Saturday, December 29, 2012

"The Wire" – why realistic is increasingly unreal

I finished watching the last episode of "The Wire" this week on DVD. Currently, the show has one of the highest ratings of anything ever produced at IMDB – 9.5, compared to 9.4 for my favorite show, Breaking Bad. While I think "The Wire" is very well done – and I admit I will miss some of the characters in the show (does Bubbles' sister read the newspaper article on him and finally let him in? will McNulty and Beadie make it? does Carver deservedly move up the ranks? does Greggs ever shack up again? does Gus get punished or rewarded? does Dennis make it with his boxing school and his new nurse friend? and can we please get rid of Marlow?) – I don't quite understand everyone's excitement.

The best thing about the show, as others have already stated, is that it reveals how individuals deal with their organizations – police departments, drug rings, schools, newspapers, the government, labor unions, to mention the main ones – to different extents. Some decide that it is simply in their best interest to follow orders. Others fight against the system from within the system. A few outliers buck the system entirely and break the rules in order to do what they think is right regardless of personal setbacks they might experience (Omar, my favorite character, and McNulty come to mind, as does the labor union head in season three).

At times, I found certain parts to be a bit exaggerated – not so much the plot, which does stretch the imagination at times, but mainly character behavior. One minor example is Senator Clay, who becomes known for his tagline, "shiiiiiiit." It's a nice effect for a while, but it becomes overworked, and at one point in the fifth season he drags out the vowel for several seconds, which comes across as completely overwrought.

McNulty increasingly becomes a sex fiend, whereas he was more of a loser in the first season. Perhaps his manly jaw makes him more believable as a sex fiend than a loser, but he eventually had the ladies dropping like flies, and the scene where he has sex with a blonde in the parking lot and flashes his badge at the cop car passing by to show that everything is okay was a bit over-the-top for me.

I say that even though I know that crazy things go on at US police departments. I used to work at a bakery in New Orleans, where the best fringe benefit was close contact with so many born-and-bred New Orleanians (I am merely a born New Orleanian, having gone to all 12 years of school in Mississippi). A local policeman (no, our bakery did not make doughnuts, though I did marvel at the frequency of Dunkin' Donuts cups in "The Wire") who frequented our shop told us all kinds of stories – such as the time he wrecked his police car while driving drunk on patrol and receiving fellatio. He told his higher-ups that he had discovered the damage the next morning when he woke up – and reported it as a drive-by accident, suspect unknown....

Here's my dilemma: I know these things in the show are probably not even exaggerated, but they are still unbelievable – even if they somewhat realistically reflect real-life urban America, at least in struggling cities like Baltimore and NOLA.

To my knowledge, no cop show in Germany has ever shown its own police force in such a light, and it may be some time before any does because it seems so far removed from reality here. The cops in the show hang out in the middle of nowhere getting drunk, and they even drink six-packs in their own parking lot – and throw empty beer cans and bottles onto their own roof. German cops are too grown-up for such behavior and would be ashamed to do any such thing. They get together in nicely decorated Kneipen for a beer or two. Or three. And I doubt many of them regularly drive home drunk.

I remember a Doonesbury cartoon from a few decades ago in which a policeman tells his son (sitting shotgun) that he needs to start behaving and not cave in to peer pressure. They are driving down the street in the cartoon, and when his son tells him that he needs to slow down, the policeman responds, "I can't drive the speed limit, son, people be dissin' me."

While there are certainly acts of police brutality over here, it is understood that the police have to follow the same rules as everyone else. One recent example of police brutality is illustrative: residents of the thriving city of Stuttgart protested the construction of a new train station, which is far over budget. The police came out with water cannons and forcibly removed people, many of whom were middle and upper class citizens, including the elderly. Some of the peaceful protesters were injured in the process.

This is modern-day Germany at its scandalous worst. Imagine how boring the TV show would be.

I have never once seen a police car going above the speed limit anywhere in my 20 years in Germany unless it had its siren on. And speaking of sirens, I almost never hear them here, whereas there seems to be one every 30 minutes in Washington DC based on my regular Skype conference calls with two different locations in town.

