Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Wire

Art is a reflection of the culture that spawns it. Aside from my favourite sports, there is not much on TV that compels my viewing. HBO has stretched the envelop for North American viewers and produced a range of original series that show that TV can be an effective media for art that both reflects the dominant culture and provokes thought about the prevailing mores of that society.

Whereas The Sopranos was a series that (rightly) garnered much publicity, another HBO series ran for only five seasons but was equally compelling: The Wire.

The final season has just become available on DVD and many commentators are paying belated but deserved attention to a gritty drama set in Baltimore that examined the economics, politics and education behind the city, the drug trade and the limited options facing
inner-city youth.

The wider message of The Wire is summarized by its creator, David Simon:
  • This year, our drama asked its last thematic question: Why, if there is any truth to anything presented in The Wire over the last four seasons, does that truth go unaddressed by our political culture, by most of our mass media, and by our society in general?
  • We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them.
  • The true stories that The Wire traded in are out there, waiting for anyone willing to take the time. And it is, of course, vaguely disturbing to us that our unlikely little television drama is making arguments that were once the prerogative of more serious mediums.
The point here is this: real problems exist. They are not hard to find, but they are challenging to resolve.

Rather than address these real issues, the political culture appears to want cardboard cut-out heroes for politicians, sound-bites rather than analysis for media coverage and symbolism rather than reasoned solutions for action.

In large part, the function of ecomyths within this dynamic is to distract and deflect public attention from the real issues and to replace them with angst over unlikely scares that appear to require intervention, even if it is symbolic rather than practical. Climate change isn't real, nor can it be "solved" -- but it is a compelling drama within which the political system can appear to be relevant, while all the time remaining totally irrelevant to the realities of planetary life.

Poverty. Famine. Human rights. World peace. Real issues. But difficult and certainly not close to resolution within the existing bureaucratic structure ostensibly in place to address such issues.