Back in the Hole

If you’ve already seen The Wire, Lorrie Moore‘s excellent essay on the show in the New York Review of Books won’t tell you much you haven’t already heard or read about it. The essay’s appeal is solely that of a smart, top-shelf writer giving her attention to a show that does a lot to get a smart writer’s brain working, and she gets a few great lines in: “Lance Reddick plays Lieutenant Daniels as a princely African-American Spock aboard the starship Baltimore” nails it. (The only apparent reason for the NYRB to take on The Wire now, even though it ended its run in 2008, is the appearance late last year of a collection of scholarly essays about the show, though there’s little evidence in the essay that Moore read more than the table of contents.) But if there’s anybody’s left who needs convincing of the novelistic qualities of the show, the essay should help settle matters. The show, she suggests, isn’t just “novelistic,” but a forceful attempt to expand what we consider “novelistic” today in terms of who gets to be written about in literary fiction:

The use of Baltimore as a millennial tapestry, in fact, might be seen as a quiet rebuke to its own great living novelists, Anne Tyler and John Barth, both of whose exquisitely styled prose could be accused of having turned its back on the deep inner workings of the city that executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter, and producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and cop, have excavated with such daring and success. (“Where in Leave-It-to-Beaver-Land are you taking me?” asks The Wire‘s homeless police informant Bubbles, when driven out to a leafy, upscale neighborhood; the words are novelist and screenwriter Richard Price’s and never mind that this aging cultural reference is unlikely to have actually spilled forth from this character; the remark does nicely).

This shades close to Walter Benn Michaelsfuming about how American literature hasn’t produced a great novel about the income gap. But Moore doesn’t dwell on the show’s politics within literature, just its power as a narrative—how it is, as she writes, “arguably biblical, Dantesque, and (Masterpiece Theatre be damned) more downstairs than upstairs.”

7 thoughts on “Back in the Hole

  1. I’m only two seasons into “The Wire,” but it’s already easily the best TV show I’ve ever seen. I keep thinking of it as being sort of a new edition of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, an attempt to show exactly how every part of the underground economy works.

    Something else that I find with the show: it seems to bring out the best in both Richard Price and George Pelecanos. I enjoy both writers when they’re writing novels, but an awkwardness creeps into their work when they try to reproduce too closely the patterns of a character’s thought. The writing all too often becomes simultaneously over-stylized and unconvincing, like they’re trying too hard to show us the disjunctive, vague quality of so much of our interior life. Writing dialogue and coming up with plots and characters for TV relieves their writing of that one flaw, and what’s left is incredibly good.

    1. Thanks, Levi. I think you make a very good point about Price’s and Pelecanos’ relative lack of skill at capturing their characters’ thinking. More a problem with Pelecanos, I’d argue: I recall “Drama City” as feeling especially stage-y on that front, though I liked the book overall. At any rate, you’re in for a real treat with Cutty starting in season three—I think he’s easily the fullest, most richly imagined character that Pelecanos has ever come up with, in any context.

      I hadn’t heard of the Mayhew book until I saw your comment. But gosh, the chapter titles alone suggest it’s an amazing book:

  2. Anyone else a bit distracted by some of the factual errors in the piece? Chris and Snoop never kill anyone with a nail gun, for example; the only person to intimate it could be used as a weapon is Herc, who fires a few “rounds” into the pavement.

    Also, Namond and Avon being classified as two of the best actors on that show is so ridiculous as to almost negate all the positives of the piece. I’ve always felt that Simon cast second-rate actors (Prez!) so that they would not outperform the writing. McNulty and Omar are the only two characters who are made significantly better by the performance of the actor.

    I also felt like the piece can and will do nothing to persuade new viewership of the show–it felt to me like Moore was preaching to the converted.

    1. Your points about inaccuracies are well-taken, but you don’t think Idris Elba hit a home run playing Stringer Bell? As for Jim True-Frost, I think his deer-in-headlights demeanor was intentional, not second-rate acting. It certainly serves him well in season four. I agree that the piece preaches to the converted, but any piece running in NYRB would. I go back and forth about whether I wanted to hear more about the book of academic essays that Moore was, in theory, reviewing. Discussing academic essays can suck the air out of the room, but I imagine there are a few interesting arguments in the book’s pages.

      On a different note, today the Boston Globe ran an op-ed piece by Ishmael Reed criticizing “The Wire”:

      I’d give Reed’s complaint more weight if he presented any evidence that he actually watched the show.

  3. I’d give Stringer a solid grade, too, yeah, but I don’t know that acting means erasing one’s accent. I thought the guy who played Carcetti was awful; he got dragged around on the screen when he was matched with Bunny Colvin, who I should have mentioned before as one of the actors who outplayed his character a bit. (I’m too lazy to google the names of the actors.)

    From everything I’ve seen working with kids who grew up on the west side of Chicago, this show is as close to verisimilitude as a television show will ever get. Like you said–I doubt anyone who has actually watched the show could find a way to spin it so the characters are cliches.

    I agree on Prez–I did not mean to say that he was a terrible actor, only that there are 1000 actors who could have done more with the character originally. Simon didn’t want those performances, though, is my thought.

    Great blog. I check every morning.

  4. I was trying to make the point that Moore seems to think erasing an accent is a valuable acting trait—not that you were saying that. Just to be clear.

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