Monday, April 20, 2009

Let Me Count the Ways

For someone who doesn't watch much television, I seem to have spent an awful lot of time in front of the box recently. Since Christmas I have consumed, with varying degrees of rapture, Rome, Bones and Prison Break (all of which have something to teach the student of narrative). Now I have run across the programme sometimes described as the best TV show (at least if you read The Guardian). I refer, of course, to The Wire, an exceptionally ambitious and accomplished piece of television. So far I've watched only the first series, which is enough to confirm its greatness.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it's an ensemble crime drama in clear line of descent from Hill Street Blues, through NYPD Blue and particularly Baltimore: Life on the Street and indeed The Wire is set in Baltimore. The first series looks at the efforts of a marginalised group of cops, with contrasting motivations, as they try to take down a drug gang in the city. So far, so standard. But The Wire is much more than that.

It's routine to describe cop shows as "gritty", but it's hard to imagine any other drama being quite so worthy of the adjective. The Barksdale gang -- the drug dealers -- are presented, if not sympathetically, then certainly with compassion and understanding. They are a bureaucracy in exactly the same way as the police, and the two organisations are often explicitly contrasted -- not always in the police's favour. The economic imperatives behind the dealers' lives are explored, without ever condoning their conduct; the police, meanwhile, are hampered by internal politics and rivalries. And at the end of the series, there are no pat resolutions: the drug dealer we sympathise with the most is sentenced to 20 years, because he won't testify against his much worse colleagues; the police unit is disbanded, mostly in disgrace except for the one who has snitched on his mates. It's that kind of show--angry about the state of urban America and not willing to pull its punches.

The show is also a hugely daring technical achievement; it makes few concessions to the viewer. Cops and robbers speak in their own argot and it's several episodes before the viewer can make much sense of it. I can see why audience figures were relatively modest. There are no flashbacks, and no recaps: if you miss something, you've missed it.

Most episodic dramas follow one of two formats over a series. There's the Bones model: one case a week, a rising and falling movement captured in 45 minutes. There may be a subterranean story linking episodes together, but essentially each episode is standalone. This is easily accessible, but also easily exhausted. Such shows survive on the basis of the characters, because the plots become either formulaic or contrived. The other format is the Prison Break model: one story, with subplots, told over the life of the series, with each episode ending on a cliffhanger. This allows greater scope for character development but it's constrained by the need to punctuate the action at regular intervals because that's all for tonight, folks.

The Wire, by contrast, unfolds like a novel. Each episode stops after an hour, and if there's no cliffhanger, well, there's no cliffhanger. The series starts slowly, invests in building character and environment, and then lets them play out. It can only be viewed as a single, unified piece. It's a very, very high risk way to make a TV show.

Add in the uniform excellence of the large cast, which makes you care about the characters on both sides of the fence, and you have an artistic achievement which can only astound. This is as good as television gets.
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Swainson said...

This is the very point I have been ranting on to anyone who will or will not listen. Each episode is a chapter.

I'm pleased someone else thinks that way about the wire. On that note I'm off to watch episode 6 season 4.

I'll be interested what you think of season 2.

Tim Stretton said...

It's a daring way of making television--you are demanding an unusually active involvement from the viewer in what is normally a passive medium.

I think HBO are more willing to take this kind of risk (I see they currently have "A Game of Thrones" in production too...) because they're a subscription rather than advertising-driven channel. It's the kind of thing the BBC should be doing over here but signally failing to do.

Looking forward to series 2, but a lot of my favourite characters were in the Barksdale gang - although glad to see that Stringer should be around for the second series.