13
Jan
2012
Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People
Michael Richardson vs Sam: The Wire, Season 2
Michael Richardson and Sam
Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People is a weekly chance for two Review to Be Named Staffers to come together and engage in a conversation about issues where they don't see eye to eye. Sure, the title may be more aspirational than accurate, and the tone may vary from week to week depending on the level of passion and the strength of discourse. Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People will be an outlet for RTBN writers, who, for the most part, all love each other, to revel in the two things we love even more: pop culture and arguing.


THIS WEEK: Michael vs. Sam on The Wire Season 2

Michael

It has come to this. We have to revisit our long-standing argument, over a single season of one of the greatest shows of all time: Season 2 of The Wire. I maintain it is one of the best seasons of the show, probably behind Season 4 alone. You consider it to be one of the worst. And just so we properly define our terms before the beginning of the debate, let's just say that even the worst seasons of The Wire was better than 99% of television. Bad is totally relative.

But it's convenient that we get to talk about this subject now, because I've been thinking about it a lot after rereading this article by Chuck Klosterman, published on Grantland earlier this year. Klosterman suggest that there are four shows that are pretty much unanimously considered the greatest shows in the last ten to 20 years: Breaking Bad, "Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire (Deadwood should be in there instead of Mad Men, but I don't want to argue that point). But Klosterman dings The Wire points for being, at it's heart, a political show. Specifically, he claims that the further away we travel from the day the show ended, "it turns the plot of The Wire into a delivery mechanism for David Simon's polemic worldview (which makes its value dependent on how much the audience is predisposed to agree with him)."

I am not here to claim that politics does not belong in art, or that good art cannot be political. That would be dumb. But I am here to claim that the issues in season 2 can't be summed up in a particularly thorough cover story in The Atlantic. By which I mean to say, season 2 does not have an especially visible thesis statement outside of the character drama that unfolds on the docks. When I go back to each season, it's easy to summarize: Season 1 and 3 is about ineffective legal practices and drug enforcement, Season 4 is about how bad schools lead to bad societies, and Season 5 is about bad practices in journalism. The characters exist to make a specific point, with a few crucial exceptions (McNulty and Stringer Bell are perhaps the only characters on the show who are fully and completely fleshed out, the closest to real human beings, while Omar is some kind of Nietzschean warrior-hero who is so different from the show's realistic setting that his character needs no such subtleties). Each season's major characters can typically be classified as a mouthpiece or a straw man for that year's pet issue - let's call this Aaron Sorkinism, or increasingly, Mamet's Disease. The reason The Wire is an incredible show despite this is that it introduces an unprecedented amount of nuance to this basic dichotomy - characters can exhibit traits of the Straw Man and the Mouthpiece at the same time, and at its best moments, throw them out altogether.

But Season 2, to me, doesn't have that problem. The accepted "thesis statement" for this season is the decline of opportunities for the working class, but that doesn't sit right for me. I don't think Frank Sobotka is emblematic of certain societal trends. Nor do I think of Ziggy and Nick as representatives of some kind of argument, made up on the fly as some kind of hypothetical thought experiment. Their stories are pure Greek tragedy (no pun intended). We have heroes (or anti-heroes, in this case) who are eventually undone by their own hubris and crucial character flaws. The flaws are personal more than they are societal - lust for money and power, and love of family and community. Those themes are presented in Season 1 as well, and I admit that it's more fun to watch Bodie, Wallace and D'Angelo, but they are tied to this sense of fatalism directly related to the show's often polemical point of view that I just don't see as clearly in season 2.


I have blabbed on for quite a bit, though, and I want to hear your thoughts before I talk any more.


Sam

There's a lot to talk about here and I hope that I can parse through most of it to clearly say why I like season two the least. We can definitely agree that "bad" and "worst" in relation to this show is certainly better than most everything else. My problem with season two does not lie in its story structure. Greek tragedy or not, The Wire has leaned on interesting characters (albeit, not necessarily the best drawn) and commenting on social situations. For better or worse, having a thesis statement is what The Wire is all about. Like you pointed out, season two does have a "thesis" and it is lame. The white working class in Baltimore is getting shit on. It's true, but still the least interesting of the batch. To simply dismiss the "Simon-ness" of this season overlooks why it isn't a good season of The Wire.

