarse traits associated with ghetto culture. …
Simon pens show-offy speeches to illustrate that inside most every black teenage drug dealer beats the heart of a 115 IQ Wire fanboy. For example, there’s D”Angelo Barksdale’s long AP English Lit soliloquy on the meaning of The Great Gatsby: “Like at the end of the book, ya know, boats and tides and all.”
And there’s D”Angelo’s painfully extended simile comparing chess to the drug trade. Or, in the fourth season, a cop becomes a schoolteacher and instantly teaches young drug dealers the mathematics of probability by getting them down on the floor shooting dice. Society, Simon implies, sounding much like a Life Magazine editorial from 1965 augmented by four-letter words, must make education More Relevant to Today’s Troubled Urban Youth.
Jeopardy acidly continues:
And it is exactly such faded, 40-year old product that the “innovative” and “cutting-edge” Wire is still peddling. Scratch beneath the surface of any ghetto kid, allow for the tough exterior and colorful street idiom, and underneath you’ll find a potential chess champion, or insightful social critic, or Great Books lover.
The paradox is:
All of this is … somewhat embarrassing to non-geriatric “advanced whites” who’ve grown up on multiculturalism and are acutely aware of the “culturally imperialistic” premises inherent in race-blind liberalism.
If you added an audience applause track, Simon’s most sententious speeches would sound like they were lifted from a Norman Lear sitcom, such as 1978’s Diff”rent Strokes. Remember the episode in which an entrance exam’s cultural bias keeps Arnold out of his rightful place at an elitist prep school?
Gary Coleman: My question was even trickier, Mr. Drummond. … Like they asked me how many people could sleep in a house with 3 bedrooms and a double bed in each room.
Conrad Bain: Oh, and what was your answer?
Gary Coleman: 18.
Conrad Bain: 18!
Gary Coleman: Yeah! We know people who get 3 in a bed, 2 on the floor, 6 on the couch, and 1 in the bathroom!
In reality, the kids in Baltimore City public schools are there because their parents are too dumb or drugged or distracted to get them out to the suburbs. Sure, a slice of Baltimore makes a sexy backdrop for the childless yuppettes of He’s Just Not That Into You, but parents with brains, black or white, get their kids out of the city’s schools.
In “The Effect of Urban Flight on IQ Distribution,” the pseudonymous statistical analyst La Griffe du Lion estimates from 8th grade test scores that on a scale where non-Hispanic white Marylanders average 100, the effective IQ of the average black 8th grade public school student in the city of Baltimore is 76. “More than a third have death-penalty immunity on grounds of mental retardation,” he surmises. (In 2002, the Supreme Court more or less abolished capital punishment for murderers scoring below 70 on their IQ tests.)
After generations of urban flight, the IQ of white eighth graders stranded in Baltimore City’s schools is only 86, versus 99 for whites and 86 for blacks in suburban Baltimore.
Yet the biggest lie peddled by the show is that the inner city’s violence and social decay are simply a logical reaction to the incentives of our capitalist system. … This theme is hammered home with deliciously ironic … hammer strokes. [Stringer] Bell, for example, takes a community college course in economics where the lessons he learns in “elasticity of demand” and product marketing prove immediately applicable to his criminal dealings.
And what of Simon’s surface-level solutions, such as ? Jeopardy points out, unkindly:
If drugs were legalized tomorrow, who would dominate the inner-city trade, blacks or the same inner-city ethnic retailers who control all the groceries and liquor stores right now through thrift, grueling work hours, and the ability to procure cheap labor from relatives dragooned into the family business?
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In summary, the reason that so many pundits swoon over The Wire is because the message Simon is preaching to blacks”Be like me! Be a nice white liberal!”is, deep down, their solution for everything. The main difference between Simon and his supporters is that he’s egomaniacal enough””Anything I’ve ever accomplished … has been accomplished because I was going to show people that … that I was the f****** center of the universe and the sooner they got hip to that, the happier they would all be””to come right out and imply it.
Yet, without Simon’s showbiz schmaltz, would The Wire be unwatchably depressing?