Friday, 30 May 2008

The Wire

If you want compulsive, intelligent alternative to the vacuous reality tat of Big Brother, The Hills, I'd Do Anything, etc, the The Wire is for you. I have been meaning to write about it for a very long time but every attempt doing so fell flat. Why? For the simple reason The Wire is the best television show I have ever seen. And by that I include all those great 80s kids' TV programmes. I am not joking. I cannot heap enough superlatives on to the show. It is at once funny, complex, gritty and heartbreaking. If I was writing a lengthy piece I wouldn't know where to begin. So I was very pleased to see a review appear in the latest issue of The Socialist from the pen of Michael Wrack. The comrade has written about it, so I don't have to:

When The Wire first started it could easily have been mistaken for just another 'cop show', and a particularly slow, dialogue-driven one at that.

The first series focused on one police detail, involving a case against a local drug kingpin. But the show was about much more. Avoiding simplistic distinction between good and evil it shows different aspects of 'the war on drugs'; we see the similar hierarchies of the police and the gangs, with the rank and file on both sides fighting the war for their bosses' careers.

The police working on the detail are constantly told to make things fast and simple, to lock up a few low-level drug dealers rather than build the wiretap and surveillance case needed to catch the people at the top.

Except we find out that the people at the top of the drug chain may not even be the top. The detail is shut down when, instead of just following the drug deals as instructed, they follow the money, revealing investments in local property and political donations.

Each series continues the story, while expanding to show the root causes of the drug problem. Closing down docks leads to a lack of work, and the inevitable pressures on communities.

We see city hall corruption, back-scratching and backstabbing, and the effects this has, when filtered down through local government policies, on the street level. Touching on people-trafficking, homelessness, urban gentrification, unions fighting for political influence, and much more, we're provided with a story of those left behind by capitalism; an America forgotten by the 'American dream'.

The Wire explains how the drug trade wholeheartedly follows the rules of capitalism. A high ranking drug dealer goes to an evening class at business school to learn the rules of the market.

A question constantly posed by the show is who these people could have become if they were born somewhere else, with different options. Does this serve as an excuse for the drug trade? Not exactly. Marxists believe people have free will, but we also believe the choices they make are shaped by the conditions they live under.

This is the central theme of series four, which changes focus again to put four school kids, and the failings of inner city education, at the centre of the show.

At the start of the series, as we watch them enjoy the summer, they could be the archetypal 'they may be poor but at least they're happy' TV children. As we find out more about them, we see how damaged they are.

Born into poverty-stricken communities, destroyed by drugs, they are children of addicts, or in one case a dealer and murderer. They are children brought up by other children and have all been, to varying degrees, abused; physically, psychologically or sexually.

We see them at a school that has all but given up on them, with the lure of the criminal life always so close. Far from admiring the local gangs, the kids fear them, even making up childish ghost stories about them to scare each other.

But when one of the kids faces a horrific problem at home he and his friends wonder who he could turn to for help. 'Snitching' to the police is immediately discounted; the motives of a local boxing coach are questioned, leaving a choice between his teacher and one of the gangsters. The results of his choice are far-reaching.

It is to the writers' credit that, despite the harsh issues dealt with, the show never once seems melodramatic. This is because no 'TV people' work on the show, the creators being a former crime journalist and a police officer-cum-school teacher. The show is so grittily real because it is based on reality, the real people and real events that they came across in their former jobs.

Critics have been lining up to hail The Wire as the best show on television. It may also be the most damning indictment of the world we live in found anywhere in popular culture.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

The review makes it sound really good, I'll try and watch it sometime.

Phil BC said...

You've got to watch it right from episode one - there's no short cuts!

tim f said...

I will seek this out too.

politiques USA said...

Yep good show with 4 seasons, gotta have time to watch the whole thing. I think it's better than the "Sopranos".
//Marxists believe people have free will, but we also believe the choices they make are shaped by the condition they live under///
When you are poor in the US, do you really think you have that much choice? I don't think we do, it's a question of survival on a daily basis.

politiques USA said...

Yep good show with 4 seasons, gotta have time to watch the whole thing. I think it's better than the "Sopranos".
//Marxists believe people have free will, but we also believe the choices they make are shaped by the condition they live under///
When you are poor in the US, do you really think you have that much choice? I don't think we do, it's a question of survival on a daily basis.

Phil BC said...

Politiques, there is always choice. As Marx once said, "men make their own history, but not under the circumstances of their choosing". I'll scribble more if I get the time!

politiques USA said...

Well it might take you a while to show me your demonstration. First you have to define "choice", and there are many proposals that only go in the sense of "free will". So does free will really exist? Hmmm I'll have to think about that first. For sure there are different philosophical streams (Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, Adam Smith, ...etc) but there is undeniably a pattern between poverty and ascension in life, the statistics should speak for themselves in the first place, I guess. At a philosophical level, there'll always be choices, in a practical view, I'm afraid it's not such a case in our societies. "free choice" does not necessarly exist inside a society that incorporates some rules. You also have to take into account what part of responsabilities the governments play in the social dealing to curb down or maximize inequalities.
It's a long work, I guess, difficult to be summarize in a few lines :S For sure I'd like to hear more from you on this subject :)

catherine buca said...

politiques – it has 5 seasons.

Best thing I've ever watched. I can't recommend this show enough.

Of course, after reading this ( I can't help cringe just a little each time I do recommend it ;)

Seán said...

I concur, it must be watched from the very start. Furthermore, the brilliance of the show is that after a single episode not everything is tied up neatly and order restored. It is the complete opposite to every cop show ever made. Crime is shown as a social disease rather than a simple matter of good and evil. It is complex without being over-elaborate. Some of the dialogue is better than most contemporary stage plays.

I've just finished series 3 (it keeps getting better and better btw) and plot lines from the very first couple of episodes are still unravelling - afters something like thirty episodes. That is top class exposition in my book.

It is this attention to detail, the painstaking methodologies of procedure, the intelligence of the writing, and the social commentary that separates it from the rest of contemporary television - with the notable exception of the now defunct Sopranos.

politiques USA said...

5 seasons? Wow I'll have to watch it again.

Don said...

Absolutely love the Wire - best fictional series on TV, ever. I'd also thoroughly recommend it's predecessor, Homicide: Life on The Street. It isn't as tight as The Wire, and the network occasionally interfered with story arcs. But the writing and acting is superb, and there are some episodes that, like The Wire, make you feel like you sat through the most entertaining sociology lesson, ever.

Why they persist making drek like The Bill when stuff like Homicide and The Wire around, I have no idea.

Phil BC said...

With you on Homicide, Don. Good to see Clarke Johnson in the fifth season ... and a cameo from Munch too!