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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

down to the wire

I didn't watch The Wire when it was on TV, despite the urgings of many people, some of whom even understand my aesthetics and tastes. I figured I'd watch it someday or not at all.
And then I got my second bout of the crud and was so buried in reading for work that any other reading became verboten, and HBO started offering The Wire on On Demand etc. etc.
Several weeks later, I have finally finished all the seasons, including the final fifth one that everyone especially said I HAD TO SEE because it involved a newsroom etc. etc. (it is not, btw, a wrong assumption that I would be interested in anything involving the media; I do have that mad meta love; I even liked the movie The Paper, although Robert Duvall, when I met him last year, laughed at me for that).
Anyway, The Wire: Much has been written on its breaking of narrative conventions and, indeed, I liked that quite a bit. Very clever. And, of course, the characters, so many tightly drawn and unforgettable.
But when I finally finished, all I could really think about was the ultimate message. In three different, but connected "public" sectors: police, schools, newspapers, there is a common tension between people who just really want to do their jobs: real policework, real teaching, real reporting, versus those who are running the various institutions, who require proof that the work is making a difference. So in the copshop, you have people "juking the stats" to show that crime is down to please the politicians; in the schools, teachers teach to the test to improve scores so they can get federal dollars. And, in the poor newsroom, desperate reporters fabricate stories and overwrite them to please the higher-ups so that the newspapers can win Pulitzers (which, in real life, hardly guarantees fiscal solvency, but anyway).
It's an over-simplification to say the heroes are the ones who refuse to play the game, because such heroism isn't necessarily rewarded in The Wire (at least not materially), but it's not too much of an oversimplification. What is clear, by the end, is that any attempt by an individual to change an institution will take down that individual long before it takes down that institution. And, lo and behold, there will be someone else to pop up and take his or her place. Even the drug trade, the fourth "institution" of The Wire, is an unbreakable machine: No matter how many people die, no matter how much drugs are confiscated, there will always be someone to step in and keep the machine going. There will always be someone willing to juke the stats, teach to the test, or publish bullshit.
So, you know, not an overwhelmingly positive message. And such a reductive one that my tiny inner optimist (she's there, I swear) started narrowing her eyes during the final montage scene and shaking her head (optimists can narrow their eyes and shake their heads too).
The only real happy ending to the entire series comes for "Bubbles," the former junkie who, after massive loss and serious 12-step rehab, finally seems like he will have a chance to just live a decent life (you know, one day at a time) and his story, his actual true story, is told by a real reporter, who just writes the story "clean." And even that reporter gets his little reward—it's not a Pulitzer, but the moral of the Wire's fifth season is that going for gold is a good way to lose your way and end up either with nothing or so morally bankrupt that if you could recognize your own actions for what they were, you'd be disgusted too.
Would that it were, I suppose.