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Sunday, September 17, 2006


Thanks to Dan for the invitation to return. Since pop culture and its discontents have been a theme for the weekend, here goes a follow-up to a comment made by Rachel Godsil about the HBO series The Wire, which started its fourth season last week:

Y'all should check The Wire out. It's engrossing and entertaining, and more than any other television series that I’ve seen, it raises significant political and policy issues – from drug policy to human trafficking, from labor unions to the plight of inner city schools, from municipal politics (the show is set in Baltimore) to criminal investigations – and does so in an informed, compelling, and usually non-didactic manner. The scripts and performance are by turn intensely dramatic and humorous; the characters as complex as in any fine realist novel. If you have HBO and you’re not watching it, you’re nuts; if you don’t have HBO, try renting or buying the first season on DVD and I almost guarantee you’ll find yourself hooked by the third episode. In case one has opportunity cost issues with watching TV, the show is almost as chock-full of useful anecdotes, hypos, and policy dilemmas as anything a law prof in any field is likely to encounter. And I say all this as someone who generally doesn’t like cop shows.

Given my own teaching and research interests in land use and administrative law, I’ll only cite two really good, finely detailed anecdotes from the third season. Neither is really a spoiler. When the local police tracking a drug gang learn that one of the gang’s leaders is plowing his ill-gotten gains into buying up cheap real estate on the edge of Baltimore’s redeveloping and gentrifying neighborhoods to convert into condos, the cops joke that the gang has found the one thing worse than violent crime and drug dealing: becoming a real estate developer. [Corny guffaw, I know, and unfair, but funny at the time (especially if you're sold on the characters), and telling of the show's complex class politics - the upper-level drug dealers are the only real wealthy people you see on the show, and they usually only show their wealth in jewelry and fancy rides.] And as the local cops and district attorney learn that they can’t get help on their drug conspiracy investigation from the FBI because the feds have shifted attention from the war on drugs to the global war on terror, everyone agrees that the targeted subject of a wiretap must be named “Ahmed” in order to justify bureaucratic prerogatives and get authority for the tap.

The show has been renewed for a fifth season. Slate's supposed to begin doing a group discussion this week on this season; one educational policy blog is commenting on each episode; and there's at least one blog devoted solely to the show. So you needn't watch alone.

Posted by Mark Fenster on September 17, 2006 at 12:11 PM in Culture | Permalink


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I'm hoping we get a complex and nuanced treatment of the education issue, as we did with "Hamsterdam," and as with the travails of the president of the dockworkers union.

This is getting more off-topic, but I'm intrigued by the way HBO is allowing viewers to see episodes of "The Wire" early (via "On Demand"). On the one hand, I'm mighty tempted to see what happens in the next episode. On the other hand, this is just asking me to pay for something that I could get for free if I waited a week....

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Sep 18, 2006 2:58:01 PM

Mark, you nailed one of the (many) reasons I like the show so much. The presentation of "Hamsterdam," and the treatment of the drug-tolerance experiment, did not gloss over the despair and nastiness associated with what was going on, but still made us think hard about the plan's apparent benefits.

As for my friendly disagreement with Joe about vouchers, it will have to stay just that, I guess.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 18, 2006 2:25:41 PM

Rick -- it'll be interesting to see if the season does consider alternatives. David Simon in particular is clearly "liberal," in the ways in which such things get defined these days, but the show consistently paints in shades of grey, as in the corrupt union in season 2 and the experiment in drug legalization in season 3. I think your suspicion is correct that it seems like the alternatives are likely to be defined as existing within the public school system. But I wouldn't be surprised if we were, well, surprised. The depiction of "Hamsterdam" (the small areas in which drug trafficking was made quasi-legal in season 3) was so incredibly harrowing that any argument the show was simply promoting drug legalization (by, for example, include former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke in a cameo) would be absurd.

The show is so deeply committed to its own ambivalence that it never fails to surprise. Which may be one reason why law professors like it so much [grin].

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Sep 18, 2006 11:31:18 AM

"The Wire" is brilliant. As a labor law guy, I was very impressed with season two's very nuanced portrayal of a union leader faced with deindustrialization (and other problems). I was afraid we would get a stereotyped "union corruption" story arc, but it was more complex than that.

I've been around once already with Rick on the vouchers/private school issue. So, as to that, only three quick points. First, his comment should be contrasted with yet another recent study by the (radically pro-public school?) feds that shows that, all things held equal, students in private schools don't really do better than students in public schools. Second, this season might not support the things that liberals (like me) feel should be done with public schools either (so I reserve my right to complain). But most of all, third, isn't it much too early to tell what messages will be sent about schools? The first two episodes haven't spent much time on this part of the story, and the school year hasn't yet begun.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Sep 18, 2006 9:33:32 AM

"The Wire" is my favorite show on television, and probably my favorite show ever, for the reasons that Lior and Mark set out.

I'm anticipatorily disappointed this season, though -- This year's animating theme will, I gather, be the sorry state of urban education, and the extent to which it contributes to the other problems addressed so skillfully in the show. It seems to me that, somewhere during the season, there really needs to be serious engagement with the fact that, even in places like West Baltimore, disadvantaged kids of all faiths or none are saved by shoestring budget parochial schools. I'd love to see "The Wire" at least nod to the possibility that one way to help some of the kids we've already met this year is to help them exit their dysfunctional public schools. (Such a nod could be agnostic on school vouchers; the funding could be through a private scholarship, or just a parent's heroic sacrifice.) Here's hoping . . .

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 18, 2006 8:52:12 AM

Most def. The Wire is compelling, smart, and superbly acted. Two add on points: First, the show comes closer to getting the law right than anything else on television. Its depiction of wiretap law is spot on, for example. Lawyers who can't help getting annoyed with Law & Order ("Why isn't defense counsel objecting?") will find the Wire a nice antidote. Second, as you hint, the show has managed to reinvent itself with each successfive season, with fascinating new plot lines about drug gangs, corrupt unions, gentrification, and now urban public schools. People not watching it are missing out.

Posted by: Lior | Sep 17, 2006 2:09:29 PM

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