My main problem with season two was that it's main "thesis" storyline was so out of sync with the rest of the series. All other seasons had a level of cohesiveness that was absent from the second season. Sure, we got peeks back to the streets with characters we know and love, but that wasn't the main focus. I don't think the new characters that were introduced were particularly better drawn than anyone else. In addition, because they only existed in the confines of a single season, they had no opportunity to expand on it. Simon clearly had an agenda for each season and season two felt like it was an issue he needed to address even though he had less of an interest there. Remember, this is the homicide guy, not the economics of Baltimore guy. Nick Sobotka was a boring blank slate of a working class guy. To me, he was the poor man's Ben Affleck in a movie taking place in inner-city Boston. "We need to make more money for my baby...by any means necessary!!!" Ziggy was unlikeable and not even in an entertaining way. He was certainly a more defined character than Nick, but his on-screen lifespan suffers since he's confined to a single season. How many people do you know who would choose Ziggy over Bunk or Snoop or Pootie or ANYBODY from multiple seasons. I can't argue that there was some more heady family drama taking place in the second season, but it was far less entertaining. As you said, the audience needs to buy in to Simon's (at times) heavy handed thesis statements. But I did buy in, the same way that I was on board with President Bartlett and his staff on The West Wing.

Season two had plenty of straw man mouth pieces and because they aren't interesting doesn't mean you can ignore them in in your evaluation. There's little question that this season was about the weakening unions and how we used to make something in the country, goddamn it. We even got an epigraph that laid everything out in an obvious manner-- "They used to make steel there, no?" Nick serves as the straw man for those working class folks who struggle to take care of their kids and grind it out every day. Ziggy is this season's Wallace, an outsider amongst a firmly established socio-economic system. Both manage to escape but only through tragic means (actually they both follow the same cliche line about the only way out being through death or prison).

Also how does season two avoid the fatalism of the other seasons? Ziggy is in the slammer, Nick narrowly avoids jail time only to be left with the shitty life he had when the season started and Frank is swimming with the fishes. I have little emotional connection to any of these characters since I haven't really gotten to know them like the kids in season four or some of the established guys from the beginning. You can't tell me that seeing how the Sobotka clan ends up is nearly as satisfying as seeing the ends of Omar, Bubbles, Stringer and basically EVERYONE ELSE ON THE SHOW. Sorry for shouting. For all the love that The Wire rightfully receives for its political statements, as an audience we can only agree to listen if we care abut the characters enough to believe their stories.

I think we are focusing on different aspects of the season, but that's obviously why we don't see eye to eye on the second year of the show.



Michael

I think it's totally fair to say we're focusing on different aspects of the show, and that is probably the reason we disagree on which season is the best. So, as a mini-experiment, let's look at season 4 - my favorite, and if I remember correctly, yours as well. What I especially love about season 4 is that the message is delivered more organically than in each other season. More attention is paid to the characters, and even better, our viewpoint characters aren't authorities on the matter. "Schools are shitty, and we don't know how to fix them" could be the first few episodes' theses. That's what Prez and Colvin are coming into. And because of this setup, we're not sure who is going to be in the right and who can actually make a difference. If you go back and watch the first episode of each season, it's pretty clear who is going to be the moral guardian, the voice of reason, the great reformer. Except, I suggest, in seasons 2 and 4. Here, it's more ambiguous to who is in the right, and who is in the wrong. It deals with people more than it deals with societies, which may just be a personal preference. And this isn't Lord of the Rings, where forces of good and evil do battle. This is a show that claims that everything exists in a world of grey, yet gives us the answer sheet to who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

I agree that the second season is more removed than the rest of the series. I imagine that they went back and retooled their next moves after they were done editing that season, and figured out how to make everything dovetail together much more nicely in future seasons. But I can't imagine how wrapping up the story in a season makes it feel less cohesive. Because of that, it feels the most cohesive. It has a middle, a beginning, and an end. It's a basic story arc. I know you're saying that your problem isn't with the structure of season 2, but I'm saying that my problem with the other seasons is partly their structure. They are formulated like a persuasive essay, not a story. They're long anecdotes in a larger argument. Well-told anecdotes, persuasive anecdotes, but they cannot exist without the larger picture. I believe that if you watched season 2 sometime deep in the future, it would hold up better than season 1. The other seasons, to their credit, examine this moment in time more closely than any other piece of media I have come across. But that glow will fade with time. One day, in some utopian society where prohibition has been proven wrong and institutional racism has been eliminated, people will watch The Wire and gawk at how weird it was that drugs were illegal and the problems it caused. But I imagine that they'll still be able to relate to the Sobotkas, even if they're unloading crates off of personal spaceships. That's what I mean by Greek drama - take away the particulars and you have the basis for a solid story anywhere.

