January 19, 2011

Go to the Mirror, Boy

I'm certainly not going to argue that fiction always serves as some sort of deep comment on society.  Sometimes you just want to tell a good story.  Lord knows, that's all I aspire to at this point!  But other times, great fiction really does have the ability to hold a mirror up to the world and say, "holy shit, look how fucked up we are."

I've come late to the epic that is The Wire.  I didn't have HBO when it started and only got around to it when they all showed up on Netflix.  I'm through season four and it's a brilliant piece of TV, although perhaps not as orgasmic as its reputation would have it (granted, I have a soft spot in my heart for its spiritual predecessor, Homicide: Life on the Street that might color my opinion).

Above all, The Wire is gritty and realistic.  The pathetic game of cops and drug dealers around which the series spirals rings very true to my ears.  I can only assume that the equally pathetic excuses of politics and education that the show explores are equally on the nose.  It's rivetting, addictive, and deep, but not exactly joyous and fun.

Like Homicide, The Wire uses its setting of Baltimore as an additional character.  I suppose it should surprise nobody that the powers that be in Charm City might not be fond of how the city comes off:
Asked to comment on the show during last week’s Amplify Baltimore event, [Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H.] Bealefeld called The Wire a 'smear on this city that will take decades to overcome,' saying, 'You know what Miami gets in their crime show? They get detectives that look like models, and they drive around in sports cars. And you know what New York gets? They get these incredibly tough prosecutors, competent cops that solve the most crazy, complicated cases.' Yet on The Wire, Bealefeld says, 'What Baltimore gets is this reinforced notion that it's a city full of hopelessness, despair and dysfunction. There was very little effort—beyond self-serving—to highlight the great and wonderful things happening here, and to indict the whole population, the criminal justice system, the school system.'
Ironically, that kind of statement from a politician sounds exactly like something one of them would say on The Wire.  Forget the reality of the situation and complain that someone hasn't signed on to give your city the Chamber of Commerce treatment.  Besides, if we're going to judge Miami by its TV cops, I'm surprised anybody ever gets caught for anything down there,  if Dexter is any kind of accurate.

Natrually, series creator David Simon has fired back:
Others might reasonably argue, however that it is not sixty hours of The Wire that will require decades for our city to overcome, as the commissioner claims. A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility.  That is the police department we depicted in The Wire, give or take our depiction of some conscientious officers and supervisors. And that is an accurate depiction of the Baltimore department for much of the last twenty years, from the late 1980s, when cocaine hit and the drug corners blossomed, until recently, when Mr. O'Malley became governor and the pressure to clear those corners without regard to legality and to make crime disappear on paper finally gave way to some normalcy and, perhaps, some police work. Commissioner Bealefeld, who was present for much of that history, knows it as well as anyone associated with The Wire.
Free advice to the chief - don't pick fights with a critically aclaimed writer.  You will not get the last word.

Free advice to everybody else - if somebody holds a mirror up to your world and it looks fucked up, don't blame the guy with the mirror.  Do something about what you see.

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