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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Wire: can a TV show really change the way you think?

This is my column from the April edition of The Word.

I don't know if The Wire is the best TV drama ever but I've watched the first four series of this story set in the decaying port city of Baltimore and that's enough to decide it's one of the few TV programmes that has changed the way I look at the world. I felt much the same after listening to Another Side Of Bob Dylan. I don't think it happens with music any more. The world's problems are too complicated to be diagnosed by even the best folk singer.

"The Wire" begins with a tight focus on undercover police mounting a surveillance operation on a drug dealer's business. It pulls out to examine the parallel hierarchies of dealers and law. The shot then widens to allow us to see how the drug economy works, how successive generations join "the game" as pre-adolescents, graduate to running their own corners (incentivised by a generous bonus scheme) and, if they're lucky and don't do too much jail time, end up in the officer class. Or dead.

But it's still only beginning. "The Wire" then pulls out further and you see how the characters are hemmed in by the modern city, how crime results in "white flight" and a dramatic drop in the tax base, ending in a situation where the city's schools are fifty million dollars in the hole and even the new broom in the mayor's office can't pay the police to clean up the streets, other than by taking money away from the schools and thereby putting more kids on the streets.

"The Wire"'s long lens retreats again as the action switches to the port, where long established white working-class elites are under threat from emerging economies in the East and the "cans" they handle could contain anything from Apple Macs to 19 year old hookers from Eastern Europe. It's to the great credit of the show's devisers, who have personal experience as teachers, police and crime reporters, that they don't offer a simple solution.

For African-American actors "The Wire" must be as significant as the advent of sound. It provides them with twenty key characters who are as complex and imperfect as the people their white counterparts have been playing for years. For once not hidebound by the need to present "positive images" they play havoc with the archetypes: the overweight drug lord repairing a toaster at his pawn shop, the police captain putting on his uniform to help his estranged wife get elected, the ruthless killer who expects respect for the Sabbath, the youth worker who can't stop hitting on his charges' mothers, the lieutenant in the crack gang studying economics at night school. The casting mixes real people with actors to disorienting effect. It's only among the DVD extras that you learn that the churchman, with the voice like Brahms and molasses, is played by an actual retired gangster.

If "The Wire" proves one thing it's that even ostensibly "cutting-edge" entertainment, with its desperate need for cleansing moments, whizz-bang climaxes, spectacular violence and roles in which the actor can look good, has failed to do justice to the way we live now. Not that "The Wire" is a headline chaser. Its text is human weakness under duress and the ancient truth that in the midst of life we are in death. Characters die, disappear or are disgraced just as you are getting used to them. They turn up in the least expected circumstances and no explanation is forthcoming. Terrible things happen and nothing occurs to make them alright again.

When the cop breaks the child's fingers to stop him stealing more cars, when the well-meaning teacher is forced to coach his class through meaningless exams to keep the school's results up, when the bad mother begs the police to put her teenage boy inside "to make him a man", when the monstrous police boss bullies his officers into "juking the stats" so that the mayor can pretend he's winning, when the nice guy politician sends his wife home and suddenly shags (there is no other word) that nice woman he runs into at a fundraiser, when the tiny Jewish lawyer slaps the young black thug he's just sprung from custody and says "when will you people learn?" you know that for some part of the world we live in, near or far, like it or not, regardless of political stripe (as if that could make any difference), this is the way it is.

For that alone, for painting that picture in a way no other medium could, The Wire could be the best TV drama ever. What's certain is that watching it is the most educational thing you can do this year and you'll never react to those overnight news reports of gang killings with quite the same dumb exasperation again. No pop record I've heard recently comes close to equalling its impact.