Archive by Author

Transnational Television

1 Dec

In the essay “Television and Digital Media,” Lynn Spigel and Max Dawson claim that television – and media in general – can no longer be called “American” but that instead it has become a part of a “transnational global culture” (285).  In what seems to be a rather uncontroversial argument, Spigel and Dawson write: “The media environment has now escaped its national borders, and that, despite momentary calls to patriotism, the media are no longer really ‘American’” (285).  This statement reminded me of Newton Minnow’s “Television and the Public Interest” speech that we read at the very beginning of class.  Only a little over a year before the Telstar satellite was launched into orbit (allowing for live transatlantic broadcasts for the first time), Minnow warned: “International television will be with us soon.  No one knows how long it will be until a broadcast from a studio in New York will be viewed in India as well as Indiana, will be seen in the Congo as it is seen in Chicago.  But as surely as we are meeting here today, that day will come; and once again our world will shrink.”  Less than fifty years later, Spigel and Dawson announced that the day of transnational or global television had arrived.

            Despite these claims, however, I don’t know that I would agree with them.  In class someone offered shows such as The Office and Homeland as examples of American and non-American television coming together, but these adaptations only minimally acknowledge their foreign origin.  A similar argument could be made for the rise of channels like BBC America or Al Jazeera English, but these channels are not as mainstream or easily accessible as others.  Outside of the US, however, American television and film are wildly popular.  Does transnational television truly exist in the US?  Has American television truly disappeared as Spigel and Dawson claim?  What is the future of American television?  Moreover, what does it mean for television to be transnational? 

Networks in 24 and The Wire

25 Nov

Despite their different subject matters, The Wire and 24 both center on networks.  The Wire explores the interconnectedness of the drug, policing, legal, political, education, journalism and industrial worlds.  24, on the other hand, is obsessed with the realms of politics, terrorism and counter-terrorism.  Besides the different components of these respective networks, the two shows also diverge in the ways that they depict networks themselves.  In The Wire nodes within the network are highly responsive to changes within other nodes; however, in 24 these networks are immutable and unresponsive.

Many events in the The Wire can be broadly defined as moves and countermoves.  D’Angelo’s comparison of “the game” to chess is particularly appropriate in this discussion.  Players do not move randomly across the board; instead, they base their own moves on those of their opponents.  During the course of the show, this parallel is drawn repeatedly.  As soon as the surveillance equipment begins to yield results, McNulty and the other detectives fear that detection of their ongoing case will cause the organization to “change up” and prevent further investigation.  This fear was not without warrant.  After the raids on the stash houses, for instance, Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell begin to make changes within their organization.  They order the murder of anyone who might have incriminating information, eliminate the use of cell phones, and switch headquarters from Orlando’s to a funeral home.  Even before this when they suspect that the pay phones in the low rises are being monitored, Bell instructs the hoppers to rip out the pay phones and use other ones.  The networks within The Wire are constantly expanding and changing.  And the institutions within them constantly respond and adapt to changes within connected institutions.

In 24, however, there is not the same degree of responsiveness.  The terrorists’ plot does not at all change according to events taking places within CTU and the president.  The hostage-takers have an insider in the president’s circle who controls their actions and has a special knowledge of the state of the treaty signing.  But this special knowledge never causes them to formulate a new strategy.  Capturing Jack also provides the terrorists with an opportunity to respond to the intelligence that he holds, but their plan basically remains the same.  The communication and surveillance that occurs within this network, unlike that of The Wire, is one-way: from the CTU to the terrorists.  There are no counter-moves within the show, only CTU’s moves which inevitably lead to the foiling of an unchanged terrorist plot.  Moreover, this lack of responsiveness and adaptability prevents 24’s network from evolving or rising  above the level of abstraction.  Though individual characters and organizations change throughout the series, the terrorists remain the bad guys and Jack and the CTU are always the heroes.

The Extension Cord as a Wire

18 Nov

At its most basic level, The Wire is a show about connections – whether seen or unseen – between people, neighborhoods, institutions, and places.  Perhaps because of the visibility of surveillance equipment, the wiretap that the police use to monitor the Barksdale operation is the “wire” that is foregrounded in the show and subsequent discussions of it.  There is, however, another material wire that receives considerable attention in the latter half of the first season: the extension cord that connects the abandoned row house in which Wallace lives to a utility pole.  This wire suggests the multiple ways in which the institutions presented in the show are connected.

