What Chew Know About Down in the Hole?

I’m not really a TV watcher. Really. I mean, sure, I’ve watched something like 2000 videos on YouTube over the last couple years (and I don’t think that even counts videos embedded in blogs, etc.). But I probably watch OldTube only a couple hours a week at best — like if, say, a big Bawstin game is on (and even then I’m usually tagging along with Becca’s great enthusiasm for sports, which well outstrips mine).

That said, I’ve spent 50 hours of the last couple months catching up with The Wire. After having read enough raves from enough trusted filters (while vigilantly avoiding any spoilers), I finally decided that I needed to be on board for the fifth and final season (which premiered tonight, non-demand). I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the show’s boosters. It’s an utterly engrossing series and, almost improbably, lives up to all the hype.

Earlier today Julianne Shepherd said about The Wire, “This is the most important work of visual literature of my lifetime! How can you not react to that total awesomeness?!” I concurrr. And I like the idea of the series as a work of “visual literature.” It has repeatedly been characterized as Dickensian, and I think that’s apt — not just for the way that David Simon, et al., offer such a detailed, vivid, and only kinda cartoonish portrait of the bleak houses of Bmore, but, obviously, because it’s also a serial, which makes it especially fun to watch all at once. (Waiting a week per episode is going to be tough after Netflicking the first four seasons.)

Since I’ve called it “only kinda cartoonish” I should probably reaffirm that the most striking aspect of the series is, as has been remarked again and again, its verisimilitude. The cops talk like cops, the corner boys like corner boys, the dockworkers like dockworkers, etc. It’s all very convincing and richly textured, drawing one in and suspending one’s proverbial disbelief (what’s to disbelieve when it seems so ‘real’?).

The Wire has faced some criticism, however, precisely because the response to the show, broadly speaking and from various quarters, has so affirmed its trueness to life. A recent piece in The Atlantic, for instance, finds the show too bleak, more bleak than life really is (for the author and his consultants anyway), and hence finds the show’s pessimism to undermine its verisimilitude: “This bleakness is Simon’s stamp on the show,” argues Mark Bowden, “and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness.” Along these lines, and in that article, sociologist Elijah Anderson notes that “decent people” are underrepresented in the show, which, he contends, instead portrays underclass black life in Bmore as all too defined by the code of the streets. (Others have noted that the women in the show lack the fullness and range of the male characters, which is a valid criticism too.) W/r/t bleakness, however, I’m inclined to agree with my friend Marco: it doesn’t seem exaggerated. To put it another way: shit is real. (Or sure seems so.) And I mean shit literally too.

W/r/t to verisimilitude, though, for me — and maybe you saw this coming — what most frequently trips me up (or really, tripped me up, since it has largely been corrected since the early seasons) is the use of music in the show.

Notably, The Wire pretty much exclusively employs music in what film scholars/scorers would call a diagetic manner: that is, any sound you hear, the characters hear too. It’s “source music,” emitting from a particular source in the world that you’re watching. Tracks blast from cars and boomboxes and club systems; they don’t creep up on you like sneaky violins and woodwinds to manipulate your emotional response to what is happening. They serve as set pieces. As such, the music offers another level of detail to the show’s attempts at verisimilitude. Or at least that’s what I expected to hear. So I was surprised, during Season 1, to hear Mos Def and Common and other (let’s face it, bourgie) hip-hop songs playing in the Bmore ‘jects. Don’t get me wrong. I like those guys, but they’re not exactly offering thug motivation, knamean. (& I know I’m not the first to note this disconnect, but having avoided detalled commentary on the series in order to avoid spoilers, I didn’t read through long threads on the placement of music in the series prior to formulating this critique.)

To their credit, the producers of the show came around and remedied such diagetic distractions. In later seasons one hears music better matched to the settings: e.g., Fiddy and Jay-Z, a little Sean Paul for good measure (even some Vybz Kartel). Up to the time music, gangsta music, popular music. The soundtrack suddenly started to rise to the level of thoughtful detail of the rest of the show. Omar’s Latino pardner bumped reggaeton in his ride. Jimmy McNulty, the Pogues. And finally, sometime in season 3, Baltimore club music made a few key appearances: a house party here, a club scene there, a couple kids bumping along to the distinctive beat in their ride. In Season 4, Bmore club (as esoteric knowledge) even serves as a cunning tool for marking ignant interlopers from NYC. Season 4 also saw the introduction of homegrown hip-hop, a scene apparently spurred by the series, which has put (C)harm City on the map in recent years in a manner rivaled only by, well, Baltimore’s club music itself.

And though the producers have gone so far as to compile an album featuring tracks by DJ Technics, Mullyman, Diablo, and other locals, they’ve decided for the 5th season — against my highest hopes — to use a version of the Tom Waits penned theme song, “Down in the Hole,” as sung by Steve Earle (who plays a recurring character on the show) rather than, as I had fantasized, commissioning a Bmore remix of the Waits original (which remains my favorite version).

And so, to fulfill my own fantasies, I put together this quick’n’dirty number —
wayne&wax w/ Tom Waits, “What Chew Know About Down in the Hole”

That’s it for now. Just wanted to let y’all know: I’m watching with ya. There won’t be any plot talk here (I still hate spoilers), but I’m always happy to talk themes. Plus, you can find all the Wire talk you want at places like Heaven and Here, where David Simon himself occasionally leaves a comment. Maybe me too.