What ‘The Wire’ Can Teach Us About Conan & Jay

The view that Leno has been playing the game but Conan hasn’t is plain wrong

Last Updated: January 20, 2010 @ 10:51 AM

So now, if you believe New York Magazine, the intensity of the outrage surrounding Conan O’Brien’s removal from "The Tonight Show" is a parable for our recessionary anger at the fat cats – “Leno is AIG,” writer Adam Sternbergh claims – who have bullied us little people around, laid us off from our jobs, and generally caused everything bad to happen in our lives.

Conan O’Brien, therefore, is us – the little guy. Conan is he or she who is mad as hell, can’t take it anymore, and is now rising up to claim what is rightfully theirs.
Hogwash.
Because if we’re looking at this situation realistically, a much better comparison – and one that contradicts the Conan-as-revolutionary meme – comes to us from HBO’s landmark series, “The Wire.”
For those unfamiliar, “The Wire,” which ran for five seasons and is widely regarded as the best dramatic series in television history, chronicled all sides of the drug trade in the city of Baltimore, including the dealers, the police, the government officials and the media. Without turning this into a full-on Wire tribute, suffice it to say that in its breadth and honesty, it is television as art, and if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to put the series DVD at the top of your Amazon wishlist or Netflix queue.
(Warning: "Wire" spoilers ahead)
One phrase viewers of “The Wire” became intimately familiar with by series end is “the game,” which is shorthand for the life of drug dealing and murder that they have chosen to live. So when the mother of young drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale persuades him to take a 20-year prison sentence instead of turning state’s witness for the good of the family, since her brother runs – and she profits handsomely from – the drug empire he works for, it’s accepted as all part of the game.
Later, when he turns up dead in prison, that is too.
By series end, the implications of the game are clear. If you choose to play it, you may reap great rewards, but you will probably end up dead or in jail. That’s just how it goes.
But what’s unspoken about the game – and, I believe, one small part of why the show was such an incredible achievement – is that in exposing it with such brazen honesty, it reflected as well on the games in our own lives. Whatever profession you’re in, there are situations you find yourself in, trade-offs and sacrifices you make, and things you do that you may not have done were you able to live your life exactly the way you wanted to.
Some of these are well known and oft-discussed, and some may never be mentioned. But we all have a game in our lives, and areas such as politics, the media or show business have games that are particularly intense. Hollywood certainly does, and here’s where the comparison becomes relevant for late night.
The outrage against Jay Leno – claims that he engineered this in some devious fashion, and that Conan has been the sacrificial lamb/victim in all this – boils down to one point of view: that Jay Leno has been playing the game, but Conan hasn’t.
This is naive at best; disingenuous or manipulative at worst. Either way, it’s just wrong.
Because as I pointed out on my own blog, Conan O’Brien was just as willing to throw Jay Leno overboard – with no consideration for him or his future – as many assert that Jay Leno is willing to do to Conan now.
When the deal was made in 2004 for Conan to take over The Tonight Show, it was obvious that Leno didn’t want to “retire,” as many are now calling for him to do. He was pressured by NBC, and to attempt to avoid the hassle of the Letterman/Leno battle of the early 90s, he agreed.
But while all this was happening, what was Conan thinking? We can’t see inside his head, of course, but just from what we know of all this, he had to know that:
1. He would be displacing Jay Leno from a job he’d had for over a decade;
2. He would be displacing Jay Leno from a job he excelled at (whatever your thoughts on its content), as his show had been #1 in late night for years;
3. He would be displacing Jay Leno from a job he didn’t really want to leave;
4. He wouldn’t have to do this himself, but would have the toughest lawyers and agents in the game doing his bidding;
5. He would be doing all this for no reason other than his own selfish benefit.
Conan O’Brien wanted "The Tonight Show." Jay Leno had it. So Jay had to be displaced. Simple as that.
Conan, from day one of this debacle, has been playing the game. Like Stringer Bell, the ruthless second in the Barksdale organization in “The Wire,” there were people that needed to be displaced in order for him to succeed, and certain unpleasant acts that needed to occur for him to occupy a place of power. When those acts blew back on Stringer – he was gunned down by not one, but two people he had tried to kill – he was not surprised.
Conan shouldn’t be, either.
Obviously, this is intended as metaphor. I’m certainly not asserting any literal bloodlust on Conan’s part, and I do believe that overall, he’s a pretty nice guy. But he’s not naive, stupid, or unwilling to do the things you need to do to get ahead in Hollywood. In other words, he’s as willing to play the game as anyone else, including Jay Leno.
In “The Wire,” Marlo Stanfield, the dealer who conquers the Barksdales and becomes the new power in the drug trade, murders a mentor named Proposition Joe in cold blood so he can take over his territory. Prop Joe tries to save himself by saying, “I’ll just go away.” Marlo, cold blooded as he is, doesn’t believe that Joe can stay away from the game, and can’t risk having Joe come back on him. So he has his henchman, Chris Partlow, blow Joe’s head off.
Conan in 2004 was like Marlo in one sense. His henchpeople (agents) went to NBC and said, we want Jay’s territory. And they got it. The biggest difference, of course, is that they did let Jay walk away – with millions and millions of dollars. Because that’s how their game is played. Luckily for all in this saga, the rules of the game in Hollywood are much different than the rules of the game on the streets of Baltimore.
But in either place, if you play the game, you know the rules, and you also know that the game may blow back on you. Conan had no problem playing the game in 2004. And if “The Wire” taught us anything, it’s that once you’re in the game, you’re there to stay.