Television Special: The Wire
by Mike Dawson
Left Field Cinema
In terms of The Wire’s contemporaries it is easier to make the distinctions; I don’t think it’s particularly fair to compare HBO drama series to programmes produced for networks like ABC or Fox, as their content is dictated by an entirely differing set of rules and establishments, but when compared to another HBO dramas like The Sopranos the differences are clear. The Sopranos examining the same set of characters more or less over its six seasons and only gently tuning its thematic explorations as the seasons pass. If the Sopranos brings Shakespeare kicking violently to the turn of the 21st Century, Richard III and MacBeth as literary touchstones for Tony Soprano, then the allusions that can be brought to The Wire as them of the doomed Greek characters, the myths and tragedy which is played out wholesale through its institutions. Those indifferent Olympus Gods being captured in every commstat meeting in season 3. No character is bigger than the story. The focus shifts ever so subtly on The Sopranos however everything ultimately rests with Tony, where as The Wire has no hesitation at shifting its focus almost entirely from one season to the next. The first time it attempted such a shift was its bravest move, between seasons one and two. Season one focuses on the procedurals of a police investigation, and a drug dealing organisation; by presenting us with a fifty fifty split in terms of screen time, between the law enforcement and the law breakers. It examined issues surrounding the corruption of impoverished youth, the internal and external politics of policing, and US’s abandonment of the war on drugs in favour of the war on terror. From this in season two an entirely new case is given to the team of detectives, this time corruption at the city harbour and an operation to bring down the union leader who’s been using his position to steal cargo and get illegal cargo past the port authorities in order to siphon money into his union. The themes explored in the season involve the death of traditional industry as man is replaced by machine, and the working class made increasingly desperate, not given enough work to survive. This change in gear was startling, original, and totally at odds with the traditional television series. Shows often change story lines from one season to the next, but they generally don’t change location, energy and characters in such an abrupt fashion. The tone of the show had changed, and it would again and again until the final episode, the creative team cunningly changed the performance of its title song: “Way down in the hole”, keeping the song but using a different artist with a different style for each of its seasons, basically stated that the show is the same but the pitch has changed. This style of television is what perhaps contributed most significantly to The Wire being compared more to literature than its own medium or cinema. This would come as no surprise to anyone reading the names of writers who have contributed scripts – George P Pelecanos, Richard Price, David Simon and Dennis Lehane all celebrated novelists and authors in their own right. They bring a unique sense of plotting, interaction and dialogue to The Wire that is not found in even the most brilliant of television. The humour which pervades The Wire also is an aspect which comes from its inherently literary outlook, the humour is always character based and each character is fully realised. The Wire is a literary creation at its heart, densely plotted, character driven.
Character is an important and integral piece of the puzzle, officially Detective Jimmy McNulty, a petulant, arrogant, narcissistic, intransigent, Irish copper is our main character who is deeply fond of recalcitrance. The unpleasantness of his character is not unusual for HBO, who with Tony Soprano managed to make a racist, sexist, cheating, murdering gangster likable; but where Tony is clearly the head of his family, McNulty often takes the side lines and only really the main character in Seasons one and five, in seasons two and four in particular McNulty became a recurring supporting character at times, especially season four which had almost totally disregarded him from the narrative. Imagine Jack Baur not appearing in four or five episodes of the next season of 24 if you will. But the expanse of characters grows with each passing year as the focus changes, the addition of the harbour workers and harbour police officers in season two; the focus changes to City Hall and the failure of politicians in season three with additions like Major Colvin, Mayor Royce, Councillor Carcetti, and many more. Season four switches again to the failure of the School system, introducing possibly the largest amount of characters with teachers and students a like. Season five switches to the local newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, this time examining the failings of the media in relation to the urban criminal environment with even more characters from reporters to editors.
This all culminates in a vast tapestry of faces and places which produces a Dickensian style and world (although the show would mock the use of that word in its fifth season, I think it remains an accurate adjective). Through the vast nature of long running television, Simon and company have managed to paint possibly the most accurate picture of inner city America, using their multi-faceted narrative and characters which are inextricably complex and also completely engaging. Individually the characters are achievements in themselves, the aforementioned McNulty whose lecherous ways often leads to infidelity and loss of personal dignity. He is not an action man, in fact not once does McNulty engage in a fist fight or shoot out in five seasons, the most danger the man is ever in is when he’s behind the wheel of his car after drinking a pint worth of Jameson’s whiskey. He is only just a centre piece for the show, but his is also a necessary narrative force, a catalyst that brings key pieces of the picture together through his insensitive and obstructive tendencies. In fact Jimmy McNulty on the surface seems to be another clichéd police officer, however The Wire is not a drama which rests on its laurels but rather outdoes expectation at every turn. The character is a rebel who is not above the self destructive tendencies however he is also a character whose pride is his undoing; McNulty is naïve enough to believe doing the right thing will save him in the end. A great deal of credit must go to Dominic West for his spirited and fearless performance as McNulty. Also from the world of the police is the Major and later Colonel Rawls, a sarcastic, temperamental, flawed, occasionally human often infuriating police chief who along with the Commissioner Burell manages to give an insightful commentary on the nature of running a police department and the immeasurably complex politics involved with crime statistics, and quick fixes to appease politicians and the general public. Often forced to opt for the easiest and cost conscious solution to a problem rather than the most effective. This is an aspect rarely scene in police drama, and one which has certainly never been tackled so well.
The WireIn the world of crime, we have Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, a complex power dynamic and differing values, street credibility verses business and profit, make their relationship one of the most interesting to follow especially during the third season. Perhaps the greatest performance on The Wire comes from Idris Elba playing the complex Stringer Bell. Bell is a merciless killer when necessary, a part time economics student and a comsummate businessman at all times. Stringer is a character who believes that he can out run, out maneuver the world he comes from. Ironically his system of business would lead to less murders, but to achieve this utopia for drug slinging he must commit more murders. At one point he’s advised that what kills more police than bullets and booze is bordom. “Keep it really boring String.” He tries as hard as he can, but his own mistakes and the trigger happy tendencies of those around him make it impossible. The Barksdale/Bell relationship is often immoral, but also human, remorseful and occasionally kind hearted. This illustrates another strength of The Wire, the lack of heroes and villains. With a few exceptions, a season two character called The Greek being one such, no character is beyond a sense of humanity and if their actions are immoral or amoral then it is because of the environment they’re formed within. Even season four and five’s lead drug dealer Marlow and his ruthless lieutenants Snoop and Chris are explained to a certain extent. Sometimes committing brutal murders as kind hearted favours or showing the lightest twinges or remorse at killing helpless victims.
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