What happens when ds106 takes on a theme and subject of the TV series The Wire? That unfolds next week when the class starts at UMW. Do you feel me? (that’s a line from the show, ok?)
There’s a bit of affinity since I am from Baltimore, though not the areas where the show takes place. My first interest in the show was piqued at the 2008 South by Southwest conference in a keynote session where Henry Jenkins and Steven L Johnson discussed the increasing complexity of TV narratives, comparing old school simple sitcoms that I grew up on with newer (then) shows such as Lost and The Wire.
What’s always interested me are the complexities and nuances of the characters in the show. I thought about this when I watched about 1.5 seasons of House of Cards — what struck me about that show was how none of the characters were likable, or you would root for… likely the message about Washington is that everyone is flawed. That seems to violate one of those rules of writing that people wnat a hero to identify with.
The Wire is more complex– and never as simple as cops as all Good Guys and the people they pursue as all Bad Guys. As a leader of the drug gang, Avon Barksdale also displays a strong sense of loyalty and commitment to family. His partner Stringer Bell wants to run the operation efficiently, like a business. But they also sell drugs and have people killed.
The cops show poor judgment, drink heavily, exceed their authority, ignore their family.
And, as Jim noted well, both of their organizations deal with issues of power, control, and bureaucratic hindrances.
I thought it might be interesting to go back to the first episode, and just take a gauge of how these characters are first presented to us, maybe what it reveals or not about what will play out.
We meet Jimmy McNulty in the opening scene, and if not for the show being about police, how do we know he is a cop? There is a bit of a suggestion right there; he does not follow rules, protocol, he’s arrogant, conceited, and it causes trouble with his coworkers. But he uses a street sense, here in the opening discussion about the crime victim named “Snot Booger” and a story McNulty unravels about the name (there is a funny bit in some commentary about how British actor Dominic West could not pronounce “Booger” they way the director wanted).
Our first image of the serious and influential Stringer Bell in court, at first glance, he might be a lawyer or a District Attorney? His power exerts in how the opening scene plays out, he is actually gaming the court process. When the case falls apart, and Bell’s man D’Angelo Barksdale is freed, Bell is taunted, even threatened by the angry prosecutor. How does Bel respond? “Have a nice day” and walks out.
Kima Greggs, typewriter/paperwork challenged, but here completely at home and in charge of a street bust. She’s more than savvy, she’s got an understanding of the street scene. Later in the show we see much more to the layers of who she is; but she might be among the most virtuous of the police.
Detectives Herc Hauk (with a strong Baltimore accent) and Ellis Carver are in this first action sequence that turns out to be no action. But that represents these two detectives, they would rather be “busting on the street” then paperwork; they often react from emotion rather then reason; they also end up providing some comic relief in their banter.
Cedric Daniels enters very proper in dress and clipboard, stepping right between the verbal sparring of the two detectives. He’s serious, principled, wants to do things to the letter. Later in the series his humanity, shows through more. But here, it’s all business, cop business.
Bunk Moreland, chomping the big cigar, and arguing with McNulty about why he picked up the phone for a call where they banter over a dead body. Bunk is just so charismatic, so not by the book, yet in a less challenging to the system way as McNulty. One of my favorite characters.
Sergeant Jay Landsman, almost a cussing and vile look alike for actor John Goodman, does not seem to really care at all about police work, just about flexing authority and serving the pecking order of the police department. He’s kind of like the naysayer and the greek chorus against the ideas and street sense of McNulty and Moreland
Major Rawls actually is the least complex- he hates McNulty and is part of the command and control focus of the Police Department. His presence enters before we seem him, when Daniels and Greggs are talking about a meeting with the “Deputy” that resulted from NcNulty blabbing information to a judge. He serves here as a force that keeps McNUlty a bad boy in the PD, with the famous two fingers “these are for you, McNulty”
While we saw him first in court, it’s in this car scene where we sense right away that D’Angelo Barksdale is not cut out for being a crew chief in the drug business. He’s soft, conflicted, and makes bad choices. He’s trapped into his role be being a nephew of the kingpin. Can you tell he is doomed? (oops)
Avon Barksdale, the leader of the West Side drug trade that McNulty et al face off against in season one of this series. His power is interesting in not being by physical size, but force of energy and language, and his “office” being in the top level of the strip club. When his nephew comes after getting out of jail, Avon’s response is “I don’t know shit about jail, I don’t plan on knowing shit about jail, you feel me?” — he is so smart and powerful, he expects to never see a jail. Hah.
Bodie Broadus, the chief of the drug crew at the “low rises”, working his perch by side ways mean stares from the perch of his orange couch. He shows no smile, joy. He knows his place, but knows it well. He plays prominent in the series.
We meet Bubbles in his creative mode, always coming up with a clever scheme or idea to survive on the street, but victim to his drug addiction. In this scene he is showing his partner how to make fake money look real by rubbing coffee in it. We want to root for this guy so bad…
Wallace shows the complexity of the younger drug crew; I cheat a little because we have seen him already, but I love this scene where he has just been called out for taking a fake $20 and when his colleagues mention something about “dead presidents” being on all money, he tries to correct them by informing them that Alexander Hamilton was not a president. He has intelligence he keeps closely guarded, and later we see how his conscious both frees him and… well I leave it. He’s a classic case of the character complexity we are introduced to.
I missed a few minor characters, and am not planning to continue. I find it interesting how much of these characters are set in place from the first time we meet them, though there is a lot more to reveal as the series unfolds.
But it’s this mixture of character flaw and virtue that underpin how the show brings a reality of both sides of the legal/criminal world. It’s just not as simple as those old cop shows.