Monday, August 24, 2009

The Wire

Watched episode 5.10 of The Wire earlier, and so have finished the series. It's a justly lauded, extraordinary show 'pon which many finer minds have commented. I have some non-spoiler thoughts for those who haven't seen it, and then will leave a gap before blowing the surprises.

It took a while to go into. Episode 1.1 just felt like an okay, adequate cop show. Some cops trying to stop some drug dealers, who eventually set up a wire-tap to listen in on their phone calls. They drink and swear and are caught up in the bureaucracy. And often they're not very bright. Murders happen less because of motives than from accident, stupidity or bitter pragmatism.

At first that means it can seem more cynical than smart. Scott's not got to the end of it because he really doesn't like one particular sweary scene - and it doesn't exactly make the "good guys" look good. Other mates have suggested watching it with subtitles to pick up the slang and detail. But stick with it. Pay attention. And it will reward you.

In fact, it's a lot like In The Night Garden - a kids' show from them that did Teletubbies and narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi (I'm appearing on the same bill as him next month). Like In The Night Garden, you're first reaction might well be "meh". But once you've seen a few episodes you get how it works, and then you are monstrously hooked.

For me it was a scene in about episode four or five, with two cops discussing a murder. And we - the audience - saw other characters discuss the same events in an earlier episode. There's no acknowledgment of that - no flashback, no "previously", no concession to having missed an episode or detail. But just knowing what those other guys said a couple of weeks back changes this later scene, and the episode and the whole of the case.

And The Wire is full of such details. It's got a huge cast, with intricate connections between them. There are good and bad cops, there are good and bad drug dealers, there are those caught up in between. A few people have said that it's more like a novel than a TV show - and I don't think that's being dismissive of TV. Rather The Wire takes its time laying down the plot and building character, and trusts us to keep up with it all (and flick back if we need to).

It's rich and dense and detailed. Though there are exciting bits, it's generally rather gently paced, teasing us with false leads and scenes that go nowhere, in amongst them the crucial clues.

But I've also some specific thoughts for those who have seen it.

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There's a fair bit I don't think works. The end of Bubble's apprentice at the end of Season 4 is too melodramatic - like something out of a soap opera. And the Bad Thing McNulty does in Series 5 didn't ring true, either.

Yet on the whole it is brilliant. There's the way each series focuses on some next aspect of the city - the docks, the roped-off area, the schools and the papers. There's the brilliant characters, lovable and exasperating and real. My favourite is Bunk Moreland, the cigar-chomping dour crusader played by the superb Wendell Pierce. And Idris Elba would still make an awesome Doctor Who.

On top of that, there's the rich character development - the clash between Avon and Stringer Bell, the maturing of Prezbo, McNulty trying not to crash. I love that characters keep coming back with no explanation who they are - the dockers, the lawyers, the guy trying to get Bubble clean.

I love how much it depends on smart, professional people with insight born from experience. I love that they've then got the balls to show these people being very smart in a long scene where the only word spoken is "fuck". I love how it teases us with almost-revelations: us knowing the connection between two characters but the watching cop missing it because of a pee break.

I also love the ruthlessness of it; the sudden, unexpected deaths of major characters which completely change the focus of the series. The scattering of random, mad incident within the tightly plotted stuff. No one is safe, anything can happen...

Baltimore is a brutal place with little mercy. But what makes the struggles of this vast dramatis personae so compelling is the promise of some small hope. The hoodlum might escape the cycle of violence, the addict the addiction, the cop might succeed in getting his man despite the paperwork and politics - or at least not lose his home-life in the process. It's not the acts of crassnass, stupidity and cruelty that make the show work, but the constant, exhausting battle to defeat them.

2 comments:

Pete Kempshall said...

The scene that won me over is very early on in series one, when the mismatched squad members are trying to move a piece of furniture into their new dungeon of an office. They only realise after much huffing and puffing and getting nowhere that half of them are pushing against the other half ... Genius.

vern said...
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