15 January 2009

Thoughts On: The Wire


Every few years or so, the critics go absolutely horse nuts for a TV show that nobody wants to watch. Friday Night Lights is the most current example. In that case, I can understand everybody's aversion, never having seen the show. Forget Blue State/Red State, in this world there are people who think High School football is something to give a shit about, and there are people who don't.  And I'm guessing the folks who really give a shit about high school football wouldn't particularly cotton to a Hollywood manufactured melodrama about it.

A few years ago there was The Wire, and everybody SHOULDA been watching it and NOBODY did.

It's easy to see why and how that happened. One, not everybody gets the better cable channels. Two, cop shows are over and done with, at least for the time being. Plain old everyday cops have been outdistanced by forensic teams with laboratories that look like they belong to Q branch or in the Bat cave, and by criminal pathologists who find uniquely terrifying, one-in-a-billion nutcases EVERY WEEK.

Well, the Wire was just a cop show in the same way that Tom Wolfe's Bonfire Of The Vanities was just a book about a court case. It equals or betters Wolfe's rightly famous novel as entertainment and as damning social criticism.

The Wire was the brainchild of David Simon and Ed Burns, both Baltimore natives. Simon was a reporter whose book, Homicide (which I own two copies of, for some reason) documented a year he spent covering a Baltimore murder squad. Burns was a Baltimore detective and later a schoolteacher.

Not surprisingly, but with amazing ambition and accuracy, The Wire deals with more than cops and robbers. It also deals with big city officials and partisan State politics, the crumbling inner city school system, collapsing infrastructure, the slow death of responsible journalism, and the general and horrifying decline of the American fabric. And these guys know what they're writing. Watching The Wire is like getting punched in the gut. I don't mean because of the effectiveness of its social critique--that is harrowing enough--but because watching ten minutes of the show makes it instantly clear to you how anaemic and fantastic and frivolous all other co-called "serious" television is.

The Wire is a testament to how incredibly rare and stupefying verisimilitude is in the stories we watch. Authenticity and unflinching honesty ooze out of this show. There are some narrative conceits and tropes, to be sure, but in total those amount to about 5% of what any other bullshit show puts out. (A lot of the true life colour that permeated Simon's book AND the subsequent TV series "Homicide" are recycled here again. The end to some of the stories, particularly at the series conclusion, are a little rosier than we might expect, even if the primary thrust of the final season is "PLUS SA CHANGE..." )

The show's five seasons each have a different focus: the drug trade, the ports, the city bureaucracy, the schools, the media. Each subsequent seasons folds in the prior season's characters and continues their stories. Simon and Burns can be heard on the Special Features making it plain: the show is about how systems fail, about how they trap people, and about how they always will. If there's any bright spot to their nihilism, it's that there are always people willing to buck the system. Just don't expect anything to come from it.

WATCH THIS SHOW. For fun: as you watch, try to figure out how many of the excellent cast are actually UK actors. If you've seen the show, here's a few of them (Dominic West, Idris Elba, and Aiden Gillen). When you hear how authentic they sound in the show, it's almost hard to believe.