Friday, 20 March 2009

Art and Reality in The Wire

I was a latecomer to The Wire. I’d been hearing for years about how it was ‘the most amazing show ever’, but people were saying the same about Battlestar Galactica, and, I mean, come on: it’s about robots or something. But when my wife and I finally started watching, we quickly became hooked. Now, obviously the world doesn’t need yet another person saying that The Wire is the best show of all time (so we’ll take that as read). But just what is it that makes it so good?

Jonathan Jones posted something on this topic on his Guardian blog the other day. According to Jones, the realism of The Wire is ‘in creative tension with its self-consciousness as art.’ Now, it could be argued that this statement is equally true of anything at all except (maybe) CCTV footage. The Wire did not invent the tension between realism and technique. In fact, the question of The Wire’s realism really highlights the inadequacy of the term ‘realism’ for discussing this problem — because, on close examination, The Wire is not a particularly realistic show. Jones is right to praise the inventive dialogue, but there isn’t a single aspect of the show which is not affected, and enriched, by that same inventiveness. The Wire may be the most the most intricately designed series in TV history. Is it ‘realistic’ that the internal concerns of the gangsters and the police should mirror each other so perfectly? That Pryzbylewski should become a teacher just in time for the season devoted to the school system? That Omar Little exists?

Reality is governed by randomness. But the reality of The Wire is governed by harmony. And thank god for that: there are quite enough TV shows governed by randomness. The Wire does not present to us a realistic vision of the city of Baltimore, but rather a scale model of the city, by which we may witness the motions of the inhabitants, reduced in complexity for ease of comprehension, in the same way that a mechanical orrery demonstrates the motion of the planets. We may learn a great deal about the workings of a real city from this mechanism, but the demonstration itself is anything but realistic.

But there is more to this harmony than mere education. If The Wire were just about Baltimore politics, it would be interesting, but it would not be art. Obviously The Wire is a very political show, and one can understand hy some, like Jonathan Jones, see its ‘real theme’ as ‘social, moral and political’ (‘just how did this shit get so fucked up?’, as Jones puts it). The poor liberal viewer is assaulted with a string of social problems about which to wring his hands — the drug war, the public school crisis — and even, occasionally, presented with real solutions, like Bunny Colvin’s ‘Hamsterdam’ experiment.

But how is it possible, then, that the show never feels preachy, or simply boring? This, I think, is thanks to its makers’ ability to bring out the emotional resonance of their social commentary. In the future, the real city of Baltimore may continue its decline, or it may improve; but the mechanical Baltimore just goes around and around, endlessly re-enacting the struggle of the individual against the forces of entropy. Every major storyline restates that theme, and in almost every case, the hero wins just enough to prevent catastrophe, but fails enough nothing ever improves. This shit was always fucked up, and it always will be. That the antithetical motives of social concern and aesthetic beauty co-exist in such happy harmony is perhaps The Wire’s greatest achievement.

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