Today, literary criticism is an exceedingly complicated discipline – one so complex that most people are unable to put forth a serious critique of a book without falling back on their own subjective tastes that lack rigor and reflective thought.
However, I have discovered a technique that may aid us in our attempt to judiciously critique a work of literature, be it a novel or film. Simply put, this technique is a careful analysis of the characters, how they are deployed in the story: do they represent the classic protagonist/antagonist that’s based on a black and white picture of reality? Or are they representative of a morally ambiguous reality in which the audience is trusted to be able to judge them? Merely a placeholder for an overarching ideology the author is foisting upon the reader?
Watching the final season of The Wire, a modern classic of cable television, has helped me to arrive at this observation: the creator David Simon has, in the end, stumbled and let his audience down by straying from the original elements that made the show a classic in order to push a blatant agenda.
In the fifth and final season, the show adds a new focus: the fictional newspaper Baltimore Sun Papers, a decaying media institution. In an essentially corrupt town, full of slick politicians and a crippled, ineffectual police force, with pre-teens hocking illicit drugs on certain corners, the news reporter is the final bastion of democracy. He is ideally expected to expose the shoddy dealings behind closed doors of the authorities and shady policies that amount little more than churn out glorified stats that allow politicians to espouse rhetoric on education or crime.
However, in the final season, two characters are introduced: Augustus Haynes, a grizzled veteran editor and Scott Templeton, a hotshot young reporter. They naturally clash over content; Haynes is very demanding about the legitimacy of the sources, and begin to suspects the young reporter of fabrication, but at the same time, Templeton is being coddled and nurtured by the new owners of the paper, since they smell Pulitzer prize winner all over him. This tension builds over the final season, but that’s not really relevant to my argument.
The misstep the creator David Simon has made here is that after 4 solid seasons of a wide gamut of characters with a mixture of good and bad qualities, and their actions are often explained by their motives, in which allows the audience to judge them, he fell back onto the comfortable clichés of good and bad guy roles. The easiest way to spot those conventions is when a writer decides to hide their motives on why they are that way. E.g., we never see why Haynes is a grizzled veteran staunchly opposed to fabrication, and we never see why Templeton is a conniving unethical writer. They’re just that way. Moreover, unlike the other characters, we never see them outside of the workplace. The result: we are not allowed to judge them for they’ve already been cast in the prejudged roles of good and evil for our benefit.
This should behoove me to mention that Simon was a journalist who worked at the Baltimore Sun until the mid-90’s, until he was bought out during downsizing. That episode left him bitter with the media and he decided to exorcise his ill will by resorting to caricature and clichés with his representation of the media.
The Sopranos, on the other hand, is an equally acclaimed show on the same show, HBO, and serves as a model here. Despite some of its missteps, i.e., meandering story arcs, none of its characters fell to the easy & tired dichotomy – they were all conflicted people, at least the major ones. Simon came very close to perfection in his interpretation of Baltimore as a corrupt town. Perhaps because Simon’s axe to grind only distorted a single storyline in the final season, maybe we should let him off the hook.