Thursday, September 24, 2009

Down in the Hole

The BBC has shown all five series of The Wire, the amazing US crime drama, back to back. Sadly, the experience has now ended, leaving a void for those looking for intelligent and challenging television. In terms of thematic scope, narrative complexity and unwinking bleakness, both its ambition and its achievement were extraordinary. (No wonder its viewing figures were so disappointing). It's overly reductive, in fact, to categorise it as a crime drama - it's equally a compelling social documentary and an incisive study of the political process.

The Wire, from the outset, was an angry show, but the targets were never the obvious ones. The young black kids selling drugs on Baltimore's street corners, even the gang leaders, were portrayed with remarkable sympathy. Their worst actions were never condoned, but the environment which produced them was realised with unsparing intensity. The fourth series--for my money the best of the lot--focused on the schools' system and showed how it set the kids up to fail. The heartbreaking descent over the last two series of bright, articulate but alienated children into petty criminals and drug abusers did not pull any punches. The show's ire was not aimed at an underclass which never had a chance, but at a venal political class, more concerned with outmanoeuvring rivals and extorting kickbacks. Even the best of the politicians, like Mayor Carcetti, were ground down, forced into grubby and expedient compromise--and ultimately shown to be more concerned with career advancement than solving the city's problems. Sobering stuff, but never less than gripping.

The show wasn't without its faults. The second series, about the decline of the city's shipping industry, was never really integrated with the wider narrative. And while the characterisation was almost uniformly subtle, fresh and nuanced, there was one exception (heresy follows). McNulty, the nominal star of the ensemble show, the only actor to be billed out of alphabetical order on the credits, never fully departed from the maverick cop stereotype. A hard drinker, a womaniser, a lone wolf who breaks the rules with impunity (to a barely credible extent in the last series), he's a figure we've all seen before. Dominic West plays the role with brio, but he's not given enough to work with. Clarke Peters as Detective Freamon is a quieter and more plausible maverick.

These are minor quibbles. The Wire is uncompromising, and while at the end it delivers hope for some of the characters (and to avoid spoilers I won't say which ones), it's not at the expense of soft-soaping its wider message. A powerful, intelligent critique which never patronises its audience, we may never see its like again.


RDJ said...

I just finished it myself on DVD. While I agree that season two wasn't as well integrated as others, it was one of my favorites all the same, perhaps because that blue collar union world is one with which I'm familiar (though not on the dock).

And while I would have enjoyed more seasons, I do think Simon & Burns were probably smart to close it up when they were done saying what they wanted to say and telling the story they wanted to tell.

That's a kind of artistic restraint you usually don't see on TV.

I agree with you about McNulty, though I think Dominic West -- as you say -- did a great job with what he got.

Tim Stretton said...

Completely agree that they packed up at the right time, Ryan. Few things are sadder than a great show hammered into the ground (The X-Files, to give just one example).