The Wire And Disrupting the Othering Process

Season02_posterart.jpg If you haven’t had the chance to watch HBO’s TV show The Wire I highly recommend you take the time and begin watching. It’s in its fifth and final season, so there’s plenty to keep your Netflix queue busy for quite awhile. While it may not a good show for the family or follow the sitcom-styled story line (where the narrative begins, climaxes and resolves in thirty minutes), it is the perfect show for those of you who like TV shows that feel like a good work of literature. It is a very elaborate story, with very intricate characters and development, but then again the show was written for five seasons from the start. This means the narrative in this show really takes its time to develop and you have a chance to watch the characters grow and change (or not change as the case may be).

One thing I really like about this show, and one main reason I recommend it to you, is that it is a great exercise in “disrupting the ‘Othering’ process” to use a fancy phrase from culture studies. ((Johnson, Practice of Cultural Studies, 2004)) The narrative that we as viewers follow in the The Wire is not the simple black and white binaries of good and evil, bad guy versus good guy, racism versus humanist liberalism, etc. No The Wire is much richer than that. In this story we hear (and see) the lives of policemen and women, lawyers, government officials, gang-bangers, urban youth, felons, murders, drug addicts and much more. But none of these characters neatly fit their archetypes. The cops are sometimes ‘good’ and sometimes ‘bad,’ the same is true for the drug dealers, the pushers and the users. Each character symbolizes a real person, one who has conflicting interests, needs and desires. There are ‘bad’ cops who, on occasion, do something good, and ‘good’ gangsters, who get caught up in their own personal affairs and forget ‘the game.’ There are gangsters and drug Lords who have unwritten codes they follow even sometimes to their own demise, while other groups have their own unwritten codes (that there are no codes), put these groups together and it makes for an interesting social commentary on integrity, greed and hedonism.

Understanding That Goes Beyond Romanticizing

The Wire, allows the viewer to watch and listen to the Other without romanticizing over him or her. Through stories that don’t reduce people to their binaries (cop = good — drug dealer = evil or vice versa) we are freed to seek understanding through the complexities that makeup the real world. Through understanding, we can be changed:

“‘Understanding,’ by comparison, recognizes the impossibility of knowing the other, but listens, taking on something of the reality of what is said. In this process, the ‘I’ is changed.” ((Johnson, 47))

We can miss this ‘understanding,’ when we go to the extremes on either side of the binaries, when we demonize or romanticize those different from us. The temptation in deconstructing binaries is to create such a pure form of the Other that they become so pure (so undeconstructable) that they are rendered detached and completely inaccessible to us. ((Zizek, The Puppet and The Dwarf, 2003: 139-141)) This can leave them unintelligible (at least in any helpful way). But here you have a TV show that helps us look into the lives of people on the streets as well as those spent in offices, and we can begin to see just how messy these situations really are.

I wouldn’t normally put so much stock in the accuracy of a TV show, but the The Wire has not only been called one of the top 100 Television shows of all time, but it was created by former Baltimore detective Ed Burns. It has received “has received critical acclaim for its realistic portrayal of urban life and uncommonly deep exploration of sociological themes… [Wikipedia]” All of this said, we love the show, we find it entertaining and educational and feel like while we may not personally relate to the lives daily disturbed (and destroyed?) by such violence, hopelessness and corruption, we can seek to ‘understand’ and maybe through understanding something else will come.


3 responses to “The Wire And Disrupting the Othering Process”

  1. I don’t often see a tv review with footnotes. It was a pleasure to read a review of my favorite TV show. I have to wait til it comes out on DVD. Last season took an awfully long time to be made into DVD so I was in great suspense. If you haven’t read David Simon’s book Homicide, the book that started this series of programs where Baltimore is a staring character (Homicide, the Corner, the Wire), I recommend it.

    Btw, Ed Burns was also a Baltimore City School System middle school teacher. A job he says was more harrowing and difficult than being a police. Having taught there in elementary school myself, I can vouch for that. And it wasn’t the kids that were scary,it was the beurocracy. Something that the Wire portrays very well.

  2. Hi Cathy,
    thanks for the comment and recommendation on the book, I’ll check it out. I know what you mean about bureaucracy in the public education system, my wife teaches high school english in LA and it’s the same kind of thing. It’s a shame too, there are so many good teachers in those schools and they’re hands are so often tied to ‘teaching to the test.’

  3. still looking forward to watching this someday soon. its interesting this so called “golden age” of television (not my term by the way). I think what strikes me the most about these longer running narrative on TV is that they serve a different purpose than that of say a well directed/acted film. Good tv allows a viewer an even more all encompassing story… something more comprehensive. For the most part I enjoy it a lot, while sometimes it can be tedious or disappointing when the series loses steam and only half the story is finished.

    I should mention that this doesn’t cheapen film in any way in fact I would say your literary comparison is a good analogy. Maybe film is the short story to good television’s novel. Not a perfect comparison but what is.