Spoiler alert: I give the entire game away in this post. If you’re keen to watch The Wire, don’t watch the clips – they will ruin it for you. I’d even be careful with some of the text.
I have some problems with the West Wing. I no longer think it’s the bee’s knees. Partly because I’ve since watched The Wire, which is the bee’s knees, but also because we’re rewatching season one now, while we also watch The Wire.
What issues do I have with the West Wing?
1. the music is really intrusive and pushy. The Wire has ruined me for telly with a score. There’s no music in The Wire, beyond what the characters hear in their ordinary settings. But the West Wing is rank with it, and it’s pushy. It’s busy telling you, ‘hey, this is a really serious bit’ or ‘look out – he’s angry, he’s angry!’ You’re not left to figure out how you should feel on your own. The Wire doesn’t baby you or preach – it figures you know how you’re supposed to feel. And the West Wing has that horrid, overly florid music that really gets up my crack.
2. america is wonderful. The West Wing is, essentially, a story about the wonderfulness of the American democratic process. It almost tries to problematise some legislative issues, but it doesn’t quite make it. Ultimately, any problem with the American electoral system, laws, powers of the president or general legal system are solved by the wonderfulness of the president. Jed Bartlett/Martin Sheen (and the two are inextricable) is presented as this too-wonderful man, whose sheer charisma absolves the broader structural problems in American civics. He’s so smart, so charming, so wickedly brave and sneaky, our problems with his policy or with the way the government he leads works are nudged aside. This feels, ultimately, untrue and deceitful. The West Wing promises a clever, insightful gaze into the white house. But really, it offers you a bunch of fast dialogue with very ordinary, very familiar and very unradical story lines and characters.
3. the dialogue is clever. It’s not. It’s quick. But every character speaks, ultimately, the same way. The first time I watched this show I thought ‘my, I’d love to work in a place like that, where everyone is really clever and everyone is stretched and really used for their best abilities’. But now, I’m not buying that. With rewatching, the stories and dialogue aren’t so clever. I’m really not seeing any new types of character relationships or story arcs. There’re some overly moralising stories about drugs or health care, but, really, it’s the same old preachy shit. And while these guys are presented as the ‘good guys’ – the left – they’re really only soft left. And I don’t even want to talk about race. Well, perhaps a little. Black, in the white house? You’ll be holding doors for the president, getting told off for speaking out about racism (in ep 15, season 1) or getting killed, eventually.
The Wire, in contrast, is really quite radical. We spend as much time with the drug dealers and shooters and strippers as we do with the police. In fact, the institutional structures and discourses of the illegal networks are far more complex and sophisticated than the police and ‘legal’ institutions. The police team working ‘the wire’ are really following a couple of steps behind the B&B crew, trying to figure out how they manage to hide their dealings using a telephone network. You’re really left thinking that the B&B organisation – particularly under Stringer Bell’s direction – is organised crime.
Issues of crime and class are dealt with in long-reaching, long-term story arcs. They’re not resolved in an episode with some ideological bravado from Toby, some practical problem solving from Leo and some balderdash paternalism from Bartlet. Problem solving – solving cases – isn’t quick or simple. It doesn’t use high tech forensics. It uses, at best, wire taps on pay phones and blokes on roofs with film cameras. Some of the police are utterly crap and incompetent. Some of them have potential, but fail to realise it. And sometimes, the cases don’t get solved. There are also frustrating moments when the characters fail to communicate and royally fuck up a ‘simple’ resolution. So the story lines aren’t as clear and simple and easily resolved. West Wing is dealing with the disadvantages of an episodic format – it can’t really work with longer, sustained (and ultimately more complex) story lines. But really, there’s no excuse for dialogue that looks clever, but isn’t, really.
4. the gender stuff. Basically, the chicks on the West Wing are dumb arses. They look good – they sound clever. And CJ is tall. But they’re really not the smartest kids in the class. Evidence? Let’s say we’re faced with a tricky moment in American legislative process. We’re pretty sure the audience won’t understand or have any useful knowledge about this process. We need to clue them in, but we have about 45 minutes to get the story done, and really, this little narrative knot is more important for making a point about Bartlet’s persona or Josh’s impending romance. So how do we clue in the audience? The West Wing gets old school and uses some exposition. Basically, one of the clever characters (usually one of the lawyers – Toby, Josh or Sam) explains the process to someone else. 95% of the time that person who needs things explaining is a woman. This could be excused by the fact that the characters are in their first term in the white house -they’re new to the job. But why is it always CJ or Mandy or Donna who needs to have something explained to them? It’s fairly rare to see Sam having something explained. Unless it’s emotional stuff. If it’s something to do with dating, Sam’s having it explained to him by… some chick. If it’s something about being kind, Josh is having it explained to him by Donna. If there’s a story about the futility of young men lost in wars, it’s Mrs Lanningham explaining to young Charlie.
