A televisual feast to celebrate this week after last Monday's moan about the tedium that was the much-hyped 300. And no, I'm not talking about the new Doctor Who series, which continues to send me to a delightfully warm and fuzzy place with each new episode. In fact, I'm not talking about anything new as such at all. What I'm talking about is HBO's magnificent cop show The Wire.
I can remember seeing trailers for this show on the FX cable channel maybe a couple of years ago. For some reason the series passed right by this fan of crime fiction- maybe I was burned out from watching too many episodes of the Law and Order and CSI franchises. Whatever the reason, I assumed that The Wire would be just another formulaic US cop show, and ignored it.
It was late last year when I discovered just how wrong I'd been. Bill brought the Season 1 DVD set around one evening when we were supposed to be playing games, and suggested we watch a few episodes. We did. Bill went home, and I sat up all night and well into the next day until I'd watched all 13 episodes. Then last week he brought round the Season 2 DVD's. This time I had to get some sleep after episode 8, but again everything else stopped until I'd watched the whole series.
So, what's so good about The Wire? Absolutely everything, is the simple but not very informative answer. Watch this video:
and go off and read these reviews- the Guardian and the Telegraph- while I think of something more thoughtful to say (oh, and rest assured that none of the praise heaped on the show is at all exaggerated)...
Season 1 of The Wire has a commonplace enough story: a team of misfits who've pulled a shit detail surprise themselves and their superiors as they rise above themselves and actually start to do a good job. This unfolds in luxurious detail because the series doesn't follow the familiar formula of self-contained episodes in which each week's case has to be resolved in the space of 50 minutes of TV. Although unoriginal to the point of cliche, this familar human story works particularly well because it serves to open up the political dimensions of policing, while simultaneously providing a counterpoint to the unflinchingly bleak portrayal of urban decay, crime, and police cynicism.
All very well, but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, because even though The Wire has a narrative pace unique in the history of TV cop shows, it is by no means a 'slow burn' series. No, it grabs you from the get go, and keeps you gripped right to the end. From minute one The Wire is marked out by its magnificent scripts, with dialogue which reveals character, drives plot, creates the texture of the setting, and entertains and amuses in a seamless web in which not a word is wasted. The politicking of senior officers is particularly well-handled, in scenes giving a real sense of men measuring each word they speak because they know that everything they say can and will be used against them by ruthlessly self-interested careerists just like themselves.
If the scripts of The Wire mark it out as superior fare almost as soon as the first character speaks, it is the series' treatment of the first season's theme- the war on drugs- which transports the viewer to somewhere completely new. The drug culture on the streets of Baltimore is depicted in grim detail, to be sure, but that's not what marks The Wire out from other shows. More important is the depiction of the drug dealers themselves. Gone are the one-dimensional stereotypes familiar from shows like NYPD Blue or Homicide: Life on the Street, the sneering sociopaths whose hatefulness invites us to sympathise with the interrogation-room brutality of the cops. What The Wire gives us instead are real people, criminals who are charming, who grapple with their own moral issues, and who- above all- are often astonishingly competent in their criminal endeavours.
The Wire's depiction of the good, the bad and the ugly on both sides of the law explodes the black-and-white morality which underpins most cop shows. The result is a portrayal of the business of crime and the politics of law-enforcement as a peculiar tragic duet, both exploiting an endemic urban blight for their own interests even as each has nothing more useful to offer as solutions than their own kinds of sticking plaster for gaping wounds.
These themes are expanded in the 2nd season, which moves from the housing projects to the waterfront in a story which begins with another staple of the genre- a nameless corpse. To the desperation of the black underclass which fuels the drugs trade is added the stevedores' struggle to survive in a declining industry. Naturally enough, this leads to union corruption, which comes under investigation because of the pettiest of personal vendettas, with the result that the old team is reassembled. Meanwhile the consequences of the 1st season's investigation into the drugs trade are being played out.
If the 1st season of The Wire was magnificent, the 2nd perhaps shows the true scope of the ambitious vision of the series. Carrying forward the old story with the new adds an epic sweep to the continuity of the familiar characters in The Wire's novelistic narrative. Beyond that, the series' themes are deepened in a profound way. In the simplest terms, the story of union corruption extends the series' horizons to municipal government and international crime. More than that: interweaving the drugs and union corruption stories renders the plight of the black underclass and of union labour as 2 sides of the same coin.
What more can I say about The Wire then? Not a lot really. This series really does live up to all the hype. Seasons 1 and 2 already qualify it as the sort of masterpiece long remembered as "they don't make TV like that anymore", after the fashion of, say, The World at War. If you're not already a fan, then look out for it, and watch it!
Interesting trivia point
Clarke Peters, who plays Detective Lester Freamon, appeared in a 1983 episode of the legendary TV series The Professionals.