Chris Wisniewski on The Wire and the New Golden Age of Television
Omar (Michael K. Williams) lies naked, sleeping next to his boyfriend. He’s roused by a noise. Suspecting gunshots, he pulls a window curtain aside and sees a garbage truck below. He puts on pajama bottoms and a robe (both of blue silk) and walks to the kitchen to fix himself some cereal. His boyfriend, Renaldo (Ramon Rodriguez), has left the box empty. Preparing to go out for Cheerios, Omar tries unsuccessfully to conceal his gun. Frustrated, he leaves the apartment unarmed.
Omar is tall and sinewy. Physically, he’s not particularly imposing, but he has an almost mythic quality. Armed with a shotgun and assisted by a small band of followers, he has often stolen from some of the most powerful drug dealers in West Baltimore and managed to elude their retribution; he can clear a street corner from a block away, just by whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” As he leaves home in his search for cereal, he walks with confidence in his outfit of bright, flowing silk, a colorful alternative to his typical long black trench. The children and dealers on the street call out a warning to one another— “Omar’s coming”—and scatter. He enters his local grocery store and buys regular Cheerios (they have no Honey Nut) and a pack of Newports. On his way home, he leans on a rowhouse and lights a cigarette; a package of drugs falls to his feet from the window above. Even unarmed and pajama-clad, Omar terrifies his neighbors enough that they’re willing to forfeit their product without even being asked.
Omar comes home and empties the bag of drugs on the kitchen table. He doesn’t even want them—“It ain’t what you’re taking; it’s who you’re taking it from.” Because for Omar, it isn’t just about drugs or money, it’s also about power. Renaldo, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to give any of it much thought. His first question to Omar: “They didn’t have Honey Nut?”
Given the high level of visibility of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters and performers on American television, it has now become relatively pointless to write about the state of queer American cinema without also considering TV. This certainly wasn’t the case twenty years ago, when New Queer Cinema was in its nascency. Regularly featured gay people had popped up on television shows in the 1970s—most prominently in the sitcom Soap and the landmark PBS documentary series An American Family—but the dominance of the broadcast networks through the 1980s meant that competition for audiences was limited to three vaguely distinguishable, unadventurous players, each regulated by the FCC. Most television series were made to appeal to a (straight, white, middle-class) mass audience, and programming was frequently a rush to the middle in which aesthetic and political boundary pushing weren’t rewarded. Exceptions, from All in the Family and Hill Street Blues to The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls (also created by Soap’s Susan Harris), largely proved the rule. At least movie audiences had an alternative to mainstream Hollywood fare. Independent films and film movements, including the New Queer Cinema, could sustain themselves on smaller audiences concentrated in urban centers. Television lacked an analogous alternative to the mainstream, in part because none of the Big Three networks could compete effectively for ratings—and by extension, ad revenue—by programming to niche audiences.
It’s hard to overstate just how much the rise of the Fox network and the expansion of cable transformed television as a medium and an art form. Where once three distributors of programming competed amongst themselves for the entire television-watching public, now viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from. There is more content, but the audiences are smaller: in 1989, an episode of Roseanne topped the Nielsens by reaching 25 million households; the highest rated program currently on the air, American Idol, draws just 15 million each week (to put that number into some perspective, though, the comparatively small number of households tuning in to American Idol still exceeds the total number of tickets sold domestically during the entire theatrical run of Brokeback Mountain). The TV industry used to turn on market share, but increasingly, branding is the key to success. Consequently, the broadcast networks are dying slow deaths while their cable counterparts thrive by building strong viewer bases with targeted programming directed to specific groups—women, men, African-Americans, Hispanics, Catholics, twentysomething urbanites, and gays, among others. The proliferation of content that’s resulted has yielded a huge volume of pandering dreck—for example, gay audiences have too willingly endured the American Queer as Folk, Dante’s Cove, and RuPaul’s Drag Race—but if the lows are lower, they’re matched by thrilling artistic highs, thanks in part to the influence of premium channels like HBO, which have a subscription-based business model built around “quality television” branding.
For gay audiences—especially those outside of major urban areas with easier access to independent queer cinema—the transformation of the television industry over the past several decades has been a boon. There are now two networks (Logo and Here!) devoted exclusively to gay content and others like Bravo and Lifetime that court queer audiences actively, if less explicitly. At the same time, for reasons partly related to increased competition (though not exclusively so), the broadcast networks have over the past decade or so become more inclusive, with shows like Ellen, Will & Grace, and Brothers and Sisters showcasing gay characters. This is particularly encouraging, because these shows aren’t made solely for queer audiences but are instead meant to appeal to a larger subset of the viewing public interested in, or at least unthreatened by, representational diversity. Today’s broadcast networks bear less of a resemblance to their previous selves than do the major movie studios, which continue to market their product to a homogenized mass audience (never mind gays and lesbians: Hollywood basically forgot that women existed before the success of Sex and the City, and that film was produced—of course—by HBO).