Drugs? Yeah, we have them over here, too. Marijuana for personal usage is largely decriminalized, though. The Swiss hand out clean syringes and heroine to addicts to help them get off the drug. During a recent visit to Portugal, I stumbled across a neighborhood in the old part of town where lots of people looked like drug addicts, but the neighborhood did not seem scary. Portugal has some of the most liberal drug laws in Europe. Drug addicts tend to be treated like victims over here, not criminals.

The entire situation described in "The Wire" therefore seems absurd. Why are US cities taken over by drugs? Breaking Bad is another series based on the drug trade – why is this so remote from the experience over here in continental Europe? Spain has 45 percent unemployment among young people; Greece, 55 percent. I am no expert, and I have read that drug use is on the rise. But are these urban environments being taken over by drug gangs like in the US?

In a way, Germany – the only country I can speak somewhat knowledgeably about – is boring. Practically everyone here acts like a grown up. People are reasonable, ideological opponents (there are relatively few) generally still talk to each other, there is no hate radio, and there are no media watch groups – because the media are not partisan. TV news does not try to get "both sides of the story" but rather tries to get the facts right. Once they have the facts right, they don't go looking for people who disagree. And no newspaper or other media outlet is a party hack.

Another US TV series, Newsroom (which I have not seen), is another good example. One of Germany's most prominent TV news moderators recently stated that the US show is about as close to the reality of newsrooms in Germany as "the Earth is to the moon."

I'd say the same holds true for "The Wire" (and Breaking Bad). But maybe that's what makes these shows interesting in the end. Americans are frequently childish (by which I specifically mean not just that we refuse to accept the consequences of our own actions, but that we should not do things with consequences we do not wish to face), and our political system (and much of civil society) is absurd. "The Wire" shows why having an area in Baltimore where even hard drugs are tolerated simply would not work. In Europe, such things are tried out, and if they work, they are kept. If it fails, nobody "takes the heat" for anything because decisions are made by consensus. It's called democracy.

Some of the organizational constraints exist over here as well, and Robin-Hood-type outliers such as Omar, a man of his word, exist over here as well. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for instance, fell on his sword when he refused to divulge the source of some campaign financing, probably (it is still not known) because it was from then-French President Mitterrand. (Unlike Omar, Helmut Kohl is not one of my favorite characters.)

So while modern cable TV series are praised for accurately depicting life in the US, the situations are not completely unfamiliar to foreign audiences. But as someone who left the US 20 years ago and has only had sporadic contact with the country since, I find the shows become more unreal as they get more realistic. Then again, maybe that's what a lot of US viewers feel as well. And maybe that's what actually makes the shows so popular.

"When you walk through the Garden / watch yo' back"


  1. Thanks for this.

    As a German, I find highly lauded US-shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad largely unwatchable, because they bear zero relation to any reality I have ever experienced, either in Germany or abroad. Breaking Bad is even worse in that regard than The Wire, because while I can believe that drugs may be epidemic in deprived urban neighbourhoods, I find it utterly impossible to believe that a respectable middle aged middle class guy like the Walter character in Breaking Bad would get involved in the drug trade.

    That's probably also the reason why a lot of so-called quality TV shows from the US fail dismally in Germany (Homeland is the latest example). For while many German viewers, myself included, quite enjoy watching US cop shows like CSI and its ilk as a bit of fun far removed from reality, the supposedly realistic shows are unwatchable, because they bear no relation to reality either and aren't even mindless fun, unlike CSI and its ilk.

  2. A couple of outsiders gauging the believability of something they admittidely know nothing about? Wow, ok.

    Yes, both shows have certain unbelievable moments/plot-lines (especially BB, by far in fact), but for the most part, they nailed the broadstroakes of the drug-trade in this country.

    "I find it utterly impossible to believe that a respectable middle aged middle class guy like the Walter character in Breaking Bad would get involved in the drug trade."
    You must live a very sheltered life, because things like this happen more often than you think. "Impossible?" Lol.

    1. I'm glad someone said this. You hit the nail on the head.