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Everything is Everything

14 September, 2017 (17:30) | Goggle-eyes | By: Ian Burdon

The opening scene of episode 1 of The Wire, the Who Shot Snot? dialogue, is a classic. McNulty and and un-named witness are talking about Snotboogie, the dead guy in the middle of the road. The dialogue goes like this:

“I’m saying, every Friday night in the alley behind the cut-rate, we rolling bones, you know? All the boys from around the way, we roll till late.”
“Alley crap game, right?”
“And like every time, Snot, he’d fade a few shooters. Play it out till the pot’s deep. Then he’d snatch and run.”
“Every time?”
“Couldn’t help hisself.”
“Let me understand you. Every Friday night, you and your boys would shoot crap, right? And every Friday night, your pal Snotboogie he’d wait till there was cash on the ground, then grab the money and run away? You let him do that?”
“We catch him and beat his ass. But ain’t nobody ever go past that.”
“I gotta ask you: if every time Snotboogie would grab the money and run away why’d you even let him in the game?”
“What?”
“If Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?”
“Got to. This America, man.”

The Deuce; HBO Poster

The scene pays repeated watching because of how its sets out, in just under 3 minutes, the stall for the whole show, including the ghost in the story–the key to the metaphor and to why The Wire isn’t about drugs at all. It’s all in the game, yo, is the repeated motif throughout the show, and the thieves get to play, despite everyone knowing they’re thieves, because the game is America.

Because of the oblique observation, the un-named witness becomes a person, and absolutely not a stereotypical street punk. He becomes a player on a larger stage, not just a dramatic cypher. As the narrative unfolds we pick up other themes within it, and find no overt editorial gaze directing us to a moral interpretation, just letting you make up your own mind as the story plays out; in this it resembles the Icelandic sagas in its unsentimentality.

David Simon returns with The Deuce, a tale ostensibly about sex work and the growth of the porn industry in 1971 New York, but which resonates on much deeper levels. In the first scene after the opening credits, we are introduced to CC and Reggie, down at the bus terminus looking for girls to add to their “herd.” Both are dressed outrageously, straight out of Blaxploitation central casting, but Reggie has done a tour in Vietnam and delivers an acute analysis Nixon’s foreign policy in terms of pimping; Nixon know what he doin’ in Vietnam, bro, he says. He know the game.

And there it is again, the game. A metaphor is floated while simultaneously subverting expectations raised by the initial framing of the characters.

Reggie and CC then discuss their respective business models; I’m looking for a product, not a challenge, says CC, presaging Stringer Bell at business school. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy drives the point home: this is business, with management and workers and tilted scales of work and reward.

I look forward to watching The Deuce develop.

I’ve written here a couple of times recently about the changing nature of television and genre television, usually using The Wire as an arbitrary stake in the ground, a reference point of quality. The Wire also regularly crops up as a signifier in mainstream TV reviews. It was surprising, then, to see a lot of reviewers apparently disappointed that the writers didn’t give us a money shot of meaning right there in episode one, no flashing billboard drip feeding us. But there is nothing about The Wire or David Simon’s other work to suggest any such thing was likely (or even desirable). What we get is an introduction to characters who are given space to define themselves in an emergent narrative that we can expect to build and deepen over time. We get intelligent storytelling with high-production-value filming and unflashy performances (and a great soundtrack). And the blink-and-you-miss-it long shot of the Twin Towers still being constructed was a neat touch.

I have to add: I watched the pilot episode here in the UK courtesy of a VPN. It was released on demand on HBO on 28 August and broadcast in the US on 10 September. It airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic on 26 September, by which time US viewers (and me) will already be on episode 3. I understand the issues with piracy and downloads and intellectual property and different markets, but it seems to me that networks too often shoot themselves in the foot with such a big difference in broadcast dates. Both Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks addressed this, and I’m surprised The Deuce hasn’t.