As for which characters are more interesting, I just don't think it's that clean-cut. I think Frank Sobotka had as much depth as anyone else, though he might suffer because we've seen that type of character dissected before. Now that you mention Ben Affleck, I can't imagine Nick in any other way, but if you really want to talk about which characters are simply archetypes theres a list as tall as either of us to parse through. And Ziggy - you find him more annoying than I do, but I will admit that it's amazing to me that James Ransone can play the exact same character on Generation Kill and make it more tolerable (should Ziggy have sang more pop songs? Probably). Beadie Russell is the show's best-written female character (I have taken Snoop out of consideration, because like Omar she's almost otherworldly, an angel of death rather than flesh and blood). And we're not even talking about the auxiliary characters and moments yet - Bunk and Lester Smooth working together! Prop Joe! The menacing, ever-present specter of The Greek! D'Angelo's tragic stint in prison! Like we agreed, each season has great parts to it, but I would still put this season near the top.


Sam

Before I get into my follow-up, I agree on Beadie, but she was the skinniest kid at fat camp. The Wire has very, very, very few female characters. Two of the more prominent ones, Snoop and Kima, are lesbians and the writers have written for them more or less as men. The only straight female who is a regular on the show is Rhonda who I think is universally disliked.

If one of the main points of admiration for The Wire lies in its subtle shades of gray, then an untidy storytelling structure is perfect--look at Bubbles. His struggle wasn't resolved in a season because why should it? There was a beginning, middle and end that went over multiple seasons. Even the end of the show with Bubs has there be a sense that his story isn't over. Furthermore, the show is about how things keep on going, there is no real beginning middle or end. Dukie's story doesn't end with him sitting shooting up, it's just beginning, which is the point of the show. Season two's completeness feels too neat for this show. The stories of the city spill into other character's lives and subsequently, multiple seasons.

You mention how season two will hold up better than other seasons in the future. I disagree"”look at other period dramas where they discuss now antiquated laws and cultural mores. (see: Boardwalk Empire and booze and Mad Men and treatment of women, homosexuals). I think, generally, the audience of The Wire will relate to the Sobotkas because they live closer to our own lives (not slinging drugs and murdering people/police). To be fair, the main audience of The Wire is not people who deal in the drug trade or live in the inner city, though I've heard there is an audience there.

As for the ancillary characters you point out, our enjoyment of them is based on our knowing them from the first season. I can't fault the second season for this, but we go forward with Bunk and Lester. We go forward with Prop Joe. Everyone else (the dock, the Greek) get left behind making it impossible to have a strong connection. Arguing that season two was good because of Bunk and Lester teaming up is like arguing that season two is good because it's got Omar in it. The argument surrounding the second season lies on the shoulders of the dock story because it is what is unique to the season. Like in the real world, these stories don't exist in a vacuum, but the dock workers story does on The Wire. D'Angelo's prison stint only works on an emotional level because of what transpired in the previous season. The best things about the second season were all the non-second season-ness (take that, real English!) of it. This is a show that needs flow between the years and the second season stopped the flow and started something independent of the rest of the show. We only get a brief reminder that Frank Sobotka (or anyone from the dock) existed in the final montage of the series.

Michael

Clearly you know nothing of my post-college life. I sling drugs and kill people, but the drugs are Tums and the killing takes place in Skyrim.

That's a very good point about how a show that deals with greys should have stories that spill over and don't end up so neatly. And Bubbles story is a perfect example of this: He has a really unconventional story structure that fits well within the the entire series. You couldn't tell his story in a season. But, you CAN tell a lot of stories in a season. Each season's main plot is proof of this. Does season 4 suffer because Prez comes back with a glorious beard only once? I don't think clean storytelling should be a reason for criticism, even when the show does great things with deliberately messy storytelling.

