Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The American Dream on Television... and The Wire

The Wire is best television show I've ever seen. The reason why lies at the core of the American psyche.

The American dream is the core of American national mythology. We all know it by heart: work hard, choose correctly and America will reward you. The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the foundation of American government and society. The dream is based on freedom of choice, hard work and justice triangulating in such a way that make success and happiness possible for anybody.
The dream is present and disseminated, in one form or another, on almost every TV show made in the U.S.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than on reality TV competitions such as the Apprentice, Survivor, America's Next Top Model and American Idol (to name 4 among dozens). On these shows a bunch of competitors duke it out for a dream job/prize. It is basically an American dream narrative in miniature with commercials. Work hard and choose correctly the dream is yours. But these shows are not a proper exploration of the American dream (except in proving that the dream is still alive in the general public). Reality TV competitions are rigged. Rigged, not in terms that the winners are predetermined, but rigged because the fact that there will be a winner is predetermined - someone has to win. At the end of the Apprentice Trump is not going to announce that nobody was impressive enough and therefore no competitor will get the job. In real life the odds that someone among 30 aspiring singers one will sell 100,00 records are highly unfavorable. On American Idol, two singers or more selling millions of records is inevitable. There will be a happy ending for someone, guaranteed.

This guarantee is also present on the TV version of chic-lit (Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and Sex and the City, etc.). These women-oriented shows are based off the premise of freedom of choice and happiness. The core question in these shows is simply this: who will the women choose to date/sleep with/mary/etc in their quest for happiness? On these shows a happy outcome is certain; the girl will always end up with her price charming - it's hard to imagine Sex and the City wrapping up with Sarah Jessica Parker being alone. The drama on these shows is rooted in the ups and downs on the way to bliss (and by the audience suspending logic and believing that these women risk ending up alone). So here too happy endings are guaranteed.

Crime/action drama is a little different. The American dream is prominent here also but another American obsession is in the foreground: the battle between good and evil. On these shows here "good" characters must defeat "evil" characters in order to preserve American society and the keep the dream alive. "Good" guys might do some bad things (see 24's Jack Bauer) but its all in the name of freedom, justice and the American way. The line between "good" guys and "bad" guys is clearly delineated and characters stand on on side or the other (no straddling please) with skin color and accents sometimes helping the viewer out as to whom is on each side. On most shows victory inside the hour or series is certain; 24, Prison Break, CSI, Shark, etc. On some of the of the more sophisticated shows (let's say Law and Order) the bad guys sometimes get away, but the essential ingredients are the same: good vs evil in form of good guys vs bad guys with the survival of the American dream hanging in the balance.

The Wire is different. Characters are not good or bad. And the show does not center around the protection of the American dream from nefarious villains. On the streets of Baltimore the dream is dead. In fact, it's been dead so long that people do not even complain that it is gone; it has been forgotten - completely and utterly.
The struggle between drug dealers and police is not viewed through the prism of justice or good vs. evil - it is just presented to us straight up. We do not cheer for a side and one side is not better than the other. Most of the time the top levels of the drugs gangs behave more ethically that the executive levels of the police and their political bosses.
The characters are not free to choose, and their hard work guarantees nothing. Life in the American slum is arbitrary and merciless. The characters are trapped; their fates certain all they can do is rage against the heavens.
Drug dealers will die violently or in prison. Poor children will grow up to sling drugs on the corners. Good police officers will upset the political establishment and be punished. Reforming politicians will be stonewalled at every turn. Good friends will be forced into betraying each other. Choices are illusions disguising the truth; they are at best are limited and usually lead to dead ends.
Intitutions limit the individual's choice to such a degree that the walls close in around him. This one of the main themes of the show.
The only winners are not people but these institutions with their inherent hypocracy and corruption. On the show, institutions force compromise on individual at every level of organizations with the sum of the compromises being a complete dilution of the original goal. The political system goes on, corrupt and inept, not benefiting anyone or anything but itself - no matter who is elected. The drug economy and its sister the drug war will go on indefinitely fueled by economics and fed by a constant source of fresh drop-outs and rhetoric and .
In Baltimore happiness is not guaranteed, nobody looks out for the little guy, choices are absent and the only inevitabilities are struggle and death. Many things make the show great - plot density, the great acting, multi-faceted stories, characters being believable representations of flesh and blood people and any other number of strengths. But The Wire's treatment of the American dream in contemporary America, clear-eyed, serious and honest, is its trump card.

Here's some proof of the show's brilliance. Two monologues delivered by one of my favorite characters, Bunny Colvin, talking more sense than it's safe to.