Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The Wire. Its all Connected

Its nice being wrong. That’s not a comment that is usually uttered or seen in a sentence. We humans don’t like to be wrong. Even when “we’re wrong we’re right” and dig our heels in and redouble our efforts even if it’s folly and we know it. “Some people would sooner die than think” wrote Bertrand Russell. For me I always try and live up to what Marcus Aurelius wrote of his adopted father Antoninus and which was no doubt a exhortation to himself that we be “delighted to be shown a better way”.

This delight has enraptured me several times in the past and no doubt will continue. I remember the first time it happened. I was twelve years old and me and my friends were fanatical playstation gamers. Via my cousin I had introduced my friends to a game called Resident Evil, a survival horror game which placed more emphasis on thinking and planning than on mindlessly shooting. It was also uniquely unnerving, heralding that a new era in computer games had been lunched. We all loved it and thought it was the “best” game ever. It was defended to the death in arguments with others especially against Tomb Raider whom we thought (quite rightly) was overblown, boring and “crap” to control. For many hours my brain was engaged in arguments with unseen games reviewers and opinion pieces that simply did not “get” Resident Evil.

Then I played a demo of Metal Gear Solid.

Very quickly almost like a curtain being drawn back to let in the sun, Metal Gear Solid swept always almost instantly the belief that Resident Evil was the best. It was several degrees greater both in terms of plot, voice acting and replay value. It was though the introduction of Stealth gameplay and the necessary use of intelligence (goal making, problem solving, analysis and planning) that made it original. Resident Evil may have laid the foundations but MGS took it to previously unimaginable realms. The boss battles is a case in point. The duels were no point and shoot affair requiring both dextrous fingers and lateral thinking.

Though one game had been replaced with another it did not shift the actual thinking that lay behind them. Successive “paradigm” shifting experiences and “thinking about thinking” itself has left me more open and less sure about being utterly certain. The caveat of course comes from another great paradigm changer that we should “be open minded but not so open minded that our brains fall out”. Or that we should know “less and less about more and more”.

One key shift was less sudden but just as enveloping and exciting. I have been long a fan of The Sopranos, the HBO television drama. It was simply the most absorbing, intense and rewarding TV show for years. Sopranos (HBO) seemed to operate on different rules than other drams. If you peer closely though you find that the Sopranos structurally speaking is quite similar to say Northern Exposure or Twin Peaks but it’s the content, the camera angles, the lighting, the fashion, the use of real locations that elevates The Sopranos into the sublime.

Sometime near the end of 2006 my friend un-dramatically mentioned to me that a TV critic has stated that The Wire and The Shield where the best things on TV which incidentally were both on FX. We watched a small portion, understanding it was not fair game so to speak to simply wade in mid episode mid season to judge something. Of course-- we weren’t impressed, but kept it in mind. I used to work in a video store, it was my job to spread little germs either cynically (by company orders) to sell people stuff or which I more enjoyed getting to show people great movies they might enjoy. I was like a good waiter who recommends complimentary wine with a meal or a literature inclined doctor who recommends a depressed patient something inspiring to read. On Christmas eve I recommend the show to a customer to whom I had a wonderful conversation with. He bought the show and his little journey began.

In that time me and my friend had watched a few good episodes and were warming nicely to it. Back at the store the customer came back to tell me that he loved it, that it was probably the best thing he ever saw. He had not finished the show but was well onto doing so. Enthusiasm which is infectious must of rubbed off on me and we began one of those great “blokee” conversations were we were both on exactly the same level. After the conversation I shortly watched a few more episodes and me and my friend were both smiling with the realisation that we had stumbled upon a hidden gem. It was not until maybe the fourth or fifth episode that it really flowered. When you become enraptured by something it has a kind of cascading effect where you become totally absorbed into it. As Charlie Brooker wrote of the show “prepare to obsess”. It is surprising but everyone who watches the show marvels at it with real zeal. Another customer and now friend a local novelist has similar high thoughts of the show.

Despite the brilliance of the first season it was not until the second season that I had some thoughts that might be better than The Sopranos. These thoughts hovered around season three and four. It was not until completing season four and considering what the writers and creators had pulled of in season 3 and how it could have derailed the show that left me no doubts. Despite the caveats of what I wrote above I believe a case can be made that The Wire is simply TV’s greatest drama and one perhaps that will not bettered for a very long time. First though I want to mention what can seem a somewhat childish thing of calling something best and saying something is better than it. Its not like I fall out of love with the previous highly esteemed work. Resident Evil and the Sopranos are still respected. The Sopranos remains one of the boldest and entertaining shows around. Only that like reaching a plateau on a mountain which offers stunning views of the landscape, you discovers that above it lies a better vantage, a higher cliff upon which to look over the landscape. The Wire like Metal Gear is simply another notch up the mountain.

