Reading Between the Lines: The Wire‘s Poster Art
First, apologies for the lengthy time off. Grading. Stuff to write. Holiday without Internet. They all added up. Anyways, we’re back, hopefully with a slightly new look soon too. Wasting no time, let’s get down to business:
Today, I call Time Warner and resubscribe to HBO, not being able to care less about many of the shows on the channel, but eagerly anticipating Season 5 of The Wire. Amidst other bloggersâ€™ stated goal to blog the season, I thought Iâ€™d start by commenting on its fantastic poster art.
For the uninitiated, The Wireâ€™s place in television history is already entrenched alongside Sesame Street and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as shows that challenged what the medium could and should do. If you teach television studies, youâ€™re no doubt tired by having to repeat the line that most television only focuses on problems as individual, not/never institutional. If you study television studies, youâ€™re probably tired of hearing it. And as a watcher of television, hopefully youâ€™re tired of seeing the moral play out again and again. But The Wire is a show about institutions. Beginning as seemingly a serial cop show, Season 1 examined the street drug trade in West Baltimore, all the while interrogating the social system and structure of crime and punishment with considerable skill. Season 2 added the ports to the picture, Season 3 added politics, Season 4 added schooling, and now Season 5 promises to end with the media.
I could glow about The Wire all day. Its characters, writing, acting, directing, and filming all surpass much of what even the best television can muster. And yet each seasonâ€™s just made the whole thing better, rounding out the story even more, adding nuance to characters and institutions.
And here the poster art brilliantly communicates the (bold) promise of a season that will conclude the series, and bring it to a head. More below the fold.
Just as every previous season has added depth and yet more dimensions to what we think we already know, the tagline to â€œRead Between the Linesâ€ suggests more of the same. Moreso, though, the newsprint in the letters enacts this. Seasons 1 through 4 swim in and out of the letters: we see Season 3â€™s focus on politics in the â€œT,â€ the bottom right corner of the first â€œE,â€ and in the â€œRâ€ and final â€œEâ€; Season 2â€™s focus on the ports is seen in the â€œWâ€ and accompanying photo; Season 4â€™s focus on the schools plays out in the â€œIâ€ and â€œR,â€ and the continuing interest in policing and crime plaster all letters. Thus, there is the sense of each previous season being unfinished â€“ there is more to be said about each issue, each institution.
At the same time, though, the poster art points to the news mediaâ€™s inability to capture the full picture. The brief, clipped, incomplete coverage of the ports, of politics, of the school system, of policing, and of crime in each of the letterâ€™s articles pales in comparison to the more involved picture weâ€™ve received to date from the show. The borders of each letter frustratingly cut off each article, giving us only shards of reporting. In black and white, with a few muted colors. And thus between the imperative to â€œRead Between the Linesâ€ and the continuation of the stories and issues beyond the letters, the poster art cleverly suggests the news mediaâ€™s ultimate failure in capturing something approximating truth. The articles gesture towards the truth, but only capture corners of it.
Meanwhile, prominently missing from the art is any real discussion of the streets of West Baltimore â€“ seemingly the focus of the entire show. Missing too are the showâ€™s large African American cast â€“ our lone character shots show the white Carcetti and McNulty, with what look like the black Greggs and Bunk faintly in the background. Looking at this poster, then, thereâ€™s a sense of the news articles missing, or simply not caring about, West Baltimore and its poor African American inhabitants. The poster hence points to the newsâ€™s elitist, racist blindspots, blindspots that require us to â€œRead Between the Lines.â€
Ultimately, then, the poster art subtly tells us why The Wire has been such a luminous presence on television. Where so much of the media fail to even ask the right questions, where they focus on individuals and isolated incidents, The Wire has been able to explain how those individuals and incidents come together, or are forced together, as a living environment, as a complex community of institutional problems, decay, and corruption.
And yet it also offers a warning to those who would hope that Season 5 will wrap everything up neatly. The Wire is not a show that works by rounding everything off: we see the police chief in the background in a gay bar, and never hear another reference to his sexuality, characters are killed without reason or comeuppance, action spills over beyond the realm of a comfortably managed and contained show. The words run off the page, in other words. Whatâ€™s great about the picture The Wire provides is that while being so superior and so much more honest than the pictures offered by so many other media outlets, it never pretends to have answers, Jerry Springer final words, or Danny Tanner words of wisdom. Where critics oohed and aahed at The Sopranosâ€™ act of turning the lights out on the final seconds of the show, The Wire (like this poster art) has continuously played with the lights, showing us so much, yet also reminding us of how much remains yet to be seen.
And on that note, itâ€™s time to call Time Warner.Tags: poster art, previews, The Wire