I was all set to dismiss this Newsweek article about arts and culture in the Bush era — and Joshua Alston’s argument that the revamped Battlestar Galactica should be considered the defining Bush-era television show — as a typical year-end stem-winder, but it’s generated some surprisingly interesting discussions about which bit of pop culture should get the Bush crown.
Scott McLemee and Matt Yglesias agree with Alston that BSG is the signature Bush-Era show, and there’s no question that the series has rung some brilliant changes on the scenario of a society faced with the threat of an enemy that can blend in with its potential victims, then strike with genocidal force at the the worst possible moment.
Some of McLemee’s commenters raise interesting points about the likely impact of the Bush Bunch’s favorite what-if scenario — what if the only way to keep a nuclear bomb from going off was to torture a suspected terrorist? — not only on Mel Gibson’s sado-theological tract The Passion of the Christ, but on the rise of torture-porn movies like Hostel and the Saw franchise. The Bushies and Jigsaw share a penchant for using pieties and moralism as a muffler for sadism, along with the delusion that arbitrarily imprisoning people and subjecting them to appalling torture is a means to a higher end, a sure-fire way to reveal greater truths, and even an avenue for self-improvement. (Amanda, the franchise’s second-string villain, becomes Jigsaw’s assistant because she thinks her torment at his hands actually turned her life around.) If “I am not a crook” sums up the Nixon adminstration, maybe “I want to play a little game” should do the same for Bush.
Personally, I think The Wire should be considered the defining Bush-era show. Not because it’s a brilliant critique of the war on drugs — that farce was rolling long before Dubya toddled into the world stage, and will continue to grind up lives and laws for decades to come. Not because it’s a dauntingly ambitious, multi-leveled study of an entire city — again, the forces it examines so closely were at work before Bush arrived. Not even because the second season shows a major drug investigation thrown off the rails because a key villain is valued by the FBI as an anti-terrorist asset — stories that deal with the complicated morality of undercover operations go back to Prince of the City and even further.
The Wire is the perfect Bush-era show because it depicts law enforcement fighting a real problem — rampant, socially corrosive drug abuse — in deluded ways that ensure the problem not only persists, but intensifies. As clever and resourceful as McNulty and company may be, they are basically stupid in that they fail to grasp the fact that no matter how many “big fish” they manage to catch, they are never going to drain the ocean those fish swim through, and their efforts will only act to encourage the growth of more predatory species. The destruction of Avon Barksdale and the defeat of Stringer Bell’s plans to become a respectable businessman doesn’t do anything to halt the flow of drugs; it simply clears the way for the even more monstrous Marlo Stansfield. Because the efforts of the narcos constantly disrupt street-level organizing and raise the stakes, the worst fates are reserved for the players who allow stirrings of decency to color their judgment: D’Angelo Barksdale, Stringer Bell, even Proposition Joe and his desire to do business as quietly as possible. The only significant improvement in the lives of Baltimore residents comes in the show’s third season when Bunny Colvin, one of the police brass, takes it upon himself to establish “free zones” for drug dealing in the vacant areas of the city, and his ideas baffle the crooks as much as the cops. (“We grind and you try to stop us,” one of the corner boys complains. “Why you wanna go and fuck with the rules?”) Ironically, when word of the free zones gets out, the city’s corrupt incumbent mayor sees the benefits and loses valuable time trying to figure out how to present them in a positiive, politically palatable manner. His weaselly challenger also recognizes that Colvin has pointed the way out of the endless, no-win drug war, but knows he can ride to power by whipping up public outrage against the “rogue cop” and his “legalization of drugs.” Everyone gets to talk tough and claim a victory in the war on crime, but at the end of the day the residents are once again cowering behind locked doors as the drug trade grinds on.
The fifth season, which focuses on the decline of newspapers in general and the Baltimore Sun in particular, is generally considered the weakest, but in fact it brings all of the show’s concerns together in subtly interesting ways. Because HBO would not commission a full run of episodes, the show’s creators didn’t have time to develop their plotlines and characters properly, so the central conceit — a detective cooks up a fake serial killer in order to get funding restored for real police work — seems cynical and forced. I’d have preferred a storyline that grew out of what came before, maybe even one that played off Bunny Colvin’s brainstorm. But the fifth season jolts us with the realization that while the dramas of the first four seasons have been played out, it’s all been lost on the city’s newspaper, where the lives of the homeless are only of interest when the managing editor thinks there’s “a Dickensian angle” and drug-war propaganda goes unchallenged. And when the serial killer story ius snown to be a fraud, the whole thing is kept quiet because careers — and, it turns out, a Pulitzer Prize — stand to benefit from the story’s continued existence.
Fighting a real problem with fantasy, delusion and self-serving political manipulation. Those are the defining qualities of the Bush administration’s war on terror, and The Wire has them down cold.