Thursday, 13 August 2009

Through The Wire

Ever since the BBC decided to broadcast ‘The Wire’ from start to finish, I’ve been waxing lyrical about how it could quite possibly be the greatest television show of all time.

And okay, like the BBC I’m pretty late to the party, but this isn’t one of those latte drinking, high brow, Guardian reading, new media types telling you this, it’s yours truly – the guy with the David Spade back catalogue in his DVD collection (yes, even ‘Joe Dirt’).

It would take a number of men, all much smarter than I am, a very long time to really do justice to the argument in favour of this show’s place at the peak of the TV mountain, so instead I’m going to tell you what I think makes ‘The Wire’ so great.

‘The Wire’ is bold, visceral, slow-burning storytelling at its televisual finest – it could quite easily have been a New York Times’ best-selling novel.

I’ve heard it all from the critics and those that don’t get it, about why ‘The Wire’ isn’t as great as so many claim it to be. The language used is often cited as a reason for people who can’t get into it, and I’ll admit, for the first couple of episodes some of the phrases may have been new to me but it’s not like they’re speaking another language, after a few episodes I could have had a full blown conversation with either the police or any of the corner boys.

Another reason people use is the slow-burn nature of the show – you want cliffhangers and endless explosions? Stick to ‘24’, because this ain’t for you. But if you want intelligent, emotionally resonating drama that stays with you beyond the hour of your life it takes to watch the show then you need this show in your life.

Believe the hype – ‘The Wire’ is as good as you’ve heard it is.

The slow-burn aspect of the show is what I love so much about it, having become frustrated with the likes of ‘24’ and ‘Prison Break’ for their lazy often sloppy writing and storytelling for the sake of a cheap shock or ratings spike, to find the complete antithesis of both those shows in something that trusts in its audience to have the patience to wait for that payoff was a wonderful discovery.

Having grown to know ‘Stringer’ Bell for three seasons, when he was killed at the end of season 3, by God did it mean something, and he wasn’t offed for a ratings bump or for a season ending cliffhanger, he was killed off because his story was told.

This isn’t a show for those people who have TV ADD and can’t invest in something long term, you have to be prepared to dig in for the long haul with ‘The Wire’, but if you do, man, will you reap the benefits.

The city of Baltimore is painted in such an unflinchingly bleak light, the drugs, the murder, the corruption yet it’s hard not to feel something for nearly every character in the show, which ever side of the law they are on – the lines are that murky it’s often difficult to tell who are supposed to be the good guys anyway.

There isn’t a single character who I would say doesn’t have some sort of redeemable feature, even cold-blooded killers like Chris and Snoop have character traits that make you smile and often relate to them.

Show creator David Simon (who is an author, which goes someway to explaining the novelesque feel of the show) worked in Baltimore at the Sun newspaper for some twelve years and if you ask me this is his, albeit twisted, love letter to the city.

Simon has gone on record as saying that ‘The Wire’ wasn’t “selling hope” and he is right, this is uncompromisingly bleak, with death or prison time being the only outcome for most of the dealers.

Each season of the show focuses on a different part of the city of Baltimore and each season I have thought to myself that it wouldn’t live up to the previous, and each season I have been proved wrong. Within the season premiere you feel like you already know the new characters, such is the strength of this show’s writing and characterisation.

The show criminally never won any major awards and never really enjoyed massive commercial success, yet for its gritty and realistic portrayal of urban life it receives critical praise like nothing else.

To start singling out characters and actors for praise would just be plain wrong as this is a universally great ensemble. By avoiding egos and big stars, ‘The Wire’ was able to make us believe completely in these characters, the acting is natural and organic and the effect is staggering.

Arguably the biggest star, Brit actor (and Sheffield Wednesday fan – sorry had to get that in there) Dominic West had his role scaled back almost to the point of not even appearing in some episodes during season 4 yet he didn’t piss and moan as he, as you feel with the rest of the cast, loves the show and the character and it made sense.

Sharing a myriad of its actors with HBO’s pioneering hour-long drama ‘Oz’ obviously helps with the quality of the acting, but there isn’t a weak link from the top to the bottom, even the supporting characters and extras are fucking brilliant.

