Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Wire

I had some sort of plan for Easter, which involved taking a drive, either south or west of here. But it also struck me that it would be kind of nice to get a pile of amiable comedies on DVD, some books and some food and just relax for a few days. I did in fact manage to find a number of such comedies in Blockbuster, but I made the fatal mistake of wandering over to the TV box sets before leaving.

There, I came across a copy of the first season of The Wire, a programme which is muttered about in various corners of the web in reverent terms as being the best crime drama ever made. I am not sure if it has ever made it to TV here in New Zealand, although it does strike me as surprising that there were five seasons made, starting in 2002: surely a programme of such longevity, if it did make it on to screens here, would have caught my eye at some stage? [Hah - I have looked at TV2's website, which refers to
it as being a "critically acclaimed new crime series" which "presents a drastically innovative take"... so of course they showed it on Tuesdays at midnight! There is no mention of any subsequent series.]

And so, I found myself watching thirteen hours of TV over the first couple of days of Easter: it truly is an engrossing show. Over on Salon last week, there was a bit of a dust up over House as the result of an article in which the author had claimed it presented a hospital as far more beautiful than any which exist in reality, and that it cruelly suppressed the rights of nurses (in that they simply don't exist on House). This produced a flurry of correspondence over the extent to which we expect TV to be "real". For my part, I don't need TV dramas to faithfully represent any particular reality: instead, they must create a believable reality. This, The Wire does in spades. Great acting, great scripting (even if it meant I didn't always follow the dialogue) and plenty of depth all conspire in this.

By taking an entire series to tell the one story, a lot of attention can be given to developing characters and their backstories. The entire 13 episodes are given to the efforts of a special unit of the Baltimore Police which has been set up to crack a drug ring - in particular to nab one Avon Barksdale. As a result, the show is partly a police procedural, loosely based around the use of a wire tap to bust the ring. At the heart of the unit are two outstanding police - Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Kima Greggs: she is gay, which is a nice way to sidestep any problems with romance intruding on their professional partnership. They've been brought in from different units, don't know each other: one of the joys of the show is watching them build up their trust in each other.

Another joy is watching the other cops find their niche: they're all regarded as no-hopers and have been off-loaded on to this unit as a way to get rid of dead wood. So we have Det Pryzbylewski who is famous for shooting up his own car, who only stays in the job because he has "suction": his father in law is a District Major (it took a while for me to get used to military titles being used in a police force). He spends a lot of time slacking off, doing word puzzles - but then coded information starts coming in off the wire and he's the one who cracks the code. We also have Lester Freamon, who sits in the unit making miniature furniture (for which he gets paid more than his salary!) and not much else - until the day he goes out very quietly and comes back with a critical piece of evidence. He takes on a fatherly role within the unit. The third character worth mentioning is their Lieutenant, Daniels: he starts out not believing and not being believed in but, given the option of stepping up or stepping off, he well and truly steps up - taking the interests of the unit all the way up the chain of command where necessary.

But it is not just a police procedural: an equal amount of time is given to the Barksdale gang and its operation within the western housing projects. They operate with a very tight set of rules, and as a result are very successful. Again, we get to see the people who comprise the gang as people, not just as evil drug dealers. Sure, there are some who are so focussed on the task that they are not much else, but there are several who are not. At a very early stage of the series, I was surprised to see a suggestion that D'Angelo Barksdale (the central character on this side of the fence, and nephew to the boss) might not be fully committed to "the game" and, sure enough, what he really wants out of life is to start over, to be given some sort of education and the chance to escape his family. His mate, Wallace, actually starts on this process - but there are rules and no tolerance for those who don't follow them, particularly when Avon Barksdale becomes aware that the police are getting close.

A third element is the political structure within which the police unit must operate. McNulty in particular is "real police": his mind is focussed at all times on the task at hand (to the point he has his kids trail a suspect they encounter when shopping). The problem is that to really bring the whole gang in, a long term view is needed, whereas the powers that be, who are all looking for career advancement, need quick results they can crow about. Thus, at several stages they order actions which deliver a lot of "drugs on the table" but actually impede overall progress. I think this aspect was the most important target of the show, which tends to honour real police, and cast those who get in their way in a bad light.

Of course, in many such shows, someone like McNulty would utlimately prevail and all the bad guys would find themselves locked up. While I was watching the finale, I was thinking that it kind of sucked, but have come to appreciate the genius of the end because it doesn't proffer any sort of over-simplification: instead, the conclusion is deeply compromised.



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