Balzac of Baltimore


I reckon The Wire is the best American TV show since The Simpsons. The fifth and final season started last week, and in my anticipation I stumbled on this blog, Heaven and Here, which is devoted to intelligent appreciation of the show.

It’s become a bit of a cliché in the press to say The Wire is like a 19th century European novel. This series, the critics are calling it ‘Dickensian’; for example:

“The Wire,” David Simon’s layered, intricate HBO series about Baltimore cops and drug dealers to a sprawling 19th-century novel, as lurid and engrossing as “Bleak House” or “Little Dorrit.”

Over at Heaven and Here, and elsewhere, commenters have been suggesting others: Tolstoy (tragicomic elements and narratives of redemption); Zola (the social scope and sense of j’accusation); Dostoevsky; and further afield, Greek tragedy and even Camus (cops and reformers pushing Sisyphus’s rock uphill).

But I’m with Heaven and Here’s Jetsetjunta, who suggests another Victorian reference point: Marx.

The show is obsessed with class, and not just in the way most Americans think of class, in terms of rich and poor – though there is plenty of that. It’s about labour and capital. The show’s most consistent theme is the alienation of labour. The detectives just want to do ‘police-work’, their bosses are driven by numerical abstractions, the stats or the dollars, forever being forced to rationalise Daniels’ department for one insane reason or another.

Capital proper is mainly off-stage, or perhaps hiding in plain sight all over the scenery. Sure, the dealers are a stand-in, especially under economics major Stringer Bell, and during their diversification into real estate and political donations. But the real corporate America is missing. In the second series, most obviously about class, port management is hardly to be seen, except when they’re showing scary movies about robot stevedores and asking union leader Subotka to show visitors how the system really works. It’s only finally in the fifth season with the newsroom that management is clear and present. Keeping business off-camera seems at first a gaping hole in creator David Simon’s avowed plan to portray how American society works as a whole. But in fact I think it works to radicalise the show. Most ‘progressive’ Americans think in terms of ‘corporations’ rather than ‘capital’. The former has people in charge who are evil; the latter is a faceless and diffuse social force, which controls simply by going about its business in a banal and unthinking manner.

In not giving capital a face, Simon removes the easy way out: it’s not because of individual personalities with evil motives that things are the way they are. Every villain in The Wire either works for somebody else, or, at the top of the chain, has to do what they do to keep their market share/campaign contributions and votes/budget. Time and again, when someone at the top is knocked out, their role in the social order is quickly refilled. Avon, Stringer Bell, Marlo. Royce, Carcetti.

The Wire is an attempt to portray a whole social structure. It’s realism rather than naturalism. Though the characters are fully drawn, and the writers take pride in naturalistic dialogue of the streets, it is structured to show how a whole society hangs together – or doesn’t, really. The BPD and the Barksdales are two social structures in conflict: sympathy is with certain individuals within each side, but the institutions are the real contenders. From the second series the ambition is ramped up, to show the unions, city hall, the schools and finally the press. So if we have to choose a single 19th century European novels, I go with Balzac. Balzac was Marx’s favourite novelist, after all, because of his lifelong attempt to portray his society in all its aspects, always thinking of it as a whole, but showing how it was falling apart at the hands of the rising bourgeoisie.

Does David Simon have radical intentions? That’s beside the point. As Engels wrote to an author who had sent him her own novel:

I am far from finding fault with your not having written a point-blank socialist novel, a “Tendenzroman”, as we Germans call it, to glorify the social and political views of the authors. This is not at all what I mean. The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may crop out even in spite of the author’s opinions. Let me refer to an example. Balzac whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés, présents et a venir [past, present and future], in “La Comédie humaine” gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French ‘Society’, especially of le monde parisien [the Parisian social world], describing, chronicle-fashion, almost year by year from 1816 to 1848 the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles, that reconstituted itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could, the standard of la viellie politesse française [French refinement]. He describes how the last remnants of this, to him, model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar monied upstart, or were corrupted by him; how the grand dame whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself in perfect accordance with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoisie, who horned her husband for cash or cashmere; and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society from which, even in economic details (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together. Well, Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration, are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry, the men, who at that time (1830-6) were indeed the representatives of the popular masses. That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found – that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.