One could argue that television has simply caught up to cinema, that art houses and independent theaters have offered an alternative to mainstream movies for decades. But if today’s movie industry were like the television industry, every city in America would have five occasionally well-programmed multiplexes and hundreds of little independent theaters, each with its own highly specific branding and target audience.
Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) is a natural police officer: smart, committed, instinctual. She loves the job, but her girlfriend, Cheryl (Melanie Nicholls-King), wants her to get out, perhaps because she’s afraid of losing her to her police work—of losing her violently, or of losing her to a culture of cynicism and compromise that seems to lead all of her straight male colleagues to seek solace in alcohol and meaningless sex. Kima may not be aware of it, but Cheryl’s instincts are right. When she’s assigned to interview a stripper at a club, she defends herself to Cheryl, “It’s police work.” “And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” Cheryl counters, before deciding to accompany Kima on her assignment.
At the club, street-wise Kima sits and smiles, perfectly at ease as she interviews the stripper; her partner Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), an uncomfortable and frequently misguided police officer prone to bad judgment, stands awkwardly. He darts nervous glances around the room and tries to take notes, but it’s clear that he, unlike Kima, has no instinct for this job. Cheryl observes the whole thing from behind, watching her lover and her lover’s partner work the flirty, scantily clad stripper for information. As the interview ends, the stripper acknowledges Cheryl, “You her girl?” she asks. Cheryl crosses her arms and says that she is. “I wouldn’t let mine come in here either without me. These bitches in here are no joke.”
Visibility, broadly defined, is no longer the standard by which representations of queer people on television should be judged. Progress has inflated our expectations, and now LGBT audiences have come, rightfully, to expect more than inclusion. Quality representation matters, in two senses: the quality of the shows themselves and the quality of the portrayals on those shows. Some of the best series on television have, indeed, featured gay plotlines and characters—three of the best dramas ever produced for American television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, and The Wire, have each had major queer storylines—but these moves towards representational diversity have met with varying degrees of success.
To some extent, the first two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer played as a coming-out story. Though Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) wasn’t a lesbian, she concealed a secret life from her mother and most of her classmates, and at the end of the show’s second season, she came out to her mother as a Slayer in an exchange that would have felt all too familiar to the show’s queer adolescent fans. In subsequent seasons, Buffy dropped the queer subtext and outed one of its major characters, the adorable, endearing witch-in-the-making Willow (Alyson Hanigan) who found love with shy, stuttering Tara (Amber Benson). Their relationship was tender and affectionate, and its depiction was refreshingly frank. In the sixth season’s musical episode, “Once More with Feeling,” Tara serenades Willow on their bed with a ballad. As Willow moves out of the frame, Tara’s lyrics become surprisingly overt, and she begins to levitate—arguably the most explicit depiction of lesbian cunnilingus ever to appear on broadcast television. Though it pushed representational boundaries for the broadcast networks, their love affair would not have a happy ending.
At the end of the sixth season, Tara was killed by a stray bullet that had been intended for Buffy. Her death drove a grief-stricken Willow to seek gruesome, indiscriminate vengeance through dark magic. The plot twist capitalized on years of character development, but gay and lesbian audiences reacted with outrage. Feeling betrayed by series creator Joss Whedon, they accused the show of reifying the “dead/evil lesbian cliché,” in which a lesbian couple is denied happiness through the death of one partner and a turn towards the crazy by the surviving partner. Whedon insisted that he was never aware of such a cliché, and that he sacrificed Tara for the sake of an emotional climax. Artistically, it was a sensible, perhaps inspired, decision, but politically, it was uncharacteristically tone-deaf. In a graceless move, Whedon gave Willow a replacement girlfriend the following season to make amends, but the damage had been done: fans largely rejected the character.
Given the subtext of its first seasons and the demographic makeup of its target audience, it was only natural that Buffy would eventually have a major gay character. The Sopranos, on the other hand, seemed less likely to tackle queer subject matter because it seemed so far removed from the hypermasculine posturing and hypocritical Roman Catholicism that defined the show’s mafia culture. Early in season five, when a minor character spotted the deplorable gangster Vito (Joseph R. Gannascoli) going down on a male construction worker, it felt like a humorous Sopranos misdirect. The show’s creator David Chase would frequently confound and obscure narrative significance, so there was no reason to suspect he was using the reveal to introduce a major plotline, though that was the case.
