Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Wire

Watching, thinking about, and viewing some fan sites for my favorite show, The Wire, I realized how unbelievably good a show it is for discussion in a class like this: it sits at the intersection of many different kinds of media, and is a show that is very conscious of these intersections, and very much uses them to their advantage.  For example, heavily encoded in the show is the idea of surveillance: the central organizing structure of the show revolves around cops and the organizations of drug dealers they are watching.  Many shots are from he point of view of different surveillance devices--and example that immediately jumps to mind is a brief scene in the show that is from the perspective of a security camera in a housing project.  A young man (if I remember right, it's the character Bodie from the first season--but it might just be a random person) throws a stone at the camera, which then breaks, ending the shot in static.  The reason I remember this shot is that it is in the opening sequence of the show, and not only that, but it actually remains throughout all of the seasons of the show, even though each season they dramatically re-design the opening intro, deleting almost all of the previous season's images and replacing them with new ones--however, this scene remains throughout the show (and is one of the only images--maybe even the only one--that remain in the final season's opening sequence from the first one).  Not only is surveillance a central thematically to the show, but also in it's narrative structure--much like Enemy of the State.

However, it's connection with surveillance is just one way The Wire is highly illustrative of many of the concepts we've been talking about lately.  In addition, it is a bit of an odd convergence--while it is a TV show, it honestly bears far more resemblance to movies in many ways than to other TV shows (I view it more as an extended movie--like a novel compared to a short story, i.e., the same medium, but a different form and length).  As it's on HBO, there are no commercials, so each episode is uninterrupted, and (whether because of that or coincidentally) has a much more defined sense of narrative flow than most shows.  In addition, far more effort is placed into visual coding than most TV shows, with an attention to detail employed that is far more careful than almost any other shows I've seen (this, too, is probably somewhat due to the fact that HBO series record all of their episodes before the season starts, and not on the fly as it's going, allowing them to spend more time, and to not have to always be worried about the clock when they're working--i.e., they're production methods are much closer to cinema's than the vast majority of shows).  To name a few example of the incredibly attention to detail the makers of the show employed, there is a recurring scene where two characters drink by some old train tracks, and what stage of the cycle the moon is in in the sky is highly symbolic (I read in an interview somewhere that they paid very close attention to it and it was highly intentional), and also the shirt Bubbles, a prominent character, is wearing in any given scene is an outward manifestation of his mental state--e.g., in one scene he wears a shirt that is a chaotic mix of many different colors, representing the deep emotional turmoil that is boiling beneath the surface of his mind (on The Wire's official website on HBO, they did many segments detailing certain aspects of production of the show--in one of them, they discussed the wardrobe of characters, including the example I gave of Bubbles).

Another example of how the show crosses different media is the fact that over the years, the show evolved from a cop drama (granted, a very complex and highly atypical one) into something far more elaborate--a Dickensian look into many levels of our society, not just investigating the police department and the drug organizations in Baltimore, but also delving into the docks and longshoreman in the second season, the political world in Baltimore starting in the third season (and getting even more in depth in the 4th by following a candidate running for mayor), the public school system in the fourth season, and the news media in the final season.  In addition, besides the fact that the news media becomes a focus of the show in the final season, the creator of the show, David Simon, was a reporter (on the police) for the Baltimore Sun for many years, and very much brings that sort of mentality to the show--the show is not just a series of stories for entertainment, but very much is a depiction of the world we live in, and a scathing social critique.

There are many other examples of the rich cross-media attributes of The Wire, but I'll steer into a different, but related topic.  Because I view The Wire as a show that in many ways is very unlike television (and more akin to films), when I've viewed (I have in the past too, besides as an assignment for this class) fan sites, or other online discussion of The Wire, I've always felt a little depressed.  This is precisely because the way everyone talks about it is exactly like the discussion of any other show for the most part, and often ignores the shows incredible subtlety and attention to detail.  For example, I saw that some people in my high school who I very much disliked were into The Wire, and were talking via Facebook about how cool various of the drugdealers were and how they wanted to be like them--one even saying he wanted to be like this one character Marlo.  For context, on a show that places an unbelievably high premium on conflicted and morally ambiguous characters (e.g., many of the cops are pretty bad people, and a lot of the drugdealers are very good people caught in a bad system), Marlo is one of the only characters that is a true villain on the show--in fact, he's one of the creepiest villains of all time in my opinion.  But yet, so contrary to what the show seems to be attempting to do (by painting him as a morally bankrupt sociopathic killer), these people instead viewed him as a glorified gangster ideal.  This made me think of what we were talking about in class today, about how every show has something for everyone--even though in this case, I would doubt the reading of it that glorifies Marlo is at all intended on the part of the writers (unlike say, The Hills, which very much does have the alternate viewing encoded in it), but is more just a representation of the fact that any symbol, no matter how well it is encoded, can still be easily misinterpreted.

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