Sunday, August 30, 2009

Omar Comin'

In How Fiction Works, James Wood discusses the evolution of character in fiction. In writers like Dickens and Fielding, he writes, "Character is essentially stable, has fixed attributes."

"But at the same time," he continues, "another kind of novel was developing, in which good and bad wars within a single character, and the self refuses to stay still. What the novel powerfully began to do was to explore characterological relativity."

I'm halfway through season four of The Wire, a TV show that is perhaps best imagined as a kind of novel, not least because of its exploration of exactly this type of characterological relativity. Such relativity is rare on TV shows, whose episodic nature lends itself to fixed and stable characters. The Norm you see on one episode of Cheers is the Norm you'll see on any other.

On The Wire, though, characters change: McNulty, Greggs, Bunk, Beadie, Carcetti, D'Angelo, Bodie, Daniels, Stringer. These characters, and others, evolve and surprise us over the course of the show.

The one character who comes closest to being a fixed, stable, traditional TV character is Omar Little, who is also Barack Obama's favorite as well as many others', I'm sure.

It may seem odd to view Omar as a traditional TV character, since in so many ways he defies stereotypes and easy judgments. A gay urban bandit who never turns his gun on a "citizen," stealing only from those who are in "the game," Omar is one of the most intelligent, perceptive, and funny characters on the show.

"A man must have a code," Bunk says sardonically to Omar in the first season, skeptical of this violent criminal's claims to ethical consistency.

"Oh, indeed," Omar replies, with utter sincerity. It's a great line, and one that the writers almost can't help themselves from repeating—and they do, as Omar says this line at least twice in later episodes. It's the closest the show gets to this classic TV device of giving characters tag lines ("What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?").

Omar does live by a code, though. He stays Omar (or has done so thus far, at least), and that sets him apart from many of the other major characters, who are less stable.

In the opening segment of one season four episode, Omar walks the streets one morning in search of a new box of his favorite breakfast, Honey Nut Cheerios. Kids along his path announce his approach: "Omar comin'!" It occurs to me now that this is a bit reminiscent of the welcome that Norm received each time he entered Cheers.

Understand: I'm not complaining. I love Omar as much as anyone. I just think it's interesting to consider that this unconventional character may constitute The Wire's closest connection to conventional TV shows.


Ben Scholle said...

If you're looking for consistency and a catchphrase, Clay Davis would have my vote too.

He's also probably the only character who might surpass Omar at the art of robbing drug dealers.

framiko said...


Great points. And Clay Davis doesn't stop at drug dealers—he robs fellow politicians as well.

framiko said...

Correction: My friend Tim, who's watching the show now, informs me that Omar doesn't say "Oh, indeed" in response to Bunk's question. He says "No doubt." He says "Oh, indeed" when McNulty speculates about Omar's plans for revenge on those who tortured and killed Brandon.