All the same, all the signs are the Simon is coming from the left. In an otherwise great feature in the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot writes:

It’s hard to classify Simon politically, but anytime you start thinking of him as some sort of bleeding-heart socialist you’re brought up short by his unremitting skepticism about institutions.

But what ‘bleeding-heart socialist’ has faith in capitalist institutions? It has become a common complaint on the liberal left that The Wire is reactionary because of its scorn for reform. Hamsterdam, Bunny Colvin’s school programme and especially the Carcetti arc all show how the political system eats its idealists. Matthew Yglesias complains:

Fundamentally, I think his vision of the bleak urban dystopia and its roots is counterproductive to advancing the values we hold dear… In political terms it’s a dark vision that, like Dostoevsky’s, veers wildly between radical and reactionary and that exists, fundamentally, outside the lines of “normal” arguments about policy. Simon believes that we are doomed, and political progress requires us to believe that we are not.

Reihan Salam worries:

If you’re outraged by The Wire, do you then … go and support the election of your own Tommy Carcetti? Or do you throw up your hands and rail against the depredations of the market economy? This could lend itself to some more radical challenge to the status quo, and of course we’re never shown the depredations of Chavez’s Venezuela where petrosocialism has fuelled new inequalities and new repression.

And, as the newsroom becomes the target in the final season, the press fights back. It’s become a common trope in press reviews to portray Simon as an Angry Man, bitter and twisted by his experiences as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun. The darkness of The Wire allegedly reflects nothing more than Simon’s own alienated psyche.

Of course, this is entirely to the show’s credit. It makes the right people uncomfortable. The real life presidential primary season is showing again that the American political theatre can’t even begin to admit the problems of The Wire exist. The show has the audacity of despair; if it suggests no solutions, at least it is honest. (You won’t find the Clintons doing a YouTube skit about it.) Yglesias and pals have always got The West Wing.

PS: This was mostly written when I came across David Simon’s own comment at Yglesias’s blog. This post is long enough – still, I think it’s worth posting in full:

Writing to affirm what people are saying about my faith in individuals to rebel against rigged systems and exert for dignity, while at the same time doubtful that the institutions of a capital-obsessed oligarchy will reform themselves short of outright economic depression (New Deal, the rise of collective bargaining) or systemic moral failure that actually threatens middle-class lives (Vietnam and the resulting, though brief commitment to rethinking our brutal foreign-policy footprints around the world). The Wire is dissent; it argues that our systems are no longer viable for the greater good of the most, that America is no longer operating as a utilitarian and democratic experiment. If you are not comfortable with that notion, you won’t agree with some of the tonalities of the show. I would argue that people comfortable with the economic and political trends in the United States right now — and thinking that the nation and its institutions are equipped to respond meaningfully to the problems depicted with some care and accuracy on The Wire (we reported each season fresh, we did not write solely from memory) — well, perhaps they’re playing with the tuning knobs when the back of the appliance is in flames.

Does that mean The Wire is without humanist affection for its characters? Or that it doesn’t admire characters who act in a selfless or benign fashion? Camus rightly argues that to commit to a just cause against overwhelming odds is absurd. He further argues that not to commit is equally absurd. Only one choice, however, offers the slightest chance for dignity. And dignity matters.

All that said, I am the product of a C-average GPA and a general studies degree from a state university and thirteen years of careful reporting about one rustbelt city. Hell do I know. Maybe my head is up my ass.

If The Wire is too pessimistic about the future of the American empire — and I’ve read my Toynbee and Chomsky, so I actually think a darker vision could be credibly argued — no one will be more pleased than me as I am, well, American. Right now, though, I’m just proud to see serious people arguing about a television drama; there’s some pride in that. Thanks.

D. Simon
Baltimore, Md.

Published in: on 13 January, 2008 at 9:09 pm  Comments (9)  

Building your tomorrow today


I meant to write some more about this, linking it to the latest episodes in A Current Affair‘s or Today Tonight‘s (I can’t really tell them apart) long-running campaign to tell the unemployed how easy it is to get a job if they just had confidence or wore a shirt. But the footage has disappeared from the web, so I’ll just pass on this link: Owen Hatherley’s fantastic account of his day of ‘Jobseeker Mandatory Activity’.

