Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Somethin Bout Yo Bidness

I don't watch a lot of TV but I do appreciate a quality show when I see it. Is it worth sorting through all of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing content on TV to find these little gems? No, it certainly is not. So I've devised a new strategy: Wait until the TV season ends, see where all the buzz is, then watch the whole season on DVD (or torrent download).

I've just finished watching 4 seasons of The Wire within a span of a week. This goes some way in explaining the dearth of blog postings lately. HBO is probably the best outlet for quality TV programming and The Wire had me hooked. It follows the inner city life of Baltimore, intertwining the efforts of drug dealers, the police who pursue them and the politicians who enable them and are enriched by them.

The series is generally praised for it's realistic storytelling and deep character development but I want to point out something else I noticed while watching The Wire. The character Stringer Bell is a crime boss and second in command to Avon Barksdale. Stringer is a highly intelligent man who spends his spare time pursuing a college business education. He attends macroeconomics classes and applies his higher learning to the operation of their criminal enterprise. Avon is very much like the CEO of their organization while Stringer is the Chief Operating Officer. When Avon is locked up Stringer starts applying business processes more and more to their operations. Some very humorous exchanges take place in a gathering which is essentially structured like a corporate board meeting, complete with a chairman that recognizes gang members before they are allowed to speak.

It is made abundantly clear that efficient business practices can be grafted effectively onto the operation of a criminal organization. Moving product is moving product, whether they are widgets or packets of heroin or cocaine. The landscape is the same and includes activities like the sourcing of inventory, making distribution agreements, dealing with the competition, and motivating and reprimanding employees. We see the mentoring of junior runners by the more senior corner boys, how supply problems are solved through partnership agreements, and how to maximize profit by expanding marketing territories. The entrepreneurial and managerial spirit pervades crime dramas like The Wire as well as that other HBO hit series The Sopranos to such an extent that we might consider it to be America's essential social principle.

Stringer does so well in applying business practices to his criminal organization that he begins to make "legitimate" investments by buying up large stretches of real estate and going into property development. Poor Stringer gets blocked and ripped off by city hall permit overlords, general contractors and a slick State Senator. He discovers that these guys might be better criminals than he is a businessman. So the lesson is that not only are business processes effectively applied to criminal activities but that business activities and criminal activities are really one and the same.

The players on the corners always refer to the game in which they're engaged. An acquiring CEO might ask the head of a takeover target not to take it personally since "it's just business". Likewise when Omar robs the drug dealers of their stash he often says "it just part of the game n!&&@h". A disadvantaged environment doesn't crush the American spirit. On the contrary, the corner kids are inspired by the same ambition that drives a private school kid to become a CEO or a Senator. The criminals are just working with the hand that was dealt to them. In a strange way we come to respect them no less and perhaps more than the politicians on the show since they seem be braver and have a stronger code of ethics. Whether it's corporate business or slinging crack on the corner, the game is the same, so we hate the game but not the playah.

1 comment:

openflows said...

I love in the end of the 4th season Bodie starts to realize just how fixed the game actually is. And one of the aspects of this show that I find makes it so brilliant is the way that all the characters, all the professions, all the players big and small are fundamentally flawed. Nobody is really that innocent, yet everyone is at some point tragic. When I discovered the Wire I also watched it non-stop. Like a great book I just couldn't put it down. I can't wait until the fifth season!