Finally, I complete my epic trilogy. Of short pieces of TV commentary. And how should one close but with – to my mind – the best thing on TV, The Wire. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that HBO have changed the face of TV drama since the turn of the millenia. Let me count the ways. The Sopranos. Six Feet Under. Band of Brothers. Deadwood. Rome. Many more. But I don’t think they’ve done anything more consistent, more daring, more compelling and thought-provoking, than The Wire.
In theory it’s a show about policemen trying to catch drug-dealers on the mean streets of Baltimore. But it’s about an awful, awful lot more than that. Story arcs generally last at least a series, often much longer. Catch one episode, then another a few weeks later? Forget it. You’ve got to sit down and work through a series at a time. After four or five episodes you’ll probably feel confused, mildly repelled, vaguely intrigued, but slightly wondering what all the fuss is about. After ten episodes you’ll be utterly gripped. After a whole series you’ll sit amazed at how the whole thing comes together, and it will stick with you long after the end. For me, at least, the more you watch, the better it gets. And better, and better.
Each series tends to be a single, extended, fiendishly complex case, which gets at least partly wrapped up after 13 episodes, but they take the show in different directions each time. The first series sets the scene, and follows the effort of the police to take down the city’s biggest gang. The second shifts attention to Baltimore’s once-proud docks, finds time to investigate urban decay and the collapse of the American working class. The third examines the prison system, and the rehabilitation of criminals, at the same time broadens the scope into the upper echelons of Baltimore’s administration. The fourth changes up again and focuses on four young kids and their chances, looks at education, and through a race for the Mayor’s office the chances and disappointments of power. It’s a fiendishly complex show with a giant cast. I tend to watch each series on DVD as it comes out, usually within about four days, and I think that adds considerably to the experience. I don’t know if you’d be able to follow it so well spread out over 13 weeks. Certainly it would be pretty damn frustrating…
The police force are endemically lazy, almost uniformally incompetent, occasionally outright corrupt. The few good officers are always swimming against the current, usually getting ostracised to some bullshit duty as a result of being too effective and making trouble for everyone. The senior officers are obsessed with statistics and self-aggrandisement rather than meaningful results. The whole city operates on a system of favouritism and back-room dealing, where promotion is nothing to do with ability, and all about who’s “got suction”, meaning the right friends. For Chief of Homicide Rawls (one of my own favourite characters from a galaxy of brilliant ones), a big win isn’t solving a case, but managing to palm it off on another department.
Obviously, I’m neither a police nor a gangster, but there’s a feel of authenticity about near every element of this show. Real police work is shown to be more mindless drudgery than kicking down doors. Sitting for hours listening to wire-taps, following paper trails, squeezing informants, lying on roofs in the freezing cold taking photos. McNulty, probably the most central cop (though it’s always an ensemble piece), has drawn his gun once in four series, and even on that occasion never fired it, just ran around ineffectually in the dark looking scared. His partner then shot a bystander. It’s all about the confusion, the pointless complexity, the randomness, the waste and corruption. When criminals are caught it’s more often because of small accidents, treachery, or their own failings than some stroke of crime-fighting genius on the part of the police.
It’s a grim vision. Really, really grim. I very much doubt it’s done any favours to Baltimore’s tourism industry – the place looks like an endless, lawless slum of boarded-up houses, rusted playgrounds and collapsing tower blocks. The gangsters, who are followed just as closely and are just as sharply drawn as the police, usually end up dead or in jail for a very long time. The police usually end up busted, sacked, divorced, and/or constantly drunk. Those looking for happy endings or neat resolutions best run in the other direction. Unflinchingly harsh, determinedly unglamourous in its treatment of cops, criminals, drugs, violence, politics, urban decay and everything else. But at the same time it’s not unremittingly black by any means. There’s occasional nobility, honour, charity, often from the least expected quarters. Some folks try to do the right thing, in spite of the odds, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Things very rarely turn out exactly how you expect they will. Usually they turn out very badly.
Above all, though, the characters feel like real people to a degree that I don’t think I’ve ever felt with any other film or tv show I’ve seen. And the sweep of different types of people it encompasses is immense. From the young kids trying to find their way on the streets of Baltimore, to the gangsters who work the corners, to the police and their bosses, to the community leaders, to the politicos at the Mayor’s Office, it’s almost impossible to imagine that these people are actors. I can scarcely think of one weak link in the whole thing. You don’t think to yourself – great performance by Dominic West. You think to yourself – oh, there’s McNulty, I love that guy. It goes beyond great scripting and acting to a whole other plane. Much though I love, say, The Shield, it’s full of disposable, interchangable latino gangsters. In The Wire, despite there being probably hundreds of different runners, dealers, soldiers, gangsters, bosses across the four series, they all seem like real individuals, even ones who appear for moments.
In many ways, The Wire strikes me as the exact opposite of CSI Miami. Utterly real, convincing, courageous, subtle, with important points to make. It is the anti-CSI Miami. I quite like CSI, but I don’t much care for CSI Miami. I’ve never much cared for David Caruso, and I REALLY don’t care for him in that. He’s like a caricature, of a bad joke, of an idiot’s idea of what a really, really terrible over-actor is like. CSI Miami is supposedly the most successful TV Show in the world. The Wire most definitely isn’t. Now there’s a crime that needs investigating.
I could go on and on, but no-one’s paying me to, so I think I’d better close out and do some actual work. That or play Civilisation all day. You may have gathered that I think The Wire is rather good. That if you haven’t seen it, you should see the whole thing now.