Humor, Dealing, and Rewatchability

15 Nov

My question for Jose focused on the ways the show shades in the characters of those involved in the Barksdale organization over the course of the first season. This was one of the big differences between The Wire and other police procedurals at the time (and largely now) – the criminal element was rarely viewed with such soft eyes, or so sympathetically. Indeed, two of the most sympathetic characters throughout the first season (Wallace and D’Angelo) are reluctant drug dealers questioning what they want to do with their lives and whether they can break free of the game. However, the show also managed to shade in many of the other criminal characters who were happy with their lot in life.

This primarily happened, as best I can tell, through scenes using the violation of audience expectations for the criminal characters for humor. There are two particularly good examples of this phenomenon. First, the scene when D’Angelo assumes Wee-Bey, the Barksdales’ toughest soldier, is going to murder him. D’Angelo is instead instructed in how to take care of Wee-Bey’s precious collection of exotic fish, a hobby that the audience is meant to fins funny (after all, when was the last time you saw a drug dealer and murderer who was this enthusiastic about a fish named Jezebel who “think she cute”).

Second, look at the scene in “Lessons” when McNulty discovers Stringer in his macroeconomics class at the community college. This scene indicates something about Stringer’s character we otherwise wouldn’t have known (that he is interested in running legitimate businesses) by placing us in McNulty’s shoes. McNulty is just as surprised and intrigued as we are to see Stringer calmly answering questions in the class. Then, when Stringer uses the language of his class (elasticity) on his employees at the copy shop who are trying to bring some “corner bullshit” to his real business, the audience gets laughs out of the juxtaposition.

Those scenes are both quite effective, but I wonder whether they’ll lose their power over time. Part of the reason (I at least) find them so good at what they’re trying to do is the low expectations we have for drug dealing characters on television, since most procedurals are from the standpoint of law enforcement. But if The Wire‘s tendency to treat these characters well and render them sympathetic becomes the norm, will these scenes be as funny, or will they just be perceived as doing what will then be necessary, minimal character work?

One Response to “Humor, Dealing, and Rewatchability”

  1. jhaderlein November 15, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    It’s unclear to me which aspects of a culturally significant television series are likely to be picked up as dominant tropes in later series. If you are referring in this case to the humanization of drug dealers, for that to become widespread enough to have the effect you are identifying it would need to be identifiable by other creators as one of the major successes of The Wire, and as a storytelling method that still has utility. It seems ambiguous whether either of those are necessarily persuasive enough to lead to this situation.
    It seems like a stretch to predict that the particular method of storytelling wherein you reveal fascinating details that defy expectations about certain characters will necessarily blow up to the extent that it loses its appeal. Even if a trope becomes dominant I am not sure why its lack of novelty takes away from its effectiveness. Many jokes are structured around similar kinds of punch-lines and can still be very funny even if they don’t subvert the medium.
    Additionally, just because some dramatic media might normalize three-dimensional depictions of certain layers of society, that may not override the dominant cultural attitude towards those groups. I imagine drug-dealers will remain stereotyped cliches whether or not more and more television dramas attempt to humanize them, due to their depictions in other media as well as the reach of past media such as films and novels that remain influential on people’s minds.
    I also think that you might be assigning too much uniqueness to what is happening in these scenes. The slow reveal of quirky character details seems to be part and parcel of the television dramas focus on character and the slow reveal of information. If anything cute moments like these seem to occur on a lot of shows, including procedurals, where an episode’s inclusion of a cop’s personal life or hobbies is used in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion to wink at the audience and revel in the collective joy surrounding these characters.
    I would agree that letting characters that would normally be seen as simple antagonists play out these emotional responses as well is an interesting move, but it seems doubtful that the nature of this kind of affective response or its impact will generally change in a meaningful way in the future. As long as you are able to set up expectations for a character, you can subvert them, and just because lots of villains have been humanized over time doesn’t mean that we still don’t carry expectations of villainy that can then be turned on us.

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