As for Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, the weakest part of those shows is when they point the camera directly at the weirdness of the era. The pilot episode of Mad Men is mediocre compared to the rest of the show, because its as if they had to get all the "Look how WACKY the 60s were!" out of the way. Once that organically becomes part of the setting and stories, its much more palpable. Like Stringer Bell, I'm all about the thought experiments, so let's imagine that Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire were both produced during their actual time periods (we will assume that TV was invented by this time, and somehow slipped though the various censors, for the sticklers out there). Would we watch those shows like On the Waterfront,where the time and the setting is almost immaterial, or would we watch them like Birth of a Nation, which is today mostly consumed as a historical and anthropological document. Mad Men isn't a great show because it's about the 60's. Mad Men is a great show because it's about Don Draper, Peggy, Joan and Roger. Everybody expectant about Season 5 isn't looking forward to hearing about Woodstock and the moon landing - they want to see what will happens to SCDP. The show works with character more than setting. I'm not sure that you could describe The Wire as a show about Bubbles, McNulty and Omar. As I've said before, the characters are seemingly there to deliver the message. And that's why I mean when I say that The Wire may suffer as we get further beyond its contemporary setting. Meanwhile, the docks - the original hive of scum and villainy, the same harbormen who smuggled Odysseus into Ithaca - has a much more timeless quality to it.

As a last bit of explanation, I'll say that part of the reason that I rank season 2 so highly is that its problems don't bother me as much as the problems in other seasons. The first season has some serious (understandable) growing pains - just try to watch that extended chess metaphor again. Carcetti's "How's a WHITE guy gonna get elected in this town?!" storyline was a serious drag on the awesome Hamsterdam plot, and the problems with season 5 - basically Simon's hit job on his former editors - have been explored in detail elsewhere on the Internet. You have completely legitimate gripes with season 2, but I have gripes with the whole show, even though it is one of the best pieces of American fiction in the last 50 years (and I don't think that's hyperbole). We're supposed to - that's why we write here. But I'm happy to let you have the final word on this one.


Sam

I agree that simply telling a complete story in a single season isn't necessarily a bad thing. My problem is that it is removed from what the show does best"”tell epically detailed stories from real life. Yes, The Wire is not as character-driven as say Mad Men, but I think any great television show that is on for an extended period becomes popular not just because of social messages, but because people love the characters and want to see what happens to them. You can certainly look as the characters on The Wire as a vessel for carrying Simon's message, but I see them as more than that. Because they can serve as the pieces in Simon's chess game (THE KING STAY THE KING-probs the most over the top message in the show) AND they are characters we care about, The Wire is transcendent.

Also, as an aside, Mad Men is driven by its characters but its silly to say that the time period plays little part in its entertainment. Its not the main focus of the show but its impossible to say that Nixon/Kennedy, the Kennedy Assassination and the Vietnam War have not played significant roles in the show. Part of the appeal of the show for me is how this era effects the characters. Anyway, this isn't about Mad Men. To focus more specifically on Season two of The Wire, I think that while a clean single season arc is not a bad thing, it's not what The Wire does best. Plus, I do care what happens to these characters. Besides the obvious favorite, Omar, there are a bunch of really compelling characters on the show. I think Prezbo, Bunk, Stringer Bell, Poot & Bodie, Carcetti, the kids and Marlo are all really compelling characters.

The aim of the show may have been to bring attention to the drug war and a plethora of other problems plaguing Baltimore and other cities across the country, but a preachy show about how the drug war is bullshit would not have catapulted the show to the top of the critical mountain. With season two of The Wire I didn't feel the connection and the emotional resonance with the completion of the dock storyline that I felt with everybody else at varying points, though mostly in the final season, of the show. Show me the man who felt more when Ziggy went to jail and Nick walked off in the rain than when Bubs got to eat upstairs, Omar got taken out and Dukie used money stolen from Prezbo to get a drug fix and I'll show you a liar.

This was fun and I think this was something we've been talking about on and off for years. I don't think either of us probably convinced the other person they're wrong but we laid out the arguments for each side, which is something, I guess. Good luck following this one, Everyone Else!!


Read more Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People here

Note from Rachel: Unfortunately, my brilliance is sometimes a finite resource. Send us your ideas for future installments of Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here), or shoot us an e-mail at reviewtobenamed@gmail.com.

Tags:
comments powered by Disqus