Every job is a service. All organisations provide a service. All organisations have values, and visions. You too have values and visions, you just have to match yours with the organisation’s. Curiously enough, rather than demystifying, the motivational training makes the grimly mundane world of work (Southwark Pest Control is one of the examples we are given) into a baffling, messianic world of entrepreneurs sharing with each other their visionary visions and their valuable values….

Right at the end, as everyone hurriedly picks up their travel expenses, we’re told that we’re not to be seen here again. ‘I will next see you…’ ‘On TV!’ someone interjects. ‘As an entrepreneur!’ He’s impressed. ‘An entrepreneur, that’s the aim, isn’t it’.

Published in: on 3 December, 2007 at 10:10 am  Comments (1)  

The Beginning


Speaking of HBO shows, and while it’s so cold that what warmth my blood has left to carry to my brain has to be expended on the thesis, check out the new Flight of the Conchords. HBO has saved us the trouble of downloading the torrent for the first episode. Normally I would never subject you to this kind of viral marketing, but the two guys behind the show are from my hometown, Wellington. Needless to say, us being New Zealanders, they are friends of friends, and it’s not every day such people get a show on Sunday night HBO, right after Entourage.

These guys have been on the stand-up circuit for ages. Funny thing is I never got around to seeing them live back home. (Though they were on my flight once between Wellington and Auckland, and the plane got struck by lightning.) The first time I saw them was visiting New York last year when a friend raved about them and played a recording of one of their gigs, and it was hilarious.

The show seems to be HBO’s answer to the BBC’s Mighty Boosh. To its credit, it’s commissioned its own British musical comedy rather than recasting The Mighty Boosh with Americans. (To American ears Kiwis sound like Brits, which seems to be a running gag in the show.) The first episode does not quite reach the heights the Conchords are capable of, but it’s pretty funny. It’s full of inside jokes for Kiwis too (some of which Australians will also get), like when Jemaine takes his new girlfriend out for a ‘kebab’. Australians will also recognise Arj Barker, who’s constantly on TV over here in one thing or another.

Published in: on 15 June, 2007 at 9:33 am  Leave a Comment  

The End


[Sopranos spoilers follow.]

The biggest spoiler was, in fact, that there was no spoiler. Given that Tony getting killed and Tony getting arrested both seemed likely, to read in the Sydney Morning Herald that “perhaps this story should come with a spoiler alert, except that it was far from clear what was going to happen to Tony and his family,” was to find out beforehand that at least one of those things didn’t happen.

It was, overall, a satisfying final episode to a great series. In hindsight, the family having dinner together was both the most predictable and the most fitting end.

It’s hard to like the very end, though, the build-up that something was going to happen, then the cut to black. It was a gimmick. Apparently creator David Chase thought it was a very clever ending, that no show on the networks would ever allow. Unfortunately, the inconclusive ending is the cliche TV series finish, on account of the brutal creative economics of television in which producers can never be sure if they’re going to come back for another series or not.

The inconclusive ending to end all inconclusive endings was David Lynch’s finale to Twin Peaks. [Spoilers follow.] The show having been cancelled, he rewrote the last episode as a deliberately infuriating cliffhanger in which half the cast seemed to be killed in an explosion and the protagonist was possessed by the bad guy. Now that was a statement against the limits placed on art by commerce.

For all the excellence of the HBO dramas (and, with Entourage, the comedies), which do in fact depend on their having less short-term dependence on ratings, HBO has yet to show it can beat television’s most serious literary limitation and allow a series to end properly. Carnivale was cancelled on a cliffhanger. Deadwood has been left hanging.

Now, unfortunately, even if that’s not the intention, The Sopranos ends as if the creators think they just might be able to make a movie and continue the storyline.

Update: For a more positive reading of the ending, which I have some sympathy for, see this interesting essay by Larry Gross. As Gross says, though, the Sopranos‘ strengths have not been in formal innovation, so the last moment of the series is an odd time to whip out the Brechtian estrangement.

Published in: on 13 June, 2007 at 9:36 am  Comments (5)