Sunday 5 October 2008

The Wire - Season Five

And so another televisual odyssey ends. 60 episodes over five seasons and a programme which has been described as more talked about than watched (this is the problem of a series playing on satellite/cable channel FX) - although the DVD box-sets of The Wire are on the best-seller lists at Amazon. With just 10 episodes in the final series David Simon seems to be trying to 'do more with less', a phrase used several times in the offices of The Baltimore Sun newspaper which features largely. Simon of course worked at that very newspaper for 12 years and so it seems almost obvious that he would chose to focus on the media at some point. What he shows is that interplay between media, politics and policing; the symbiotic relationship these agencies have with each other and how each in turn can be exploited by the other.

McNulty is back. His presence was missed in the last season, so it's good to have him back, but he's in a very worrying place; looking like he could skid off that road again at any time and driven by that passion which can create 'good police' but also perhaps lead him to test the boundaries of what is acceptable (and indeed legal). Carcetti, now installed as mayor, has come face to face with a huge deficit in his budget which leads to massive cutbacks for the police: no overtime and an effective end to the special crimes unit. This leads McNulty to hatch a plan that will give the papers what they want and therefore place pressure on the Mayor to provide funds for police work: a serial killer. Now, I love this programme, but this plot-line had me wrinkling my nose in discomfort. It isn't that I didn't believe it was possible, Simon shows in intricate detail how it can all be manufactured, but I just didn't believe that this would be the course any detective would take, even a true maverick like McNulty. The fact that Freamon, who has always been a moral yardstick of sorts, is part of the whole conspiracy only compounded my worry. It wasn't until the penultimate episode (which is the best of the season, possibly the series) that I began to feel it might work. Such a grand scheme allows Simon to bring so many elements of his story together, it's just crucial that having got so many balls improbably into the air we see them come crashing back down to earth.

That said, there's something about this season that doesn't quite work. It's like a programme which knows that it's coming to an end, tying up its loose ends, bringing things full circle and showing that people and events will continue in the same vein after the credits roll. It's all just slightly self-conscious.

But I don't want to dwell on that. As someone (I think it was Freamon) says, 'It's about the journey, not the destination.' And it's been a hell of a journey. I have written previously about the impact television can have when we, the viewers, make an investment in the characters. Over such a prolonged period of time (60 hours of television) we can see so much of their lives, so much development that, as when we read a novel, there is a connection there which means that even a serial murderer like Chris can arouse our sympathy even whilst beating someone to death. A junkie like Bubbles can have us hoping and praying that he can make it another clean day. A morally ambiguous anti-hero like Omar can have you wanting to put him out of his misery like a wounded pet. That is extraordinary television. To be able to put forward complex sociological arguments, economic theory, and political discourse together with street slang, profanity and poetry whilst leaving the audience concentrated on the characters is quite an achievement. Let's also not forget the other character in the piece: Baltimore. I genuinely feel that if I went there now I would know where, and more pertinently where not to go. Just as The Sopranos gave a real sense of New Jersey The Wire has shown in great detail the differences between the projects, the docks, city hall, 'Hamsterdam', the corners and the variety of people that populate them. The final episode has its heart on its sleeve as it shows what this programme has always been about: the people of Baltimore. Along the way of course it has shown us some important aspects of modern life relevant to all of us.


Anonymous,  7 October 2008 at 08:46  

I am one of those many people who have heard about this but never watched it. Mind you, I watch very little television.

I do subscribe to the idea of getting these things on DVD and approaching them that way but haven't actually watched any of The Sopranos or Six Feet Under that I bought years ago.

The one show I do watch, although am still two series behind, is Weeds. Very clever, very funny and Mary Louise Parker is gorgeous.

William Rycroft 8 October 2008 at 15:02  

Oh my, Scott, you HAVE to watch The Sopranos. It's still the best thing I've ever watched on television. I believe Marie Phillips started watching it recently but she hasn't posted anything since her initial impressions (probably busy being a best-selling author).

I don't know anything about Weeds so thanks for the tip.

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