Ugly Americans and the Wire

Hollywood cranks out products like Sex and the City, Hitch, and Gossip Girls that show the characters living fantastic lives that are completely divorced from economic reality. There’s no way Carrie Bradshaw, to name one example, could live in a lavish Manhattan apartment on the salary of a single weekly column. And while it’s easy to dismiss such criticism as “it’s only a movie,” the lifestyle portrayed in these films – filled with amazing real estate and perfect fashion – buttressed by fiendishly clever product placement — is completely aspirational. Viewers are implicitly told that not only they should strive to buy into this lifestyle, but that they deserve this lifestyle. Is it any wonder why the middle class have bankrupted itself to buy a plasma screen TVs, McMansions, and gargantuan SUVs? The road to middle-class respectability is now found through buying things that are beyond the means of most in the middle class.

More unsettling is the action spectacular where this same sense of entitlement pervades. Instead of getting a thrill of vicariously consuming, movies like Wanted, Déjà Vu, and Bad Boys 2 are all about the vicarious thrill of wasting things (and people). Because Will Smith is chasing the baddies, he is entitled to trash city centers, torture people, and destroy impoverished third-world shantytowns with a Hummer (if you can think of a better metaphor for the Bush administration, tell me). Both trends represent the worst stereotypes of Americans – thoughtlessly wasteful, thoughtlessly violent, shallow, and spoiled.

There is a counter-current roiling against this trend. Movies like Children of Men*, Idiocracy, Wall-E and books like The Road and Parable of the Sower detail the aftermath of pursuing this American dream. The environment is wrecked beyond repair. The underpinnings of civilization are atrophying away. And in some cases, the fate of humanity itself is in question. The delirious party of waste and consumption is long gone and those remaining have clean up the mess.

All of these works are in the sci-fi genre, but there’s one work more that I’d include that shares these elements. The Wire, hailed as the best show ever on TV, is sprawling narrative about a city, Baltimore, struggling under the weight of failing schools, funding cuts from the government, and rising crime. The show very vividly and very accurately details a dystopic world where the underpinnings of civilization have atrophied away and where every day citizens are forced to live in a world of random violence, police brutality and utter hopelessness. A less exaggerated version of the world found in Parable of the Sower, The Road, and Children of Men. It’s a far cry from the luxury of a world like Sex and the City, yet it exists right along side of it. The underclass neighbors are its shadow. This isn’t necessarily a cheap Marxist screed against class, either. We as Americans chose to create this world. By picking leaders who favored tax cuts for the rich, cutting benefits on the poor, the corporatization of government, and an outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, we, like the characters of Idiocracy and the humans of Wall-E have through our short-term greed and idiocy fashioned a world like the nightmares of our movies.

*I know that Children of Men is a movie set in Britain. But it’s themes perfectly fit within an American context. It’s also a really freakin’ good movie.

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1 Response to “Ugly Americans and the Wire”


  1. 1 Michele October 14, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    Matthew 4:1-34


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