In praise of The Wire

Well, I have got tremendously addicted to The Wire, the HBO series that ran for five series a few years ago.  Set in Baltimore, it follows the interconnected lives of a huge amount of characters on both sides of the law in a never ending battle between drug dealers and the police.

I’m only up to the middle of series 3, so here are some mild spoilers.

The show takes its own time, it is absolutely the opposite of fast cut, fast action, move the plot along writing.  Scenes come and go at their own sweet time, most of the screen time is filled with silence.  The only incidental music is from stereos in cars or houses.  It is directed, shot and written to within an inch of its life, exploring and fleshing out the lives of its characters.  No-one is good or bad, just all shades of grey – McNulty, ostensibly the hero and the guy we see the story through the eyes of, is an absolute prick at times. As far as I have got, one of the main drug kingpins, Stringer Bell, is more interested in going legit than the street corners of Baltimore like a Mafia don.

The whole thing is Acted to perfection.  Dominic West as McNulty, Sonja Sohn as Kima Greggs and Idris Elba as Stringer Bell are standouts – the latter playing his character as thoughtful, precise and intelligent.  Never so charismatic that you end up rooting for the bad guy, but he does persuade you that he is making himself into a successful businessman – it is just that his product is heroin and cocaine, because that is all he has to offer.  D’Angelo Barksdale was fantastically played by Larry Gillard Jr, the cog trapped between the life he leads and the life he wants.  Also standouts are Bubs, the addict/informant, Bunk, McNultys partner and Levy, the greasy lawyer.

(The brief encounters between Bell and McNulty are absolute delights.)

The show does the neat trick of turning characters you hate into characters you… well, at least understand.  In Series 1, Bunk and McNulty are under pressure from Rawls, the Major in charge of homicide and Lansman, his willing lackey and sergeant.  To be honest, I was wondering how the hell two such obvious arseholes had got to positions of authority, especially as they seemed more interested in playing politics than actual police work.  By series 3, the pair are, if not actually likeable, at least they are justified in their actions -more rounded, and we can understand them.  (Aided by a brilliant scene in S1, between McNulty and Rawls.)

Downsides?  Well, the early shows weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs.  OK, so we aren’t going to get Whedon like zingers and comebacks, but it was slow moving, intense stuff.  As the story has moved on, the humour has revealed itself, in a dark and but dark, I mean utterly and completely pitch black manner.  The slow pace can sometimes be infuriating – series 2 takes 7 hours to do the inevitable “getting the band back together”.  And again in Series 2, Ziggy Sobotka is probably supposed to be a well meaning idiot, but to be honest, I just wanted to go to Baltimore and shoot him in the face myself.

The Guardian, as it often does, declared The Wire to be The Greatest TV Show of All Time and for a while spread it across just about every page it possibly could.  I’m not sure I agree, but that is because such a title is impossible.  I do support its claim to be a fantastic show, though one you have to work at.  It demands concentration and time and effort but what you put in is what you get out. It certainly is a hard watch, but the payoff is worth it.

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