This electrical wire is first shown in episode five (“The Wire”).  The scene begins with a shot of Brandon’s mutilated body atop an SUV and slowly pans upward, tracing an extension cord connecting a utility pole through the broken window of an abandoned row house and into Wallace’s makeshift bedroom.  Professor Jagoda, in his essay “Wired,” argued that this wire serves as a tangible representation of the connection between Wallace and Brandon, a connection “otherwise obscured by the abstractions of computer data” that had recorded the events leading to Brandon’s murder (195).  Besides representing interpersonal connections between human agents this wire also provides an understanding of the connections, or lack thereof, between Baltimore’s government and a segment of its citizens.

While the power cord represents a connection between the drug world and the city’s infrastructure, there is something inherently dysfunctional about this relationship.  Wallace is in some ways cheating the system by stealing power from the city’s electrical grid.  The drug dealers similarly use public housing as sites for distributing illegal drugs, and public payphones to maintain their drug operation.  This drug trade is sucking the life out of the community.

However, this power cord also suggests the city’s failure to maintain its promises to certain residents, especially young children.  The scene following the introduction of this extension cord shows Wallace getting dressed and preparing younger hoppers for school.  The city’s governing body has clearly failed to provide support for these abandoned or orphaned children.  These children are present within the system (they clearly attend school) but are still ignored by its overseers.  The sign on the abandoned row house’s door, which instructs people passing by to call the city if they suspect that an animal has been trapped, reinforces this notion.  This is more fully explored in season four of the series.  While Wallace and others like him are clearly connected to the city’s infrastructure, those who govern the city or are otherwise tasked with maintaining it are ignoring them.  Subsequent appearances of the electrical cord, namely in episode eight after Wallace has begun using drugs and is seen sleeping by the broken window, in episode twelve when Wallace distributes dinner to young hoppers, and again in episode twelve when Bunk examines Wallace’s dead body, support this interpretation.

The pervasiveness of this single extension cord, or wire, suggests how multilayered these connections are, and how they permeate many aspects of inner-city life.  At another point in episode twelve, when McNulty and Daniels go to look for Wallace at the abandoned row house, they find nothing.  McNulty remarks, “No extension cord, no juice boxes, no Wallace.”  The absence of the extension cord, in this case, suggests the precariousness of these connections and how quickly they can shift.

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?

Racial Identity and Narration in The Corner

4 Nov

“While the vast majority of Baltimore’s major drug markets are located in black neighborhoods, many users serviced by these markets are white.  At Fayette and Mount, as on so many other American corners, the demand for heroin and cocaine is decidedly multicultural.” (The Corner – “Author’s Note,” p. 537)

As David Simon and Ed Burns explained in the excerpt above, race is at the center of the social, political and economic issues explored in The Corner.  Race, particularly the racial identities of the writers/narrators, also plays an important role in the book.  Interwoven with interviews and stories of the people of West Baltimore are lengthy polemics on the role of the War on Drugs, deindustrialization, and a poor educational system – among a host of other factors – in creating the American corner.  In these particular sections, the narrator’s voice comes out strongly: David Simon and Ed Burns are authorities on the outside pulling back the curtain so that other outsiders can have access to an otherwise closed-off “underworld.”  Despite their privileged position, these expository moments highlight the fact that the narrator and subjects of The Corner are fundamentally different in terms of race.  And this difference is significant.  Simon and Burns admit as much later on in the author’s note, writing, “Being a bit pale ourselves, we stood out on Fayette Street, and we were initially regarded by many of the corner regulars as police or police informants” (537).  While Burns and Simon gain a great deal of access to and form significant relationships with their subjects, these racial differences required the two to authenticate themselves, to overcome a significant racial barrier within the community they desired to document.  In some ways, this colored the interactions between the authors’ and their subjects, the narrators’ point of view in telling their stories, and the type of book that was produced.


However, in the miniseries, this racial difference and distance between the narrator and the characters is eliminated immediately.  In a sort of director’s note, African American actor and director Charles Dutton establishes his own credentials for telling this story.  Rather than authenticating himself to the people of the corner, however, he does so to the viewer.  He recalls his own time growing in up in Baltimore and his relationship to the corner.  Instead of being an outsider looking in, Dutton establishes himself as an insider projecting to the outside world.  Thus, much of the tension between the narrator and the subjects, and significant discussion about race, are glossed over in the miniseries.  How does the racial differences of the narrator and the people of West Baltimore manifest itself in the miniseries?  Is anything lost in the adaptation because of the change in narrator?