Saturday, April 16, 2011

My Name is My Name: Four of my Favorite Clips from The Wire

I have a new favorite show. Sadly, (if predictably) I’m late to the party and it was over before I started. But I am willing to careen into hyperbole and deem “The Wire” the best television drama of all time.

Now, it took me a while to warm up to The Wire. After each of the first three discs (4 episodes each) I gave up on it. But critical acclaim and repeated urgings from people I respect made me give it second, third and fourth chances. But by the end of the first season I was all in.

I eventually came to realize that the very thing that made the series difficult to get into was the thing that made it transcendent. It is a character driven exploration of human nature. In order to tell real, sustentative, narratives about textured, carefully crafted, characters that behave consistently and ‘ring true,’ we had to get to know them. But once we knew them, they were worth knowing. I didn’t anxiously await each disc to see how the writers would resolve some contrive plot cliff hanger[1]…I stayed up late watching ‘one more episode’ because I wanted to see who these people became.

And then there was Baltimore. I have said all I have to say about art that has a sense of place, but the wire is the prototype. Baltimore is as textured and gorgeous, despite and because of its grit[2] and decay as Omar, Freamon, Snoop or Stringer Bell[3].

It is impossible to summarize the series in a post. Do I write about the moments that left me stunned and literally breathless?[4] Do I write about the grief I felt as ‘the game’ claimed character after character with brutal capriciousness and with indiscriminate ferocity? Do I describe the pervasive corruption in the police, politics and press that mirror the wickedness of the street which succeeded in skirting a preachy and false moral equivalency while illustrating the pervasive fallenness of our condition despite our circumstances? Do I pick out the hilarious moments like the British actor who plays Jimmy practicing a bad British accent or every single monologue by Sgt Landsman that registered a 7.5 on the rictor scale of crassness but managed to be not only hysterical, but sublime? No idea. So I thought I’d just post a little commentary on four clips that contain four of my favorite quotes.

Quote #1 - Dan, my preaching partner, and I could not be more different musically. I openly mock him for his love of Sheryl Crowe and he has declared that my indifference for James Taylor is my most glaring personality disorder. But we agree that The Wire is probably the best television show ever…which makes it awkward that we both love a show we cannot recommend in the college ministry we serve.[5] Plus, we both love to illustrate our preaching with our favorite art, and can almost always think of a perfect Wire clip that is totally unusable. But this clip I plan to use.[6]

“You want it to be one way…but it’s the other way.”

There may not be a better summary of Genesis 3.[7]

Quote #2 And while we are talking about Marlo…Marlo is probably the most chilling character in the series. He is devastatingly understated…almost emotionless. Which is what made this scene so powerful:

“My name is my name”[8]

That there is Marlo’s longest monologue of the show and the clearest insight we get into who he is.

Quote #3 Then there was Omar. Omar was, rightfully, the show’s most beloved character.[9] Picking a best Omar scene is almost impossible. But this one was great[10]:

“I shot the boy mike mike in his hind parts, that all.”

Quote #4 Finally, for all of great narrative and characters, The Wire was most powerful when it cashed in those narratives and characters to make some of the most powerful and precise observations about human nature I have encountered in contemporary small screen art. This is most compelling when the ‘heroes’ talk about ‘the job.’

““The job will not save you Jimmy.”

[11] ‘Righteousness’ can be as destructive as ‘wickedness.’ ‘The job’ can destroy you as sure as ‘the game.’[12] Tim Keller could have written this scene.

And a few more….

This post was written while listening to the Ivoryline Pandora station.

[1] Seriously, I loved Lost as much as the next guy, but I often felt manipulated.
[2] I am going to skip the whole ‘white guilt’ discussion. There were aspects of the wire that I appreciated because it drew attention to the ‘corner’ culture that my Buffalo kids interacted with. But The Wire isn’t great because of it provides a voyeuristic expose on urban life…the wire is great because it told stories that rung true and connected with my experiences of beauty and brokenness.
[3] Its funny how everyone else can be identified by a single name, but it takes two for “Russell.”
[4] E.g. the simultaneous tenderness and coldness of the Chris/Snoop executions. Or, one of my favorite scenes has two Baltimore drug dealers listening to Prairie Home Companion on their way to NY and one of them starts fiddling with the radio as the station begins to cut out. He thought it was broken. He’d never been far enough away from his corner to realize that radio stations are not static entities.
[5] I have written repeatedly about my frustration with HBO’s gratuitous exploration of ‘boob shots’ in what is otherwise excellent, nuanced, art. Also, I usually have a very high tolerance for words with social taboo, but I found myself thinking in a new and colorful vocabulary after banging through a couple discs of this show. Don’t get me wrong, the dialogue is amazing and the language is perfectly apt and believable, but there is one famous episode where the ‘dialogue’ consists of 38 F-bombs in a row (in about 3 minutes).
[6] I’m going to use the middle scene in the convenient store.
[7] Which I am preaching in the fall.
[8] One of the things I love about it is how it makes sense of a seemingly insignificant detail from a former season (this was always happening). There is a great scene when Marlo is in a power struggle with Bodie and decides to assimilate rather than destroy him. He walks up to Bodie and gets his name wrong a couple times. Bodie, responds “You know my name.” This all reminds me of the theme of Yahweh’s name and the demons asking Jesus his name and visa versa in the first and second testaments. It is the classic example of an illustration that ‘cuts the wrong way’ but there is a really interesting parallel here regarding name and power.
[9] SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE WHOLE SERIES DO NOT READ THIS FOOTNOTE– Nothing in this show was more controversial than Omar’s death. And, I felt outrage…because he was, in some ways, the show’s moral center. “A man has got to have a code.” But Omar had to die, and die unceremoniously, and pass without fanfare. That was the point. We loved Omar, because we knew him, but in the end, he was just another body. The rules were that ‘the game’ could and would claim everybody and an honorable life did not assure you an honorable death. Oh, and he was my favorite gay character in any art…ever.
[10] Though almost ruined by the overacting of the defense attorney.
[11] I think Freamon is my favorite character.
[12] There is an echo of this with Daniels, who has his S#$% together more than Jimmy, but still worships ‘the job’. ‘The job does not love you,’ in the mouth of his wife could be a straight up Keller Quote.


JMBower said...

I will have to go back and catch more of the Wire. I saw a couple episodes, and loved it, even though I'm not big on crime shows. I have been working on kind of a similar theme about antiheroes, comparing Sons of Anarchy with Dexter and then making unsupportable extrapolations about society.

JMBower said...

(by similar, of course, I mean regarding antiheroes, not similar in terms of unsupportable extrapolations.)

stanford said...

I was not offended in the least to think by similar you might have meant “unsupportable extrapolations.” :)

I’ll be curious what you have to say about Dexter. I didn’t make it very far in that series. But there was at least one really profound moment that I think of often.