A while back, I was flipping through the channels and came across a cop show with the now de rigeur shaky camerawork, which I assumed to be Law and Order or CSI (though I realized it wasn’t CSI from the lack of unwatchably saturated colors). But it turned out to be a repeat of Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was an interesting illustration of the way in which the signifiers of “realism” can so easily be appropriated by content that is anything but realistic.
Which is why, “realistic” though it may be, The Wire‘s brilliance doesn’t lie in a realism of form.Quite the contrary; The Wire frequently adopts self-consciously stagey or filmic tropes (the most obvious of these, of course, would be the Western elements that run throughout the portrayal of Omar). But the show is realist in another sense: as opposed to moralist. The show’s few missteps have occoured when an applied moral evaluation slipped in, such as the horrible screeching of gears in the fourth season when they attempted to shift Carcetti from a personally venal politician to a decent guy whose personal decency is politically irrelevant.
The other instance that has troubled me is the shift from the Barksdale organization to Marlo’s organization that is the underlying narrative of the later three seasons; Marlo’s strange emotional blankness, particularly when compared to the portrayal of Stringer Bell, always seemed to have a moralizing psychopathologization to it. But an aside in this paper on The Wire at Infinite Thought has me thinking of another possible explanation of this arc. Alberto and his co-author remark that:
The “postmodern institutions” [of the drug trade] are remarkably, well, Fordist, in the sense that, following Vincenzo Ruggiero’s suggestion, this “crime as work” depends on the classic capitalist division of labour between programming and execution – dramatised in the show by the seemingly infinite distance between leader of the gang, Avon Barksdale, and the ‘hoppers’ on the street.
Now, this is true of the Barksdale organization, but I don’t think it is exactly true of Marlo’s operation. When the Barksdale organization disintegrates, the street level dealers who used to be part of the organization don’t end up working for Marlo, but as formally independent dealers who transfer money to Marlo in a variety of ways: as rent for the corners they work on, or, later, because they have to buy their drugs from him. Marlo’s organization is neoliberal in all kinds of ways, including the way in which, as with the neoliberal state, a decrease in size is accompanied by an increase in violence.