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TV: Wired up

Its DVD box set was one of 2008's biggest Xmas sellers and it has been called the best TV show that no one has seen. Now all six series of The Wire are to be shown on BBC2. Paddy Hoey on why this isn't just another cop show

Published on March 16th 2009.

TV: Wired up

Those of us in the know, and that's hundreds of thousands of people in Britain, are already aware that The Wire is the greatest programme ever made for TV, and that it could quite conceivably be compared to the highest achievement in narrative cinema - if Dr Mark Kermode had not rendered this phrase a cliché.

Created by former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon and ex-police officer Ed Burns, The Wire charts the slow death of the Ohio capital city, told through the conventions of the cop show. Baltimore is dying, and it is all down to the drug economy and the venal greed of the institutions of society which turn a blind eye to the city's degeneration.

Here politicians, the media, police and community leaders all put self-interest first as people live and die on the drug corners. Characters exit and re-enter the saga, often in different series. We see people grow-up and fall victim, become rehabilitated and fall again and become brutalised by the harsh realities in the ghetto.

Taking its inspiration from the heroic narratives of Greek drama and Russian fiction on which it shamelessly styles itself, The Wire has been called epic.

Self-consciously it sets out to subvert the conventions of the megabucks US TV crime shows - CSI or Law and Order - by making no concessions to the casual viewer (“Fuck the casual viewer,” says Simon, “Who wants them?”).

There is no neat whodunnit solution based on some bogus computer software at the end of every show, like in CSI. You have to give in to the whole 60-hour unit or you get no real sense of satisfaction or resolution, which is why it bears repeated viewing unlike anything I have ever seen.

The characterisation and acting are inspired. Brits Dominic West and Idris Elba play central figures Det Jimmy McNulty and drug lord Stringer Bell respectively. (Simon has said: "Give them credit for playing these two very American characters.")

Michael K Williams and Andre Royo give charismatic, stand-out performances as the principled non-cussing stick-up man Omar Little and Bubbles the troubled junkie. Wendell Pierce as McNulty’s sometime partner, Det Bunk Moreland, is absolutely flawless.

But most of these heroes are compromised in some way, some of the villains and anti-heroes are noble and virtuous at various points. You come to care for drug dealers like D’Angelo or Wallace because you can see how the society they are born into shapes them.

But there is a total lack of sentimentality in The Wire. It makes no apologies at killing off people you grow to love and it allows bastards to succeed. It is, in short, a lot like real life.

With more than 60 regular speaking parts in some series, there is yet a forensic attention to the minutiae of life in the drug trade. Anyone au fait with the novels of Denis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos will recognise this multiple point of view and the sense of entering a fully developed albeit dysfunctional community.

All three novelists were writing for it in Series Three, and it is no surprise that it is perhaps the best.

There are few happy endings and, in one case, something that could have been an explosive and dynamic plot line was simply ignored without ever being mentioned again. (Bill Rawls and a bar is all I can say to avoid spoilers.)

It even has a great soundtrack of soul, rock and Baltimore hip-hop which only rarely penetrates the story when required.

The Wire is a twisted love ode to a city tied, up in the form of a protest song about the inequalities in modern society.

Simon says that ultimately it is about how money and power route themselves into the American political system and how this affects the lives of “ordinary” people.

It has balls and character and yanks you by the lapels, pulls you to its face and screams: "CARE ABOUT THESE PEOPLE, YOU BASTARDS."

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