Vito became a focus of The Sopranos’ final season. After two fellow gangsters making a money collection discovered him flirting with another man in a gay bar, Vito fled to New Hampshire, aware that his outing would result in almost certain death. He took a lover and posed as a writer, but unable to cope with the demands of a regular job and his new domestic life, Vito eventually returned to New Jersey, where he was promptly—and violently—killed. The storyline extended upon themes that dominated the season, from Tony’s near-death experience and subsequent, failed attempt at spiritual reawakening to Christopher’s (Michael Imperioli) sobriety, relapse, and death. The sixth season of The Sopranos returned consistently to the question of whether and how people can change—and Vito’s sexuality was an inescapable trap, an element of himself that stood completely at odds with the model of masculinity established by the only social world he had ever known, and the only one in which he could function.
It all made perfect conceptual sense, but as The Sopranos progressed towards its conclusion, even Chase’s most ardent defenders could have been forgiven for feeling frustrated with his decision to devote so much time to a previously incidental character. The New Hampshire storyline dragged through five episodes, sapping the show’s narrative momentum just as viewers expected a climax. Even by David Chase standards, the storyline felt digressive and forced. Where dark Willow was conceptually dubious but dramatically sound, Vito’s New Hampshire false start was quite the opposite.
Snoop (Felicia “Snoop” Pearson) has been pulled over by the police on suspicion of drug-related murders. She sits on the curb next to her (literal) partner in crime, Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe), as the police rifle through her truck, looking for any of the weapons she and Chris may have used to kill the dozens of people whose decaying bodies have just been discovered around the city in boarded up houses. Dressed in baggy jeans, a black windbreaker, and a black baseball cap, she’s a rather androgynous looking assassin (when Michael K. Williams discovered the out actress, a former drug dealer, in a Baltimore night club, he stared at her for some time before approaching her and asking, “Are you a girl or a boy?”).
She may be a remorseless, cold-blooded killer, but Snoop’s got a sly a sense of humor. She accuses Bunk (Wendell Pierce) of thinking he’s “all that” for “harassing” her and Chris. “I know I’m all that,” Bunk replies, “I’m thinking about some pussy.” “Yeah,” Snoop agrees, not missing a beat, “me too.”
Unlike The Sopranos and Buffy, which introduced major queer storylines late in their runs, The Wire established Kima’s gayness in its pilot, with a quiet, matter-of-fact domestic scene between her and Cheryl. As Kima became acquainted with her new colleagues early in the series, her lesbianism served as a topic of uncharacteristically pointed dialogue. In the third episode, Kima responds to a prying McNulty’s (Dominic West) assertion that the only other woman he had worked with who was “good police” was a lesbian: “In the beginning, you’re in your radio car. Alone, working your post. Most women aren’t getting out of that car. Not without side partners showing up. They’re intimidated, physically. They gotta be . . . Most of the women, they don’t want to play that. Some of the men too.” “You think cause you’re gay?” McNulty counters. “I don’t know,” Kima admits, “All I know is I just love the job.” In later episodes, the show’s writers would usually avoid such direct discussions of sexuality. Instead, The Wire tended to take Kima’s—and Omar’s—queerness as givens, and sidestepped the coming out narrative that frequently bogs down other gay-friendly series, even those, like it, that featured queer characters from their opening installments (see season one of Six Feet Under or the occasional flashback episode of Will & Grace).
Still, what’s remarkable about the exchange between McNulty and Kima is the complex attitude towards identity embedded within it—Kima considers herself as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a police officer in ways that are simultaneously complementary and competing. Some have argued that the goal of queer movies and television shows should be to push us towards a post-gay culture, in which queerness itself is treated as incidental rather than fundamental to understanding a person. The Wire offers a rejoinder to the valorization of the post-gay (as well as the postracial) by positing that race, gender, sexuality, and class all help to shape our experience of social life and determine how we function within social and political institutions.
