Saturday, November 28, 2009

And Through The Wire - Part Two (SPOILERS)



Before I started watching The Wire, someone told me I wouldn't want to watch any other TV drama once I'd seen that. Yeah, right, I thought, and of course it's not true. That's what we call hype, short for hyperbole. Naturally enough in the wake of such hype I approached the series with caution and a healthy degree of scepticism. I still had to watch it. Had to. Not least because I'd been an admirer of David Simon's (and Ed Burns') work since Homicide (both Life On The Streets, the TV series, and A Year On The Killing Streets, the book), then The Corner (book, haven't seen the mini-series yet) and Generation Kill.

Anyway, one of the things that surprised me most about The Wire was that the hyperbole was very nearly true. Not quite, you know, because there'll always be other TV dramas I'm interested in. It's just the way I am.

But I've recently been enjoying a rewatch of Homicide: LoTS (one of my all-time favourite shows) and for a series that Channel 4 used to shove back and back into the wee small hours when no-one (except me!) was watching, next to The Wire it seems more like a mainstream network cop show. Which is unfair, because it was breaking the mould – or even shaping a new mould – at the time. But I'll save talk of Homicide: LoTS for another time. This is, as we've established, about The Wire.

It's awesome, yes. But like me you might not be awed by it at all to begin with. It's slow, it's in a foreign language. Okay it's not, but it's in a version of English that's removed from the one we speak. Generation Kill's the same, with its initially impenetrable military speak. The world has its own way of talking and it's uncompromising, there are no subtitles to help us along. I'm reminded of studying Shakespeare in school and some of the language makes you scratch your head but one day you get to watch a play or a film and suddenly it clicks and you're getting it. It is like Shakespeare and it is a thing of beauty.

Somewhere along the way its awesomeness creeps in and you realise that it's not slow in the sense that it's dragging its heels or nothing much is happening, but that it's taking its time and it rewards patience and that, in itself, is reason enough to sit up and pay attention. Or sit back and pay attention, because you realise you are in for the long haul. You are, my friend, hooked.

David Simon has said it's like a novel in TV form. (There's an interesting article here about what The Wire is, link courtesy of Stuart.) I'd almost say it's like a series of five novels. There's a distinct theme and focus to each of the five 'seasons': (basically) street, docks, city hall, schools, press. The themes of each series are neatly encapsulated in the opening-title montages and the different versions of the song Way Down In The Hole lay down the tone and mood.

Of course it's not as simple as that and anyone who tells you its overrated is underestimating the layers of complexity in the characters, the plotting and what amounts to constructing a portrait of the city from street level and up.

But it's not only that, it's also its sense of realism. David Simon's big on verisimilitude, and why wouldn't he be, he's a journalist by nature. And this feels like journalism dressed up as drama. There's a great deal of truth in it, many of the storylines and characters are woven from real events and real people harvested from the fertile Baltimore backgrounds that Simon and Burns hail from – newspaper, police, education. They cast real police, real newspaper men, real politicians – and real perps – alongside the actors. It's sobering too when you learn that when the fictional cops hold a wake for one of their number, it's because one of the cast has passed away. Even when you see an actor you know from something else (for example, Idris Elba as Stringer Bell – just one of several British actors you'd think were American if you hadn't seen them previously) they're so utterly convincing that you're still safely immersed in the experience. For a Homicide fan there are odd moments of recognition that might briefly jump you out of the action as you spot actors from that show, but if it's like the late cameo from the mighty Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) then it's only long enough to applaud. The spell remains intact.

There's one moment (and thanks to Stuart for prompting me to think about this some more) that doesn't quite gel with the reality being portrayed. In Series 5, it's when Omar makes an end-of-episode leap out of an nth-storey balcony to avoid getting shot (fair enough). For me, it wasn't the stretched credibility of his surviving the fall that niggled, it was that it felt like one of the more standard contrived cliffhangers (although there's no hanging involved) you'd expect from 'normal TV'. Thematically and storywise it contributes to Omar's status as a legend, so there's an additional purpose served, but it felt like playing to the crowd.

