complexity on TV


The Wire is a great TV show both because it resembles its predecessor, Homicide: Life on the street, and because it departs from it. 

Homicide was a "crime drama"” that was less about the crime and more about the drama.  It used great performances from Richard Belzer, Yaphet Kotto and especially Andre Braugher to give us close character studies and a glimpse of personal complexity we don’’t usually see on TV.

The Wire is more interested in the complexity of the city.  It gets out of the police house into the ports, housing projects, churches, prisons, unions, and politics of Baltimore.  It is a dizzying sociology, a god’’s eye view of the several exchange systems that make up urban life. 

Season 2 turns on the opposition between two Polish Americans.  One of them runs a local union on the docks.  The other runs a section of the Baltimore police force.  Both want to give a stain glass window to the local Catholic church.  When the union leader wins out, the police chief begins an investigation that sets one part of the plot in motion.

But there’’s more.  Season 1 treated us to a sympathetic treatment of the Barksdale brothers and their drug trafficking in Baltimore projects.  By Season 2, one of the brothers is in prison, and this gives us a chance to think about the complicated exchange systems at work in a local prison.

And there’’s more.  The police force is embroiled in politics.  The key figure is Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) who makes a shambles of everything and especially his career.  Watching the police figure out what to do about Jimmy is our chance to watch another complicated set of politics play out from the street into the offices of local politicians. 

And there’’s still more.  Jimmy insists that the Baltimore police investigate when a shipping container filled with dead prostitutes from Eastern Europe turns up in Baltimore harbor.  This allows us to see how an international sex trade impinges on city life.  Season 2 also gives us a glimpse of how the ports play a role in the importation of large amounts of chemical, evoking another still more sinister international dynamic.

For most TV shows, this would be evidence of "plot sprawl.”"  But for The Wire, it is the opportunity to show how many domains are encompassed by a city, and how events in one setting off reactions in another.  The characters don’’t share our "god’s eye” view."  They negotiate conflict, competition and cooperation, according to local terms.  Only we the audience get to see how things ripple across the domains.

The social scientific question is a little daunting.  How would we, how could we, devise a conceptual system capable of taking account of how value keeps leaping registers?  To take one example, the union leader is desperate to keep the port, and his union, alive.  He is prepared to engage in crime to give himself resources he can take to the church which he can then use to reach and leverage political influence.  A legitimate institution is used to secure a criminal dollar to buy a spiritual dollar to access a political dollar.  The political dollar will be leveraged by the police to help solve the Jimmy McNulty problem and in the meantime McNulty is busy trying to force the police to deal with the Eastern European prostitutes, which investigation will have cataclysmic consequences for the union leader. 

Yikes!  This is enough to make the intersection of anthropology and economics suddenly shut down from grid lock.  Talk about complex systems!  I’’m sure this looks like a Rube Goldberg cartoon or an exercise in ‘the house Jack built” seriality.  But in fact, it does work as a complex system with events and motives eddying back and forth across the several plot domains.  The challenge, and this is a PhD thesis waiting to happen, is to build the system that allows us to think about this complexity as clearly and cleverly as the show’s creators manage to write about it. 


The Internet Movie Database entry on The Wire, here

For a plot summary from H.M. Schultz, here

For details on the third season, starting Sept. 19, on HBO, here

Last note:

I am on holiday for the next 10 days.  If I can post, I will post.  But I have a feeling there will be very little traffic here at the intersection.  Please come back September 26.

3 thoughts on “complexity on TV

  1. Steve Portigal

    And no spoilers for Sunday’s premiere!

    (nice to read enthusiasm for The Wire – I haven’t been able to find anyone else who watches it and explaining why I like it only conveys why someone else probably would NOT like it)

  2. Grant

    Steve, I know thefeeling. Must have been a hell of a pitch to HBO. It looks as if they used a “tech heavy” hook to bring them in. And then promptly walked away from it. Did you see The Corner, also from David Simon, the man who appears to be a link between Homicide and The Wire? I missed it, but apparently its out on DVD. Something to watch this fall, if all else disappoints. Thanks, Grant

  3. sam

    again, another post about The Wire – this, only a day after i stumble upon the news of the release of the first season on dvd (october 12th). i can’t wait to see this show for myself.

Comments are closed.