The first thing to be said of The Wire when one begins to look beneath the surface is how much of an outsider it is. I’m sure you noticed that most American TV shows are either based in LA or NYC. Either that or shot on a studio lot. The Sopranos only slightly goes beyond New York into New Jersey which is just across the Hudson river. Most people who work in the film and television industry are products of film school. They serve apprenticeships as runners and other nobodies while chipping away at getting a shot at something. They come up through the ranks learning what’s expected and what isn’t. They learn the all to obvious truth of the pernicious role of advertising commercials on a show’s content and the strict guidelines governing content enforced by the networks. David Chase the creator of The Sopranos came from film school and started out as a story editor. Many of the house writers on the show such as Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess are career TV writers. In one or their commentaries they talk about the structure of The Sopranos as using the ABC method of storytelling a TV staple. Ie big story and two smaller stories filling out the big one. The scenes in the episode interweave around the 3 stories.

This of course takes nothing away from The Sopranos but The Wire is a different species of animal altogether. Firstly its in Baltimore mostly west Baltimore, as far away from the glories of Hollywood or the trappings of Manhattan as you can get. It deals mostly with the underclass, the black underclass. In fact one of the many remarkable things about The Wire is its prevalence of African Americans. The nuances in the writing of these characters and acting on display which defy any other TV show with the possible exception of Roots. This is of course no accident nor is it a politically motivated gesture, its simply verisimilitude. As Baltimore is mostly a black city and the stories mostly focus on black people from all nooks and crannies, dark alleyways and marble floored corridors of the powerful and the powerless.

The strange and original nature of the show has a lot to do with the creators. The principal creator is David Simon, a former investigative journalist for the Baltimore Sun. Simon wrote the excellently observed Homicide A year on the Killing Streets which was turned into the acclaimed TV show Homicide. The other creator is Ed Burns a former cop with the Baltimore city police and retired school teacher in the same city. Simon and Burns have long worked together producing the HBO mini movie adapted from Simon’s book The Corner. You cannot fail to notice that not only have both men lived and worked in the city but have been surrounded by the very milieu they depict.

If this was not enough, they have assembled a mugs line-up of some the best and most recognised novelists working in crime fiction. George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and Joy Lusco. Many of the directors have roots in independent cinema or have worked on shows like The Shield or The Sopranos.

This translates into something that has never been seen on TV before and one rarely glimpsed on film either. To start with traditional TV storytelling was dumped on the street like an empty vial of dope. Simon was conscious right from the start to avoid the typical all problems resolved at the end of episode structure. The Wire develops slowly, over the course of 13 episodes. There is no instant gratification and pay offs per episode. Simon’s analogy was with novels. Novels are a fine example were characters and complex situations are slowly and gradually built up. This is of course not to say that Simon and his team embrace an aesthetic of post-modern randomness and lax storytelling. Quite the opposite, there is considerable time spent investigating characters, their internal self-contradictions and how they relate to the outside world and the institutions they are trapped in. McNulty is a fine example of this. He is neither a crusading cop or one that acts out of rational self interest. Its not clear to us nor I would add to McNulty himself that when he mouths off to the Judge at the start of the series that he is intending to kick off a “shit storm” which ultimately sees him exiled to the “boat patrol”. McNulty’s home life is a mess, his partners (both work and sexual) frequently distrust and despair of him, his pursuit of criminals is not out of duty or justice but more a kind of thrilling engagement with cunning adversaries. “stupid criminals make for stupid cops” “I’m proud to be chasing these motherfuckers” he opines.

The show operates on a kind of evolutionary principle. each episode, each series, each character becomes increasingly complex as the show goes on. Season one is “relatively” straight forward, one long police investigation into a drug crew. It covers such themes as institutional dysfunction, the paradoxical effects of capitalism, the Hobbesian trap of Omar, Stringer and Avon. By Season two these themes are elaborated upon along with themes of port corruption and the death of the working class. The Third season arguably the most complex juggles street wars, drug legislation, reform, political intrigue, more corruption, and much much more. The truth is that miss an episode or two and you will fail to understand the whole thing. This is a sad fact and perhaps the reason why the show isn’t as popular as it should be. On a side note a fun game to play in later seasons is to link all the characters by using only one or two intermediaries. Eg Stringer and Carcetti are linked by Senator Davis. Or Avon and Frank Sobotka are linked via Sergei the Russian. The finales are masterpieces of narrative culmination and editing. One perhaps would have to go as far back as the Godfather to see how a complex story is resolved through parallel editing and multiple unfolding climaxes in such a brilliant way.