The Wire doesn’t transcend identity politics; it immerses us within a complex social world in which each constituent element of a person’s identity matters in constantly changing, context dependent ways. Individual plot threads, taken in isolation, may even seem to exploit certain stereotypes, but viewed at the character and series level, they play as elements of a sophisticated whole. As Kima’s relationship with Cheryl deteriorates— principally in the third season, though one can easily trace the plot back to the first—The Wire draws an analogy between McNulty and Kima, comparing Kima’s adulterous indiscretions to the behavior that destroyed McNulty’s marriage, and casting a pregnant Cheryl, unflatteringly, as the embodiment of domesticity. There’s something obvious about modeling this disintegrating relationship on a straight marriage and assigning each of the women gendered roles (one of The Wire’s few serious flaws is its recurring tendency to cast secondary female characters as nagging wife figures), and the writers seem guilty of approaching Kima’s sexuality—like Snoop’s—through the frame of straight male sexuality. Taken from another perspective, though, both Snoop and Kima operate within primarily straight male environments; that they would treat women and sex in the same manner as their friends, colleagues, and associates shouldn’t be too surprising, even if their attitudes seem to reflect broader stereotypes in the culture.
By the end of the series, Kima had effectively become McNulty—drinking to excess, womanizing, investing too much in the job, and, in one scene from the fifth season that deliberately recalled the first, frustratingly assembling Ikea furniture in preparation for a weekend with her son. But the analogy only held to a point. Where McNulty slowly lost his bearings, personally and professionally, Kima stayed grounded: She refused to implicate herself in the fraud that cost McNulty his job, turning him in rather than compromising herself, and she found some degree of sanity and meaning in motherhood. Late in the show’s run, in one of its most touching moments, Kima’s son comes to her late at night because he can’t sleep, and she lulls him by sitting with him at the window, encouraging him to say goodnight to everything he sees. Unlike McNulty—a terrible parent by any reasonable standard—one gets the sense that Kima might have an instinct for motherhood, and that it might give her something real to hold on to beyond the job. She’s one of the few characters who escapes The Wire with some degree of integrity and nobility, and she may be its moral center.
Meanwhile, on the streets where “the game” is played, Omar sets a different standard, however twisted, for moral consistency and integrity. Surely, he was guilty of theft and murder, and in one of the series’ central plots, he behaved much like dark Willow, hunting down and executing the perpetrators guilty of viciously killing his lover Brandon. Joss Whedon came down without equivocation against Willow, but one doesn’t get the same sense of abstract ethical judgment of Omar from Wire creator and executive producer David Simon. In The Wire, the corners and streets have their own ethical and moral logic, in which killing and being killed are necessary considerations. Simon hardly condones or justifies the many deaths that result from this bleak moral calculus (on the contrary), but his characters’ choices are always set in the context of a brutal moral universe only partly of their making. Brandon’s murder is a horrific provocation, and it has the texture of a hate crime. Omar sees his response as proportional and justified.
“A man’s got to have a code,” Omar tells Bunk midway through the fourth season, and one gets the sense that Omar really has thought these things through—that he’s reflected and decided on what he believes to be right and wrong. He chooses his targets judiciously. He brings his grandmother to church on Sundays. He admonishes his boyfriend for using foul language. Neither dealer nor police, he lives off the game without actively participating in it—but, despite being an outsider, he is not powerless. One can speculate as to how his queerness may have led to, or how it contributes to, his outsider status, but regardless of the reasons, Omar stands apart from the corners and the streets while exerting extraordinary influence upon them. He’s the product of that sociological environment, but he also functions as its self-critique, a moral compass in an amoral social world.
For a show operating within a genre that tends to favor the perspective of the straight white male (even as cop shows have relentlessly deconstructed his heroism), The Wire is unique for the extent of its representational diversity and also for its tendency to invite viewers to identify with flawed, complex characters who exist decidedly outside of the television mainstream—not just the alcoholic Irish male cop but also his black lesbian partner, and the gay vigilante-philosopher. It is decidedly uncommon to find queer people of color featured in meaningful ways in major American television series. But it only really matters because these characters are so delicately observed and beautifully played, so hauntingly, compellingly, and convincingly real.
Near the end of the third season of The Wire, a skittishly homophobic associate of Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) goes to a gay bar looking for information about Omar. He grows increasingly nervous and runs out of the bar, shoving someone along the way. At the back of the shot, an intoxicated Bill Rawls (John Doman), the Deputy Ops and eventual acting commissioner of the Baltimore police department, sits in civilian clothes, enjoying a drink. Attentive viewers undoubtedly speculated about what Simon and his writers would do with this salacious revelation. Here was a man of significant political influence and a major character in the series, outed in the most unexpected of ways. But this brief glimpse is the closest we come to learning anything about his personal life.
Late in the series, a character sees the words “Rawls sucks cock” scribbled onto a bathroom wall. Is it evidence of an open secret, or merely an empty joke that happens to have accidental significance? Does it even matter? In The Wire, as in life, it’s always about context.