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THROUGH THE WIRE
By Martin Hall
“The man of wire/ Was often heard to say/ ‘I’m a free born man of the USA’” - The Pogues, The Body of an American
The end of the football season is always a time of ambivalence. On the one hand, it’s a relief to be off the treadmill for a while - a break from organising our lives around the match and draining our finances accordingly. On the other, you soon long for the routine of the match and the publication of the fixture list is greeted with the same level of gratitude a junkie has for their fix.
But when The Sopranos finished recently on E4, there were no such mixed emotions and wailing and gnashing of teeth was heard from Wythenshawe to Blackley. As the best television series in history is no more, many Swine readers will be wondering what can fill the space in their lives left by the departure of T and the boys. Let’s face it, nothing out there even comes close to replacing the tales of New Jersey’s finest. Apart from one programme - The Wire.
The Wire is ostensibly about ‘the game’ - drug dealing and hustling in Baltimore - and explores all the different groups that affect and are affected by it - police, drug dealers, trade unions, school kids and law-abiding citizens. But, as with all great television, it deals with far more complex and wide-reaching issues. Made by HBO, the cable network behind The Sopranos, The Wire is just as brutally realistic and multi-layered with some columnists believing it to be an even better programme. They argue The Sopranos experienced some dips in quality (especially in the Kevin Finerty episodes) whereas The Wire has maintained an almost impossibly high standard over four seasons.
Much like in The Sopranos, no character in The Wire is straightforwardly good or bad. The police can be despicable both in their motives and actions and even the cold-blooded, predatory Omar occasionally reveals a softer side. Or as soft a side as somebody who robs drug dealers with a sawn-off shotgun for a living can have.
Each collective is flawed, all of them embody the expression ‘money flows uphill, shit flows down.’ The police get fucked over by their superiors and justice falls by the wayside in the quest for better statistics to appease the Mayor; for the drug dealers, the runners and look-outs are expendable commodities and loyalty is conditional - conditional upon it not costing them money; and the trade unions lose sight of what’s important and become little more than glorified gangsters. Expediency and buck-passing are characteristics uniting all these groups but they somehow manage to stick together even when falling apart.
The Wire and its cast have a list of collective and individual awards to rival United’s and Ferguson’s. Time magazine, the American Film Institute and the New York Post have all honoured the programme and English broadsheets, particularly The Guardian, have been unremittingly effusive in their praise.
Although it may seem unbelievable, the programme has come close to being cancelled. Like Arrested Development, disgracefully cancelled after three seasons, The Wire may be too complex and the seasons too long to keep the attention of the fair-weather viewers who want nothing more from television than a chance to switch their brains off for an hour or so. If that’s what they are looking for, they are definitely watching the wrong show.
The Wire knows exactly where it is going and takes its time getting there. This allows the characters to develop fully, meaning you actually care about what happens to them.
Chief writer David Simon often refers to it as a visual novel and its ability to genuinely engage and provoke visceral reactions at the plot’s twists and turns is more synonymous with literature than television.
Much of this is down to the fact the characters are not cliches or stereotypes. Stringer Bell, for example, is definitely not a typical gangster. Eschewing the posturing and mindless violence of his contemporaries, Bell is a successful business student who reads Adam Smith, talks of market saturation and applies the same detached criteria to the drugs trade as he does to his college assignments.
Bell’s nemesis Omar Little is the only homosexual character in The Wire but is far too terrifying for any of his enemies to perceive this is a weakness. He is scared of nobody, does not respect reputations and everything - murder, theft - is “all in the game.” His signature look is a trench-coat and a sawn off.
Lead character Jimmy McNulty is part of the police force charged with bringing down Bell and his crew. American-Irish (“Can I have a Jameson’s please?” “We’ve only got Bushmills” “Isn’t that Protestant whisky?”), he regularly practices what George Best referred to as “the three Irish F’s - fucking, fighting and fucking drinking.” He is egotistical, selfish, incapable of monogamy, narcissistic and self-destructive. But never unlovable and certainly never less than compelling.
In The Wire, The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO possess the Best, Law and Charlton of US TV, with the sublime Entourage taking the Paddy Crerand role of cult hero. Readers of Swine, take my advice. Get down to HMV and invest in the box sets immediately. You have nothing to lose but your social life.
FIVE ACE SCENES
- McNulty and Bunk’s unique two-minute assessment of a crime scene - the dialogue? Purely the word ‘Fuck’ - used 35 times
- Omar goes a huntin’ after Weebay - “Ayo, lesson here, Bay. You come at the King, you best not miss”
- Landsman’s assessment of Bunk & Lester’s fashion sense - “pinstriped lawyerly affectations and brash tweedy impertinence”
- Bubbs’ trip to Hamsterdam - so squalid you’ll want to take a shower immediately afterwards
- The wake of a murder detective at a local bar with The Pogues’ The Body of an American playing in the background
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