Still, if we wanted any conclusive evidence that this is one show that doesn't pander – either to a network or to its audience – it's in Omar's departure. Not from the balcony, but, you know, from this world. Sheeeeeeeeeeit. It's still a shock. And I watched it (relatively) ages ago. You even (eventually) come to appreciate that it's the right end for him, for the story, just right. An anonymous, violent death at the hands of some kid who didn't have any sense of the legend he was gunning down. What else was it going to be? Face-off with Marlo? (Who, by the way, is described in The Wire: Truth Be Told as a 'shark on legs' and I couldn't sum him up any better.) That's what I wanted, it's what Omar was looking for. But we'd had that – when Omar takes down Stringer at the end of Series 3.

And that, for the record, felt good – and bad. Stringer was a bastard and he had it coming. But on the other hand, he was a bastard we loved. But we loved Omar too, goddamnit.

Which kind of brings us to another core appeal to this show. Or rather, we're there already, talking about it. Characters. As multi-layered as the city they inhabit and more shades of grey than the UK weather. Scumbags, sleazeballs, thugs and weasels – and that's just the cops. Ha. Seriously though there's a wealth of richly drawn individuals, but it's less about good and bad, more about the ones you love or hate or love to hate and how much. If I had to list my personal favourites, I'd say McNulty, Freamon, Bunk, Kima, Carver, Stringer, Omar, Bubbles, Carcetti, Bunny Colvin, Beadie, Prop Joe, Gus Haynes, Vondas... and keep on going.

There are those such as the Greek who turned my blood cold with a single throat-slitting scene, so I could never actually like the guy, but he's still a great character. There are those such as Levy, the lawyer, who has – if anything – fewer redeeming qualities than the Greek, but even he is, as grudgingly as I have to admit it, great at what he is. Yeah, I really wanted him to get some sort of comeuppance. Hated him, he was that good a sleazebag lawyer. At the other end of the moral spectrum there's Freamon, great character and undeniably good po-lice, but even he voluntarily colludes with McNulty in his insane fake serial killer scheme. At the end of the day, I just have to dispense with lists of favourites and say that I don't recall being quite so emotionally invested, one way or another, in such a vast array of TV characters from one series.

Brother Mouzone, perhaps, is one example that springs to mind of a character that didn't quite ring true at first. He seems a little too out there, more of a dramatic caricature, but there's something in the actor's performance and the world around him that sells it. It occurs to me that a junkie informant called Bubbles could so easily have been a cliche but it's obvious from very early on that's not going to happen here. Huggy Bears need not apply.

There's a clear love for the city and its characters from all of the writers, and clear evidence that love – this love anyway - is not blind. And there's no telling you or even asking you to love these people or their world, but the drama is letting you get to know them and allowing you to make up your own mind.

Interestingly, I've since read (in The Wire: Truth Be Told by Rafael Alvarez) that one aspect the writers definitely had no love for – at least to begin with – was the political layer that was added from Series 3 onwards. There were objections raised, apparently: it was felt that a foray into city hall just wouldn't be The Wire. But like the tale of the Sobotka dockyard dynasty the series before, it's another layer added on top of the existing story and fitting seamlessly as part of the whole. It's the end result that matters and it feels as authentic as all the other layers.

The story of Carcetti's rise to power is as involving and electrifying as the presidential election in The West Wing's Season 7. And I'm not going to get into a comparison – apples and oranges, and all that – but The West Wing, outstanding and slick and polished as it is/was, paints an idealised view (I believe I've previously bemoaned the conspicuous lack of bastards in the White House). In The Wire, you can have men – and women – with ideals, but even Carcetti who is genuinely set on changing things for the better is obliged to sacrifice those princples in favour of juked crime stats and school tests that have much more to do with saving his political bacon than education.

