Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mourning The Wire: I Love You, McNulty

The last time I can recall loving a show in the way that I loved The Wire was when I was a teenager watching My So-Called Life, with Claire Danes playing Angela -- the teenage girl we all felt we were. Angela was attractive in the way of most teenage girls, which is to say that if the camera caught her at just the right angle, and she wasn't in the process of actively trying to look good, and someone was actually paying attention, she was kind of pretty. My friends and I watched My So-Called Life with the fervent dedication normally reserved only for stealing vodka from our parents or searching out the perfect flannel from the local thift store. When the show was cancelled, we mourned our loss in huddled groups, exchanging bits about our favorite episodes and characters, discussing who, from our small, nondescript high school, was Rayanne, and why we didn't have a cool gay friend like Ricky to hang out with. I remember standing by our lockers, whispering in hushed tones that the only reason they cancelled My So-Called Life was because it was just "too real."

Looking back, of course, I have no idea who we though "they" were or why we thought these anonymous people would want to cancel a show based on its likeness to reality. In any case, I feel now, like I did then, that my life will never be the same if I can't ever see a new episode of this most wonderful of shows, another one that was "too real." To be fair, The Wire actually ended years ago, but I only discovered it after its final season and rented each season from the local library after it has already aired its final episode, so my sorrow at its end is really quite belated. This, of course, means that I have no one to speak to in conspiratorial tones about the injustice of its absence from my life, which means that facing the end of The Wire is even more painful than facing My So-Called Life's demise.

In each season of the show, the action of The Wire doesn't bust out of the gate; it requires a certain kind of viewer, the kind that many of its fans call "literary," but I just call capable of enduring delayed gratification (a trait I find sorely lacking in my co-millenials, as much as I hate to acknowledge it). The story builds slowly but certainly to a tragic collision of various Americas - the one selling the drugs on the street, the one playing at the politics in the downtown offices, the one running the schools in the neighborhoods, the one hauling the loads on the docks, the one writing the news at their dated computers, and, of course, the one enforcing the law all over town. In a way that I will call literary, the writers position each of these Americas as though they are a series of concentric circles; each one mirrors the others as it simultaneously looks down on those circles below it. Each America looks down its nose at "The Game" that the drug dealers run, at the same time that they each engage in some kind of "Game" of their own: the police falsify the crime stats to make the politicians look good, the politicians extract all manner of favors from all manner of citizens, the schools shift around their numbers to garner funding from the state, the news reporters manufacture fake stories and ignore the real ones, the dockworkers' union bribes the cops and the politicians to save their line of work, and so on and so on.

In the end, the show turns on its protagonist: Detective Jimmy NcNulty, a (sometimes) high-functioning alcoholic who actually cares about his work and about other people in a way that goes beyond self-promotion or self-interest. He breaks every rule on the job, he ruins his marriage and probably his kids' chance at a life without major issues, he sabotages every friendship that comes his way, and he never apologizes for any of it. But he's a great cop, and a person who understands other people, which is what makes him so charismatic. A truly tragic figure he is, but you just can't help rooting for him in the face of all his many, many flaws. He's one of the few television or film characters that I can really say I love, unequivocally, as a character.  

And, so, in honor of Jimmy McNulty and David Simon for creating him, here's a prose poem in their honor.

I love "The Wire."

I love the gritty realism of a West Baltimore corner: its dilapidated storefronts advertising pay day loans and girls girls girls, its bodegas that are really stash-houses guarded with "muscle" carrying nine millimeters with scratched off serial numbers. I love its seven-year old boys -- who already curse and posture like men three times their age -- running from the teenage Lieutenant on the corner to the hidden stash around back and then to the scratching, shaking addict who needs a fix (because you can't get life without parole in "baby booking").  I love its bustling housing projects, which show us the worst kinds of tragedy and the best displays of human strength, where older brothers and sisters usher younger siblings out the door for school, handing them Capri Suns and Doritos for lunch, acting as mom as best they can before heading off to the corner to be lookouts or runners to earn the money that puts food in their families' mouths. I even love the rectangular ply-wood blockades in door frames that announce neglected rent payments and hide bodies that are nobodies to the Somebody who runs the city. I love the honesty.

I love the lack of bad guys: that the cops are good, and bad, and sad, and brutal, and kind, and incompetent, and brilliant. I love that Detective Jimmy McNulty gives his own wife syphilis from yet another late-night hook up in a bar, but that he also befriends Bubbles, a 40-year-old crack addict living on the street. I love that the drug dealers are smart, and mean, and noble, and heartless, and vengeful, and honorable, and sensitive. I love that Omar Little kills people with a sawed off shotgun, but that he takes his grandma to church each Sunday, so she can wear her "crown." I love that Avon Barksdale kills his best friend over money, but that he also pays "disability" to the families of his "soldiers" in "lock-up" and that he donates large portions of his massive drug profits to local after-school programs. I love that the teachers are broken, and brilliant, and neglectful, and caring, and overworked, and lazy, and brave. I love that Mr. Presboluski lets eighth-grade Dukie into the boys locker room each morning so that Dukie can shower, and that "Mr. Prezbo" does Dukie's laundry and brings him lunch each day because Dukie's mother's "on the pipe," but that that same "Mr. Prezbo" kills a man because of the color of his skin -- skin the same color as Dukie's.

I love the social commentary: the indictment that the dockworkers' union smuggles people and embezzles money and that the politicians launder money for the drug dealers in exchange for campaign contributions. I love that we see how the police are forced to make "low level street rips" to "juke the stats" in order to create the appearance of a falling crime rate. I love that we see how the schools' truant officers only force kids to come to school one day each month, because that's all the attendance the state requires in exchange for ADA. I love the indictment that the drug dealers claims of loyalty and family fall apart as soon as money becomes involved.

I love "The Wire" because it depicts Baltimore, and the contemporary American city, as fundamentally broken and irrepressibly great -- which it always is, all at once, all the time. 

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