This is one part of West Wing that I’m finding increasingly intolerable. That and the music. I’ve just about had enough of hearing Toby rant to CJ or Sam explain sampling process to CJ. The latter I am almost furiously frustrated by. CJ, as a PR wiz, should have at the very least, a working knowledge of basic sampling processes, at least as they’re applied to polling and public opinion surveys. I mean, fuck, my undergrads could figure it out after an hour of lecture and a couple of readings. CJ doesn’t understand it? Jeez. I just wasn’t buying it. And if it’s simple enough to explain in three minutes of expository dialogue, I’m a little surprised so competent and articulate and clever a woman as CJ can’t get it after hours reading briefing papers… or perhaps the people who write these briefs need a little help? And I don’t think I need to talk about Mrs Bartlet and the cafuffle over her office in the first season. This woman should have been, by this point in her husband’s career, an astute political animal. But she makes first year blunders that are really quite embarassing.
I really need to point out a few more points where The Wire kicks West Wing arse. But let’s pause for a little Stringer Bell action.
The dialogue and the story lines. You think there’s a lot of walking about and fast talking in the West Wing? Try figuring out the local dialects of Baltimore. Both black and white. Cop and stevedore. All-male and all-female groups. We regularly stop the DVD to try and figure out what’s going on. What did he say? Who’s that? What’s going on now? There are zillions of characters, the story line is incredibly complicated, and there’s a lot of talking. But it’s all very satisfying, once you’ve figured out what’s going on.
[spoiler alert: there's lots of spoiler action approaching]
Issues of class are dealt with in the most interesting ways. I was particularly struck by the parallels between McNulty’s and Stringer Bell’s struggles with class in the third season (which we’ve just finished watching). McNulty starts seeing (dating is too generous a term for this relationship) a well-connected white woman PR hound. She, essentially, uses him for his body. He tries, a couple of times, to hang out in her world – high powered political negotiations and shmoozing parties. He’s left feeling stupid and clumsy. As he says at one point (and I must paraphrase), ‘I’m the smartest guy in the western. But I couldn’t keep up with what she was doing’. His street knowledge and truly formidable problem solving smarts were simply useless in that forum. He simply didn’t have the social nous – or social skills to negotiate that space.
Similarly, Stringer Bell begins to move into real estate development, investing the massive amounts of money he’s earnt dealing drugs. He begins to deal with the city housing officials and the complicated network of laws, bylaws and committees regulating building and industry in Baltimore (a journey paralleled by Cutty’s attempts to found a boxing gym for young people, but that’s another story). He fails, miserably, mostly because he simply doesn’t speak the ‘language’ or know how to read the high-level machinations of this setting (spoiler alert: here‘s a nice clip where we see Stringer’s frustrations played out).
Both are very intelligent men. Stringer Bell has been studying business at community college at night. McNulty is ferociously intelligent, and solves problems with a combination of terrier-tenacity and cutting smarts. Bell is perhaps the more impressive personality, managing a massive drug dealing business, organising the different local bosses into a cohesive network of businessmen. But he is hampered more clearly by his race when he tries to move between classes. Both are dealing with the greater challenges of class – of education, of not speaking the right language (or knowing how to negotiate language), of not walking or moving the right way. Even their physical experience with and relative comfort with physical violence becomes an impediment, confusing their responses to conflict. While neither does anything as ridiculous as start a fight, both use their physical threat – their posturing and willingness to physically mix it up – marring their efforts to deal with individuals and settings where violence is not at all appropriate.
This next clip is 100% spoiler. If you haven’t seen season 3 or are considering watching the program, don’t watch it. But it’s an interesting comment on class in The Wire.
All of this is not discussed in snappy dialogue. It is expressed in a series of incidents, over a series of episodes. Both characters do spend time on exposition, but their articulation of their frustrations is in character – these are men who are also very much verbally competent. Their language skills are impressive. It’s just that they’re also contextually dependent and don’t transfer to new settings terribly well.
The Wire is also impressive for the fact that it actually has queer characters who stick around.
There are dykes and fags, here, and they’re not subscribing to gender or sexual stereotypes. Omar is a ruthless, fearless killer whose violence is triggered in large part as a response to the murder and torture of his lover. Kima is involved in a long term relationship with a lawyer and dealing with new parenthood (her relationship with McNulty is interesting – she’s not interested in him sexually, but she’s obviously drawn to his charismatic, chaotically destructive person and becomes increasingly like him in her behaviour). There are other queer characters who bend gender norms, but I can’t give away too many spoilers.
Really, The Wire is fabulous television. And The West Wing fails.