There’s a lot of chatter this morning about David Simon winning the MacArthur Foundation Grant. While it’s true that he’s hardly a starving artist, and hence there’s griping about whether or not he needs the money, I think it’s a fascinating choice on their part. Simon, along with his many collaborators including novelists like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers and George Pellacanos, has in some crucial way reinvented the novel as a multi-part, long form television show. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the other way around, maybe he’s just plain old reinvented the long-form television show. All I can say is that The Wire, which I missed during the years it was on the air, is the most astonishing and rewarding and exciting thing I’ve ever seen on television.
I’ve been watching it all summer on DVD and chief among the many merits of watching the series this way is that without the interruption of seasons, one can really see the narrative arcs play out. This isn’t network television, and so the shape of the narrative is much closer to the shape of a great novel than it is a television show. Ideas play out over a long time. Motifs crop up, disappear, and come back. Characters have time to disappear for a while (I’m in the middle of season 4, when McNulty is almost entirely in the background) then reappear without the sort of idiotic explanatory crap a network show would stick in there because they assume we’re too stupid to remember who someone is if we haven’t seen them in the last five minutes. It’s a show that doesn’t assume we’re morons, that believes we’ll stick around in a world that is almost entirely black, that we’ll care not only about the scrappy bunch of eight graders who are still kind of cute, but about killers like Omar and Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale and about the cannibalistic mothers who groom their boys to go out and take their places on those corners because that’s the only vision they have of what it means to be a man.
It’s also a show that deals with work. As Lorrie Moore said in this terrific piece in the New York Review of Books (which I was reading last night when the news came in about Simon),
“The most intriguing phrase Simon has used regarding The Wire is that it is about ‘the death of work.’ By this he means not just the loss of jobs, thought there certainly is that, but the loss of integrity within our systems of work, the ‘juking of stats,’ the speaking of truth to power having been replaced with speaking what is most self-serving and pleasing to the higher-ups. … in the world of The Wire almost everyone who tries to buck the system and do right is punished, often severely and grotesquely and heartbreakingly. Accomodation is survival at the most basic level, although it is also lethal to the soul.
One of the issues that the sweetheart and I have been discussing all summer long as story after story spews forth from the mainstream press about the “end of the recession” and the “jobless recovery” is the absolute stream of bullshit that is any actual discussion of the economy. We’re each of us in slightly odd positions in this economy, both insiders and outsiders — he has an Ivy League degree and has spent his career building houses, while I have the full string of graduate degrees, wanted to be an artist, and wound up spending a decade in corporate America, a place I never expected to be. We’re both pretty conservative, financially — we’ve mostly lived below our means, saved some money, don’t have a lot of debt, and bought houses we could afford to pay off. Neither of us ever wanted to get rich, but we’ve always worked, and have watched over the past decade or so as the boom-and-bust mentality of what passed for economic policy consistently screwed over those of us among the vast majority of Americans who don’t want to get rich, but who just want to work, have a house, food on the table, and maybe put a little bit away for a rainy day.
What strikes me about The Wire is that it’s one of the only portraits I’ve ever seen on television of how hard it is to just get by in America. The cops, the dockworkers, the teachers, the government workers — they’re all trying to stick it out, keep roofs over their heads, food on the table, sneakers on the kids feet. The Wire is the only show I’ve ever seen on television that shows the lived experience of what happened as we all stood by and watched while factories were dismantled and jobs were outsourced and schools and government and unions and the newspapers were gutted from the inside. Sure, for some of us, our 401ks went up as these big corporations posted profits that were based on getting rid of all their employees, but they weren’t real profits, they were short-term paper profits (or was it just the ponzi-scheme effect of shifting everyone’s retirement from pensions to 401ks?). We’ve all spent the past thirty years living for short term quarterly numbers with absolute disregard for the means by which we were meeting those numbers. And now, we’re all standing around in the aftermath, like Svobodka in Season 2, looking at the docks and the closed factories and the graineries and lamenting the fact that we used to make things in this country.
The corrosive contempt for the working class, the continual griping that “they’re” making too much money, the pissing and moaning about unions with the audacity to negotiate for health insurance all somehow misses the point. If there are no jobs, then no one is making any money, and if no one is making any money, they’re not going to be able to spend it on the consumer goods that drive the economy. A solid and healthy middle class is the sign of an economy in good shape, and somehow, we’ve decided in America that we’re going to let the richest 1% take 24% of the wealth of the nation, let the richest 20% take a full 85% of the nation’s wealth. I’ve never understood why people aren’t more angry about this, and all I can figure is that somehow everyone has decided that they’re going to win the wealth lottery — maybe this is what’s behind the insane proliferation of “reality” shows about people who have neither talent nor accomplishment. A loss of integrity regarding work indeed.
And so, I think it’s brilliant that Simon won the MacArthur grant. Clearly the committee thinks he’s saying something crucial about the state of our society, and is using a medium that is too often gutted from the inside by it’s own reliance on formula and cliche in order to do this. He’s given voice to a whole section of American society that is too often hidden or demonized, as well as to that great silent middle class that we only see as the but of jokes or satire. And he’s done it by creating some of the most compelling characters ever seen on television. It also seems fitting after a few weeks where white, upper class, highly-educated men have been claiming a book about their experience is the central experience in American society, that the MacArtuthur Foundation has bestowed it’s “genius grant” on someone who spent so many years drawing a detailed, compassionate, character-driven portrait of the America in which the other 85% of us live.