The Wire and Fan Ownership

The following post is from TAS favorite Freddie deBoer. You may have noticed some of his very sharp criticism in the comments section.

In my quest to consume as much content about The Wire as possible, I read’s TV Club about the show avidly. I enjoy it a great deal, even though I don’t agree with much of what Jeffrey Goldberg and David Plotz have to say—in particular, I find the (widely-held) belief that the show has taken a serious decline in quality this season to be overblown. Something David Plotz wrote about episode 8 has given me particular pause, though. Plotz writes,

The death of Marlo, taken together with the deaths of Prop Joe and Stringer Bell—and the imprisonment of Avon—would suggest that the smartest and most ruthless drug dealers really can be stopped (even if the police don’t do it) and that the drug organizations really can be degraded…But less effective drug gangs would mean progress on an institutional scale, and that is something that The Wire refuses to accept as a possibility.

In a simple sense I’m a little confused by what Plotz is saying. Surely, if Marlo is a uniquely malevolent force, that makes the series more hopeful, not less. Because if Marlo is really the problem, then the hope lies in removing him. Arrest or kill Marlo, as Plotz explicitly states, and things in Baltimore look less bleak. But it seems to me that if there is any lesson from The Wire—or American crime drama in general—it’s that there is always someone else, always a new king to wear the crown. And as much as Marlo is a particularly ruthless kingpin, his overthrow or killing would cause no real change on the Baltimore streets: the junkies would still be junkies, the hoppers would still be hoppers, the muscle would still make bodies, the police would still chase stats. To me, the most despairing final act of The Wire is the one that I also find the most likely—one in which the particulars of the series are change monumentally, but in which, in the larger sense, nothing much changes at all. (The 9th episode, available on demand and in my opinion utterly brilliant, contains some major upheaval.)

My real concern, though, is larger, and it’s hardly a problem only for Plotz. I’m concerned about Plotz’s certainty at The Wire’s hopelessness, or what that requires of the plot. Let me be clear—Plotz has been equivocal throughout, and takes pains to say that his predictions are of no greater consequence or meaning than anyone else’s. I too have a tendency to imagine that there is only one way, or one small set of ways, that a series can progress and remain “true to itself”, or “faithful to its central truth”, or something similar.

And that’s the problem. I think one of the dangers faced by any television show, due to their serial nature, is that as fans watch over seasons and years, the fact of fan “ownership “—the emotional investment in a work of art that results in a feeling that the work in question belongs to the fans. This is phenomenon found commonly in music. There is often a predictable arc to a band’s career, where as a band branches out musically, they gain new fans, and in doing so, alienate their original fanbase. That alienation can often be expressed in extremely emotional ways, and it’s not uncommon for words like “betrayal” to be thrown around in response to these feelings.

A television show has unique vulnerabilities in this area. A television show, unlike music, has a plot and character development. And as viewers grow increasingly invested in the plot, and attached to the characters, it becomes harder and harder for the writers to satisfy the conflicting desires and expectations of the fanbase. (It strikes me that these concerns are largely shared by conventional comic book formats. But the problems with the serial/persistent/unending narratives of comics’ are so systemic and large, they deserve a post of their own.) Movies too develop rabid fanbases, but aside from the exceptions of sequels and franchises, there is limited opportunity to develop assumptions or desires about the development of plot and character. I’ve often wondered what There Will Be Blood would have been like as an HBO series (and what a series it could be!) But one of the questions I find myself confronting is just how much more sturm and drang there could have been about the controversial ending. Surely, viewers would have developed more and more elaborate notions as to an appropriate coda for the series—Eli must die, Eli must not die, there has to be a final confrontation between Daniel and Eli, Daniel’s relationship with his son has to, to preserve the story’s “essential truth”, follow this path or another…. These kind of feelings are an inevitable consequence of serial storytelling. Plot point adds onto plot point, fans conjecture and suppose, the show introduces new points which trouble previous assumptions, and in general narrative threatens to eat itself. The best shows on television either exercise enough restraint to keep things streamlined, or simply end quickly, as in the British version of The Office. Without this kind of discipline, a show always threatens to collapse in on itself. (As I’ve argued, Lost seems particularly vulnerable to collapsing under its own weight.)

I suppose my main point is only to say that we must, as critics and consumers of television, attempt to judge The Wire and other series for their actual strengths and weaknesses, instead of judging them in comparison to what we imagined they might be. That, and to remember that our opinions and critical tastes are hardly unadulterated or consistently defensible. The Wire can end any number of ways—with Marlo dead, or jailed, or newly triumphant. And any one of these possibilities can succeed or fail, depending on all of the usual criteria for success or failure, your standard dry concerns like believability, consistency, emotional response (desired and achieved), and artistic courage. The show could even end with a message of hope.

(But I doubt it.)