Work Is Family
Breaking Down The Wire
Work Is Family
Talking television.
Nov. 6 2006 10:38 AM

Breaking Down The Wire


That's an amazing story about Paul and the two sons you followed. In reading your account, it strikes me how much you became a "family member" yourself, maybe even something of a substitute father to Pharaoh and Lafeyette. This seems to have not been lost on Paul, and if true, I imagine it was painful for him to come to grips with. But he did, and he tried to use you (in the best sense) to reach his sons.
In many ways, The Wire seems to be about the surrogate family, be it fellow detectives, street-corner drug dealers, or running mates. It's on the streets where the young boys of this year's episodes find companionship and learn the hard lessons of life. Except in the case of Namond. What I like about his story at home is that everything his family is going through is entirely relatable to your typical middle-class or higher family: The parents want the son to have aspirations—in their case, to go into the "family business." Namond would prefer to spend his time playing video games and hanging out with friends. He's spoiled, has a sense of entitlement, and is largely unwilling to do what it takes to succeed. This really worries the parents. The only difference is they want him to succeed at drug dealing instead of college or straight business. If this were a Luis Buñuel film, all this would be played to high comic and satirical effect. 
But with Michael, I hope his father will play an increasing role in the story.  So far, he strikes me as a man with a terrible past who seems sincere about trying to do right by his sons. But what that shared past is with Michael is not clear so far. Michael bristles at his dad's attempt at any affection with him. Was there physical abuse? Even sexual abuse? And if so, is he truly a changed man? Or will his efforts be short-lived, and he will return to his bad ways? I'm sounding like one of those announcers for old-time radio soap operas trying to hook the audience. Tune in next week for As The World Turns
It's always interesting to consider whether a troubled father serves a family best by being in the home or long gone. In Hoop Dreams, Arthur's father, Bo, could be an incredibly disruptive presence because of his drug addiction and the illegal acts he committed to support it. On the other hand, when he was stable, employed (if still addicted), and part of the family, it was clear how important he was to Arthur. They had a complex love/hate relationship over the years, right up until Bo's tragic death a year ago. By that time, Bo had become something of a model citizen, and he truly was holding the family together. His loss was devastating to the Agees, but none more so than Arthur. Then there was William from the film: His father had very little contact with him for many years, and it seems that the family basically circled the wagons and went on with their lives without him. With no father around, William's family is one of the most inspired I've ever met when it comes to dealing with and triumphing over adversity. Family is powerfully complex and messy indeed.
The Wire doesn't really deal with the at-home lives of any of the other characters, either. In Seasons 1 and 2, it did some with Kima—the impact her job and having a baby had on her relationship at home. But that seems to have been dropped for now. (Thank God they didn't let McNulty seduce Kima during all that, though he tried.) And McNulty has evolved from drunken letch to solid, teetotaling family man, much to Bunk's chagrin. But these are all passing moments, details thrown away. The series' heart is not in these stories, I suspect, because it's the relationships—internecine, humorous, complicated—at work that really interest Simon and company.

There's plenty of meat there, to be sure. I suspect he feels like family drama is such well-trod territory that there's not a whole lot new to say. I mean, nuclear family is really the meat of The Sopranos, isn't it? The shows are like mirrors to one another in that sense. What made The Sopranos different from all the mafia movies over the years was that Tony was the powerful head of the crime family but hardly in control of his own family. They suffer all the afflictions families do everywhere. Yes, the series deals with his work, and it sometimes sets work and family in dramatic conflict. (My favorite example: When Tony takes Meadow off to look at colleges and deals with eliminating a witness protection guy he stumbles across, while Carmela comes as close to committing adultery with the local priest.) But all in all, the locus of The Sopranos is the home. The locus of The Wire is the world of work—be it the police department, city hall, the corner, or now, the school. For kids, that's the equivalent of work. Just ask my kids.
See you next week,

Steve James is the director of Hoop Dreamsand Stevie.

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