Tom Jennings endorses the accolades accorded to ground-breaking American TV drama The Wire – but with reservations.
Wired for Sound and Fury. Television review – Tom Jennings
Widely acclaimed as the best television ever, US crime saga The Wire finally arrives on freeview here, continuing on BBC 2 into the summer. “A political tract masquerading as a cop show” , the first season introduces central characters and situations in the inner-city narcotics trade and its policing in Baltimore, Maryland – or in local street argot ‘Body-More, Murdaland – intended to represent any decaying second-tier rust-belt metropolis. The self-defeatingly stupid but electorally compelling ‘War on Drugs’ focuses the five seasons’  test-case of the dysfunctional amorality of postmodern government – subsequent narratives expanding these narrowly-delineated parallel micro-worlds into the contemporary social complexity of a tragically ailing urban America and the terminally failing institutions nominally charged with its welfare. The net effect is a forensic fictionalisation of economic bankruptcy in the docks and trade unions, corruption and bureaucratic degeneracy in municipal politics, chaotically incompetent and helpless leadership in the police department and school system, and comparably cynical sociopathic management in local media and drug-dealing franchises.
Early-90s West Baltimore sees another teenage gangbanger murdered and, as we encounter his peers and police investigators, the suspected ‘corner-boss’ culprit wriggles free after witness intimidation. A frustrated detective persuades the judge to pressure the brass into tackling the gang who, despite running things for years, are unknown to official ‘intelligence’ because City Hall prefers paramilitary tactics to pack crime-stats. Loaded with dead-weight from sundry divisions, the new squad nevertheless makes headway via telephone intercepts, and glimpses into the targets’ social and professional networks thereafter intercut with those of the taskforce. The range of idiosyncratic personalities involved grows, manifesting varying degrees of strength and weakness, wit, intelligence and compassion, malice, violence and selfishness – with the significance of conduct for personal gratification, misery and effectivity depending on position and impact upon wider interests. Conversely, ongoing activities are regularly disrupted by banal, brutal and/or arbitrary twists of fate, mistakes, external forces, and decisions and conflicts higher up both foodchains. Final outcomes are provisional compromises, minor defeats and victories, in the drug trade and its law enforcement mirror – the overriding message being ‘the game remains the same’.
The plotlines and arcs crowding sixty-odd Wire episodes originally emerged from meticulous journalistic research by David Simon (former police reporter with the Baltimore Sun) and Ed Burns (ex-detective and schoolteacher). Filmic forays first followed documentary books Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets (embedded in murder investigations; Barry Levinson’s television adaptations running from 1993-9) and The Corner (drug-dealers and their milieu portrayed in a 2000 mini-series ). The guiding vision was spun by a top-notch script team, including crime novelists George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, cementing a seamless literary sprawl and verisimilitude of dialogue and relationships among an impressive, massive ensemble of relatively unknown actors and local amateurs. Repudiating good/bad guy simplification and capturing the everyday humour and pathos of protagonists at all levels constrained by circumstances allowing limited ethical and practical options, the resulting Dickensian specificity attracted fierce loyalty among viewers in the ghettoes and officialdoms depicted, seeing aspects of their lives detailed realistically for once. Meanwhile the non-naturalistic economy and meticulous artfulness of narrative execution, condensing full-spectra societal conflict into unflashy visualisations a few hours long, fascinated media pundits amenable to the show’s ideological and artistic ambitions.
In its multilayered refusal of individual or collective resolution, the creators conceived series 1 as “a training exercise ... to watch television differently” so as to appreciate their relentless “deconstruction of the American Dream” – namely, the postwar consensus whereby supposedly “everyone gets to make a living” . The show then proceeds as a modern equivalent of Greek tragedy – except that capricious late-capitalist institutions rather than omnipotent gods orchestrate hierarchies and systems according to their interests, agendas, whims and fancies, “hurling lightning bolts, hitting people in the ass for no reason” . However, rather than mythical fairytales, actual city events are woven together with their shape and logic intact, including the most apparently outlandish developments. But then reality is more bizarre, as Simon sketches in a recent Guardian essay  concerning a major criminal justice scandal which propelled Baltimore’s mayor to Maryland governorship but was never publicly analysed. Thus, being “separate, unequal, and no longer even acknowledging each other”, the “two Americas” connect in The Wire’s TV ‘entertainment’ but not in “the stunted political discourse ... eviscerated, self-absorbed press ... [or] any construct to which the empowered ... comfortable and comforted America, gives its limited attention”.
Flouting media and current affairs conventions to question fundamental tenets of mainstream US discourse, this is a refreshing, magnificently sustained artwork. Yet it is restricted by operating assumptions consistently privileging objectifying observers. Even the most vividly well-rounded characters are perceived through the policing prism, in terms of salience to identifying and solving ‘problems’ defined and acted upon by others. So, however tangential to the drugs scene, neighbourhood residents only appear in that context – and myriad additional social and cultural interactions and dimensions are neglected, ruling out their own understandings, levels of autonomy and collective potential. Whereas the filmmakers’ mission – like the authorities – is to render the world intelligible in terms amenable to their agendas, and thus the questionable binary “two Americas” firmly reinstates passive victims in traditional positions. Simon’s righteous anger about the complacent indifference of power to the suffering and wasted human energy of millions is palpable. But so is nostalgia for a time before current trends in political economy when life was (or might have been) better – union leader ‘Frank Sobotka’ in series 2 encapsulating the fantasy best: “You know what the trouble is? We used to make shit in this country; build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket”. Whereas such dreams of national unity through social-democratic prosperity were yesterday’s illusions incubating today’s fiascos – The Wire equally, in the end, being ‘a cop show masquerading as a political tract’.
1. David Simon, interview with Lauren Laverne, Culture Show, BBC 2, 15th July 2008.
2. each available in an HBO DVD box-set.
3. and new Simon & Burns’ Blown Deadline Productions exploiting similar reportage-based strategies for fine-grained television serial fictions are Generation Kill (2008) about US marines in Iraq, and Treme (due next year) about local musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans.
4. David Simon, interviewed by Oliver Burkeman, The Observer, 28th March 2009.
5. Culture Show, note 1.
6. ‘The Escalating Breakdown of Urban Society Across the US’, 6th September 2008.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 9, May 2009.
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