It's not as though self-serving politicians are original, but it's so real it's frustrating. And it's not just that they're self-serving, because Carcetti is an illustration that the system and the forces that drive it are bigger than any one well-meaning man. He's not blameless, but although he gets to exercise some mayoral powers (I'm remembering a brilliant sequence in which he goes on a whistle-stop tour of the city, flexing a bit of mayoral muscle and gets every department jumping into action), he's not exactly powerful either. In much the same way, the cops are often victims of their institution ad the way it operates, and likewise the dealers and dockers and students and teachers are all caught up in the tidal forces that held sway long before they were around and will be long after.

There are individuals who strike out and do things their own way. McNulty and Omar play their particular systems according to their own set of rules, they even beat the system on occasion. But all they're doing is winning battles in a war that can never be won. Stringer Bell attempts to promote himself out of the street and into the world of business and property development. He doesn't make it, but his efforts are doomed before Omar and Mouzone put paid to him in their particular way. And while Stringer's trying to go one way, Avon Barksdale's going the other, seeking to reassert his hold on those precious corners. Series 4 tells a similar tale of two lives running in opposite directions, with Namond – with a rare note of hope – en route to a brighter future and Michael on the down road to becoming – ultimately - a new Omar. The collective tale of those school kids (including Randy and Dukie) makes Series 4 one of the most affecting. As is the tale of Bubbles' voyage towards recovery, the following season, striking another much-welcome note of hope.

But it's not only that, it's – and we could just go on like that for a while. Any five-year series will – or should – leave you with plenty to talk about or think about. In most US shows that'll amount to over a hundred episodes. The Wire runs for 60, but there's (at my best guess) ten times the depth.

I mean, look at me, I've rambled on for too long already and I haven't talked of the plight of the stevedores, I haven't discussed D'Angelo Barksdale's tragic journey, or Cutty's attempts to give the kids an alternative outlet for their energy and aggression, Bunny Colvin's Hamsterdam as a different kind of alternative. I haven't discussed the various depictions of 'domestic bliss' enjoyed by cops and criminals alike. I haven't touched on the great humour - trust me, when it's funny it's hilarious.

I've not said anything about the beautifully crafted montages. But I guess now seems a good time, since we're (finally!) approaching the point of summing up. US TV drama loves its montages and sometimes they strike me as overused. Wrap up your weekly episode with a sequence of scenes set to a cool music track that'll hit all the right emotional buttons for you. But here the technique's used more sparingly, striking the vital end notes for the various characters and story threads each season. Generally with the same basic message: no matter what else, it's business as usual on the streets of Baltimore.

I wish there was some equally elegant way of summing up the series for the purpose of this blog, but I'd probably need a Part Three to do that and even then I'd be hard pressed to find the words.

On a mailing list, someone cleverly pointed out that in Series 5 you have a cop (McNulty) and a journalist (Templeton) both working (although independently) to create the same fiction (that of a depraved serial killer preying on the homeless), which is reflective of the Ed Burns (ex-cop) and David Simon (ex-journalist) collaborative creative team. (McNulty is trying to secure the resources he needs for getting Marlo, Templeton's all about his own career advancement, but I don't think that's any comment on Burns or Simon.) At the time I figured, well, it's probably one of those things that slipped into a story subconsciously during the writing, but now I come to think of it Simon and Burns are almost certainly that clever. If not more so. Neither of them see the war on drugs as a way forward and The Wire is an illustration of what that war is doing to cities all across America.

And here I am, post-Wire, looking for another fix. But there is no more. (Sob.) So like a junkie who can't score tiding himself over with a sugar rush, I rewatch my Homicides, I seek out another cop show I've heard great things about – The Shield, I buy and read books about The Wire and I blog about it and still find I haven't said all I'd like to say about it. So I'm forced to come to one conclusion: I am an addict.

What Burns and Simon have created in The Wire is a legal drug. And I don't have to kill for it, because it's freely available on DVD. Maybe they're trying to tell us something.

2 comments:

Stuart Douglas said...

Lovely review Simon. I agree completely that you could write a part 3 (and 4 and 5) and still have plenty to talk about.

But I'm doing no such thing - the way I see it, the less I think about The Wire, the quicker I'll forget enough that I can watch it all over again...

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