Thursday, January 03, 2008

How dare David Simon write "The Wire" from his perspective? OR Why pundits chouldn't critique TV

With all due respect to Matt Yglesias, if there's any worse role for a professional blogger-pundit, it's critiquing "The Wire" because its "vision of the bleak urban dystopia and its roots is counterproductive to advancing the values we hold dear."

Critique it as a TV show, sure. But "The Wire" is a super specific show about a specific place and specific institutions, filtered through a few people's (and especially one person, David Simon's) perspective. If you don't know a lot about Baltimore, urban poverty, the drug trade, police, etc., I don't think you're in any position to criticize the "vision" of the show.

However, I highly recommend reading Matt's post and then scrolling down to David Simon's very cogent response in the comments.

Yglesias' critique suffers from the same problem, though to a greater extent, as that of Mark Bowden, also in The Atlantic. As a former Baltimore Sun reporter, Bowden is in a better place to criticize the way the show portrays its subjects. Especially this season, when reporters and editors at the Sun are characters.

The thing is, I'm sure Bowden is right that David Simon is using the show to "exorcise some personal demons" and is in the process being unfair to some specific people at the Sun who will recognize themselves in the show. And Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, whom Bowden quotes, may have some sort point when he says that the show has left out "the decent people... God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism," though I personally think there are plenty of decent people on the show.

But honestly, my reaction is: Who cares? Nobody except those who worked with David Simon at the Sun are going to relate the newspaper characters in "The Wire" to real people. And nobody (in their right mind) thinks the "The Wire" is portraying every single type of person who lives in Baltimore. The characters may seem real, but they're fictional. And most of us know when we're watching a fictional TV show.

The problem is that Yglesias and Bowden take "The Wire" to task because its gets so many details right, but then isn't "realistic" enough to them in its overall scope or agenda. I was actually flabbergasted that Yglesias wrote "But part of what gives The Wire such great power is its creator's conviction, wrong though it is, that his tragic vision constitutes telling it like it is." Just as ridiculously, Bowden writes "This bleakness is Simon’s stamp on the show, and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness."

Wrong. Any intelligent person recognizes that David Simon and his writers are human beings with opinions who choose what to include and what to exclude, which stories to tell and which to ignore. I write short comedy for TV and the Internet and articles about video games for newspapers and magazines, but even I know that "evenhandedness" makes for bad fiction and is just as impossible as writing a truly "objective" newspaper article.

I think inherent in this critique is an assumption that people will take "The Wire" as gospel. Like somehow people are going to start adopting David Simon's world view whole hog just because he has realistic slang. Don't worry guys: If I decide to become an urban reform advocate after watching "The Wire," I'll do a little of my own reporting first.

David Simon isn't shy about expressing his political views, such as in the aforementioned comment on Matt's post. If Matt Yglesias and Mark Bowden don't agree with his views, fine. By all means, use the show as a jumping off point for a debate. But criticizing "The Wire" and its creator because it/he has the audacity to be deadly accurate in the details while telling a story from a biased perspective is proof that when you create something as brilliant as "The Wire," the only complaint critics have left is that you didn't tell the story the way they would have if they were you.

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