Thursday 31 July 2008

The Wire - Season One

After watching The Sopranos in its entirety in one fell swoop last year I was left exhilarated and bereft, worried that I may not be able to enjoy anything on television ever again as it could only fail to live up to the genius of David Chase's 'family' drama.

There has been a lot of positive stuff written about David Simon's series, particularly in The Guardian recently which means that as I began watching there was a heavy burden on its shoulders. Set in Baltimore, a city familiar to those who watched the brilliant Homicide: Life On The Street, this is a complex drama following drug dealers and the police who are watching them. It is uncompromising stuff and the first few episodes left me a little confused, often reaching for the rewind button to go back over conversations. The writers don't feel the need to explain everything they write, crediting the audience with some intelligence (which makes a nice change) but also having total confidence in their material. This is a slow burn series and as the characters are introduced and developed the plot progresses.

As the series tag-line says: Listen Carefully. The slang used by those on the street is sometimes like listening to a different language, tuning your ear in takes time, but this is an experience mirrored by the police themselves who as they listen in on 'the wire' have to decode the phrases used that detail the movement of drugs and the committing of violence in order to place themselves a step ahead. The language used by the police themselves is complex. The legalese, the police slang or simply the detail of genuine speech between friends and colleagues is left for us to sort through but the experience of keeping pace and sometimes having that breakthrough moment where knowledge dawns on you meant that I felt I was following the investigation of the case in real time rather than having the privilege of foresight which is often gifted to the audience.

This is truly an ensemble piece, as evinced by the alphabetical cast list in the opening credits, but one name comes before that and if the program has a leading character it is Dominic West's detective Jimmy McNulty. A hard drinking cop with a failed marriage and questionable parenting skills is a risky leading man but the series is all about moral ambiguity. We are encouraged not to see the cops as good and the dealers as bad. In fact for large parts of the first series we see the dealers abiding by their rules and code whilst the cops bend theirs and behave appallingly towards each other. McNulty is hated by his boss (especially as it was his out-of-turn conversation with a judge which forced him to assemble the team for this case originally), his wife, his lover and some of his colleagues. He even hates himself. But the case he builds against Avon Barksdale and his crew becomes a personal crusade of redemption which brings him right to the edge. The kind of man who uses his own children to help him tail a suspect (and loses them in a market in the process) is not what his colleagues might term 'good police' but we follow him and feel ourselves rewarded with those flashes of integrity which keep him pushing the case along when the powers that surround him threaten to collapse it.

It is a mark of the scale of the program that it encompasses not just the bureaucracy of police work, or the politics in the office, but the politics above and beyond it. The chain of command is one thing but the greasy pole of promotion means that those with ambition have to keep things well oiled. It is difficult to maintain integrity when everyone seemingly has to make compromises in order to move up. Even the investigation itself as it follows 'the money' will uncover corruption at the highest levels. With the recent scandals involving political donations in the UK it is worth pointing out that the American political system actively encourages ignorance of the source of political donations.

At the other end of the scale we see not just the dealers but the users themselves; the men and women who amongst the warren of 'low risers' and 'towers' that make up social housing have never been the given a chance. One character, Bubbles, is brought vividly to life by Andre Royo. The marked and scarred skin on his face, the missing tooth, the twitches and facial tics that mark him as a man in the grip of addiction are subtly devastating. His attempts to go clean and straight are heartbreaking as with a small look of concern or worry we see how much it means to him and so, eventually, to us. Most of the other addicts are shown to be animals, doing whatever is necessary to survive, literally crawling all over each other at one point when free vials of heroin are tossed into the air.

This is a human drama, a family drama, literally with Avon Barksdale and his nephew D'Angelo (whose acquittal in the first episode sparks the investigation), but also symbolically amongst his wider organisation and of course the police. Because the series takes its time in establishing the characters without relying on the shorthand of recognisable traits the characters feel fully rounded. We don't have to understand them or even like them to be interested in what they do and why they do it. And crucially it is our involvement in their stories, rather than the plot itself which will bring us back for another series. I can't wait to get going on series two and if you haven't already I seriously recommend you get going on number one. It takes at least six or seven episodes to get its teeth into you but by then you'll be hooked, an addict like the rest of us.


Kay 14 February 2010 at 17:15  

OK, I'm sure you've moved on and seen the whole thing by now, but I came to this post via your one on Joan Wasser and was impressed. We also recently finished The Sopranos and can't imagine anything coming up to that standard. We've been having a bit of light relief watching Ashes to Ashes, but your comments have given me a new impetus to open that Wire box set our son insists we have to see...

William Rycroft 14 February 2010 at 21:42  

Thanks for the comment K and I'm glad to hear your going to crack open season one. It's a very different programme to The Sopranos obviously but a series that gripped me and had me uttering the phrase that tells you a programme is top notch: 'just one more episode' (usually uttered around midnight). Since completing The Wire I've gone on to watch David Simon's next series Generation Kill, which I would also recommend highly (and it only consists of 7 episodes in total). Come back to the blog in March and you'll see my thoughts on another HBO series, In Treatment, starring Gabriel Byrne.

Come back before then obviously to read other stuff too!

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