Friday, April 18, 2008

HBO's The Wire: Language and Themes

The Wire season oneThe Wire is a police drama that looks at the inner workings of various social groups and the rules and codes that govern them. Set in Baltimore, Maryland in the U.S., the show revolves around a rag-tag bunch of police officers as they tackle different cases.

The power structure of each different organization or group is explored; including the police force, inner city blacks involved in the drug trade and unionized dock workers (as far as season two.)

A recurring theme is the reference to the supposed codes that exist within each group. This is often represented by simplistic mantras or clich├ęs that are repeated at crucial moments of conflict when dissension threatens to erupt.

The logic behind these tacit rules are rarely questioned. Only when a member of each sociological unit starts to consider the underlying reasons and motives for all these oaths does he start to wonder how really meaningful or genuine the whole set-up is.

Those at the top, of course, encourage the repetition of the platitudes and invoke them whenever a hint of mutiny arises. But they rarely adhere to a set of altruistic guidelines and instead take decisions based on what will benefit them directly. Besides self-serving reasons, their other motivations are to maintain the image that, in fact, they do honour the code and, above all else, to ensure that their minions dutifully follow and keep repeating the empty bromides.

So, there are the leaders who manipulate the system for their own benefits while maintaining the illusion that they care about those below, the legions of dupes who play their roles and don't rock the boat and those who dare to step outside the rules of the game. Retribution and closing of ranks is swift in almost every case that such independent thinking arises.

There are also a few rebels or lone wolfs who somehow operate within or alongside the various structures. They are inevitably sanctioned or ostracized. But they also gain the respect and envy of some of the others who are members of the respective organizations. Not surprisingly, the maverick cop develops an affinity for the drug-trade outsider; a hood who makes a living by robbing drug dealers.

Comparisons between the cops and the criminals are inevitable. Bent coppers and thugs with a conscience can't help but make the viewer wonder how much circumstance has to do with a person's lot in life.

And which collective maintains a truer meritocracy? As two officers sit in their car watching a group of drug dealers attack a rival gang that has tried to muscle in on their territory, one of the cops remarks, "That's why they always win; when we screw-up we get pensions, when they screw-up, they get beat."

Jargon and Slang

Each group has their own language full of slang and jargon. An interesting attempt at creating authenticity and a testament to how much we use language to define ourselves and the roles we occupy.

It also provides a conundrum for both the police who are trying to decipher the wiretaps--the slang and the specifically coded language that is used to avoid detection--and the creators of the show who need a way to let the audience know exactly what is being referred to.

Artistic Influence

The world of books, movies and television is one of influence. Everything is derivative of something else and contains the subtle or obvious imprint of other creations that have come and gone in the past.

In The Wire, it's hard to miss the similarities to Joseph Wambaugh's police novels from the 1970's. The Wire is set in the present day but there is a very retro feel that is achieved through the use of flat lighting, seedy locations and a cast of relative unknowns who won't be winning beauty pageants anytime soon. Most of them are functional alcoholics with a litany of personal problems. They take solace in a base, vulgar humour and a sense of futility and impending doom permeates their lives.

Not that these elements are the sole domain of Wambaugh. In fact, many them are part of a large majority of cop dramas on the big and small screen. But usually there are at least a few other aspects that offset the cynical tone. Here, everything is debased, depraved and cynical. No doubt, there are signs of decency and integrity. But black and white situations or characters are not on offer and the over-riding atmosphere is of filth and degradation.

The result is a stark and unforgiving look at how human beings interact within the tribes and associations they have formed and likewise how those various subcultures clash with one another.

The series' title, The Wire, refers to the wiretaps that the police eventually use on their suspects. But it also relates to the natural monitoring that humans as a social species use to keep track of each other and how they regulate the behaviour of those members who violate different rules.

"It's all part of the game..."

Click here for a full review and analysis of all five seasons of The Wire


Anonymous said...

Well said.

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