Like the aforementioned ‘Oz’ (see the ‘Oz’ feature We’re Not in Kansas Anymore – Behind the Walls of ‘Oz’ from a few weeks back for more on that great show) ‘The Wire’ introduces characters that you may think are nothing more than supporting players who then may disappear for a while, only to come back as key pieces to the puzzle.

Everyone matters in this show, they all have their role to play and they all have an effect on the Baltimore landscape.

Another way in which ‘The Wire’ succeeds is by flipping convention on its head, yet it never, ever comes across as contrived or unrealistic. Perhaps the show’s most fearsome character, stick-up artist Omar Little (played by the incredible Michael K. Williams) far from being an illiterate, gang banger is actually a rather philosophical homosexual who is perhaps the only character in the show who doesn’t use profanity.

For a show so steeped in reality, this could and should come across fake and convoluted on screen, but Omar is presented and played in such a way that he is by far one of the most interesting characters in the show. He has often been likened to a Baltimore Robin Hood and in spite of what he is involved in he appreciates that there is a ‘code’.

Stereotypes for cop shows are also smashed – the womanising cop pushing their domestic partner away is a woman and the minority candidate trying to become Mayor is white. And how can I forget the dirty junkie you can’t help but root for, I defy anyone to not be moved by the journey Bubbles goes on.

The show’s socio-political themes are explored in greater depth than any show should be able to in just thirteen hour long episodes and unlike so much of today’s television; ‘The Wire’ has a message. Sure, you don’t need lecturing while you watch TV but ‘The Wire’s commentary on American inner city life, be it at the docks, on the street or in the mayor’s office is not only educational but utterly compelling and more addictive than the product being slung on the corners.

As the top picture’s quote states: “Rules change. The Game remains the same”. Although ‘The Wire’ has cast its focus on other facets of Baltimore in the seasons since it debuted, it all comes back to the drug game and to the cops.

However the personnel and the landscape of the city changed over the show’s five season run, the game remained the same and always will and that is ‘The Wire’s most ominous message.

People cannot be saved – ‘The Wire’ didn’t sell salvation, it sold the cold hard truth that on America’s streets, and now more and more this seems to be applying to inner city British streets to, with the best of intentions things aren’t going to change.

It was a daring move to offer such a bleak commentary on the World, but it paid off in spades as audiences came to respect a show that didn’t lie, that didn’t glorify violence and drugs, that didn’t bury its head in the sand but treated them like adults and offered to paint a more accurate picture of what is going on in places they may not see day to day but know all about more than any politician ever could.

DVD box sets are, as I’ve enthused about before, not only saving shows from extinction and carrying on their memory, but they are also allowing fans to discover shows they may have missed first time around.

I don’t think I’d be far wrong to say that few people watched ‘The Wire’ first time around but through word of mouth stronger than I’ve ever heard, more and more people are finding a show that deserves every ounce of praise ever laid on it.

Anyone who is a fan of television and that visceral effect it can have on you like no other medium needs this show in their life, give it a chance and I promise you that once you go through ‘The Wire’, you’ll be hooked.

Other Televisual Musings this Week:

- Oh, how I loathe that twat on the 3 Mobile promo ads during Channel 4 original comedy.

My fast forwarding has a nasty habit of stopping just at that prick is finishing one of his awful gags – the thing is I can’t decide whether his attempts at comedy are supposed to be ironic. If they are, then at least he’s not actually trying to be funny – he’s just an annoying cunt; but good lord if they are actually supposed to be funny then the continued decline of our civilisation is all but complete.

“Séance, don’t you mean science?” – Fuck off you twat!

- Speaking of Channel comedy, it was good to hear that Charlie Brooker’s ‘You Have Been Watching’ contributed to Danny Dyer’s decision to stop making television.

Now if we can just get someone to make him stop doing films as well…

TV Moment of the Week:

- Clayton Rohner proving that he is in fact still alive by turning up for a brief moment in the very weird bonus episode of ‘Dollhouse’.

The former ‘G Vs E’ star deserved a better career than he’s had and it was nice to see him again, if only for one very short scene.

This finale/bonus episode of ‘Dollhouse’ felt very much like it was made when they were unsure if they would be getting a second season, now we know they definitely will be it felt very much out of place.


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