Authenticity in the Wire

5 Nov

As a longtime fan of The Wire, I’ve engaged in a number of discussions about the show and what makes it worth watching.  One of the words that I sometimes use to describe the show and many of David Simon’s other programs is “real.”  In Brian Rose’s “The Wire” and Charlotte Brunsdon’s “Bingeing on Box-Sets,” this notion of the realness, or authenticity, in The Wire is also mentioned frequently.   Brunsdon, for instance, describes the show as drawing on “critical social realism” (68).  She similarly claims that “the series authenticates its depiction of the optionless brutality of the game” (69).  In his primer for the show, Rose noted that real life cops and criminals praised the show for its “faithful recreation of their lives” (90). Those who would make a claim for the show’s authenticity might have a legitimate case.  The show is filmed not in a television studio but in the Baltimore streets in which the plot unfolds.  Many Baltimore natives, including Snoop (Felicia Pearson), Prop Joe (Robert Chew), and many of the schoolchildren from Season 4, appear as characters (or at least extras) in the show.  The slang used by the police and the dealers, even though a bit esoteric, is never fully explained or “translated” for non-Baltimore viewers.

Despite the near ubiquity of this language of authenticity surrounding The Wire, I find the term to be highly problematic.  As has been mentioned in class, the nature of television means that hardly any programming is unmediated.  In describing the cinematography of the show, for instance, David Simon explained, “We didn’t want the camera to have any advanced knowledge of the story, since we’re asking viewers to follow the story very carefully and pick up facts as the go along and never pick up more facts than we’re allowing” (88).  While critics oftentimes praise the show for its accurate depiction of the urban landscape, as Simon has pointed out even the means of visually capturing this space is a strategic decision highly mediated by cinematographers and directors before reaching the viewer.  How might the Baltimore streets depicted in the series compare to what they look like in real life?  What about all of the perspectives that are missed in this mediation?

There is also the question of “voice” in The Wire.  How might this show have been different if the types of people depicted in it (Baltimore cops, dealers, dockworkers, politicians, etc.), rather than journalists and authors, were involved in the writing or consulting process?  Would the show, then, be considered more authentic?  Moreover, how do we begin to define authenticity in television?  Is this weighty concept even achievable in the medium?  Why is this trait of authenticity so valued by critics and viewers of fictional television?

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One Response to “Authenticity in the Wire”

  1. Jan Feldman November 11, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    I think you’re right in saying that the view we get of Baltimore is mediated by directors, etc. and that this mediation leaves out certain perspectives. However, I think we actually gain some perspective by watching it in this way. Like with the sporting event example that has been brought up in previous classes, watching something on TV can actually give you a better or more comprehensive view than witnessing it in person. With the wire, if you were really there, you would probably only have access to one side of that world, e.g. the cops and their institution or the drug dealers and their. You wouldn’t get the same sort of view into both worlds at once. As a television series, The Wire gives you some sort of access to both because it treats it as a holistic system, even if it’s not entirely authentic to how the people in Baltimore would experience it.

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