I mentioned the remarkable feat of so many good African American actors in such unique roles, though really all of its characters are wonderful creations. It’s almost a unpardonable sin to mention one actor especially but I’ll do it anyway. “Cool Lester smooth Freamon” played by Clarke Peters. The Bunk “happy now bitch” played by Wendell Pierce. Lt “my office” Daniels by Lance Reddick. “We got ourselves a inelastic product here” Stringer Bell Idris Elba (a Londoner) and of course Omar Little “The Cheese stands alone” gay stick-up thug played by Michael K Williams. McNulty played by Dominic West I’ve mentioned, There is Thomas Carcetti played by Aiden Gillen, John Doman who plays boss from hell William Rawls. Quite possibly the most touching performance of the show belongs to Chris Bauer as doomed union chief Frank Sobotka. It has been remarked from time to time that females are not heavily “represented” to use a modish PC term in the show. Though this is true what female characters the show does give us have been utterly unforgettable as witness Snoop played by Felicia Pearson and Det Greggs by Sonja Sohn.

There is so much to recommend this show, no review or missive could ever do it full justice or persuade people that it’s essential viewing. For myself the key that the show’s importance hangs on, its most vital contribution among many is its political engagement or rather its fury.

It is an angry show and David Simon is an angry man. Angry and depressed at the utter indifference that the ruling elite along with the media view cites such as Baltimore. Baltimore could stand in for any number of American inner urban areas. Take Washington the nations capital, on the outskirts of that cities political and tourist friendly centre there is a poverty stricken underclass mostly black. It is almost surreal like the scene where McNulty having to “babysit” Bubbles by taking him to kids Soccer game. Bubbles (a dope addict and police snitch) gazes on the rich middle class houses and people in perhaps the same way that peasant Italian immigrants may have stared upon New York when first entering the country at the start of the century.

Simon and his team poses some stark questions of Baltimore and America at large. How well is the police actually operating? What is its primary goal? Is the war on drugs winnable? Is it even right to call it a war? Should drugs even be criminalised? Billions of dollars are spent in the drug war yet schools are under-funded and mis-managed, the children who fail to get an education are new recruits for the drug trade how can we let this continue? How conducive to a civil society is it that politics is a game of manipulation and cynical self advancement and the cult of personality?

The Wire is likely to shatter whatever pre-conceived political views you may have, liberal or conservative. The show does at times become politically didactic and darkly cynical. On other networks some would have called this biased, socially irresponsible and depressing. It’s easy to counter such views by saying that The Wire is alone amongst a maelstrom of nauseatingly sweet American fantasies such as Lost, Heroes, Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives and other pop culture fair. Lest I pick on easy targets-- in my comfortably white European opinion I think the Wire has done more for representing the American underclass (especially black) than a trailer load of Rap Albums and MTV videos or the entire back catalogue of Spike Lee.

It is utterly refreshing to have ones views and opinions and expectations challenged in such a exciting original way. The Wire deserves its reputation as not only the greatest TV show ever made but among the greatest cultural artefacts that America has produced. In time it deserves entry into the American library of congress (which protects and upholds important cultural artefacts.) It also deserves to be shown in Schools and Colleges, for history and sociology students. In time it will become an important visual historical document of a largely abandoned and ignored America.

If that sounds pretentious then I hand over to Charlie Brooker who concludes his review of the show with characteristically stark conclusions “If you like good drama then you have absolutely no excuse for not indulging in this, it is just F***ing brilliant”

Best and Be well.

Michael Faulkner.


The Black Atheist said...

I Love the wire too!! season 4 was spectacular. Its the only tv show to ever make me cry. I wish more people would of watched it. But, alas, america is full of idiots who are busy watching CSI with its fake science or Deal or No Deal for the 50th time.

Anonymous said...

everything you have said is correct. the leap from resident evil to metal gear solid is perhaps the most perfect analogy to describe just how earth-shatteringly incredible this series truly is. I only wish I had read this article earlier. This is the analogy I will be putting forward from heretofore.