The Wire blog, 19th May 2009, Indyblogs

The Wire blog, 19th May 2009, Indyblogs

[If you’ve not seen all of The Wire yet, the following contains perilous scenes of spoilers]

When Buffy left the building I wondered if I would enjoy a TV show as much again.

When a friend told me that there was this cop show that was really good, I was sceptical.

A cop show? The only thing I can remember enjoying on TV that was remotely near a cop show was The Avengers. And with a martial arts leap in a leather cat suit we’re more or less back to Buffy.

But, trusting my friend’s advice and her track record for recommending “good TV” (to be intonated like “good Police”) The Wire entered into my life where it will stay forever as one of my beloved “things” into which I will take into my Pyramid mausoleum. Three episodes in to the first series I thought to myself “yeah, I can see how this is good but I don’t see myself getting addicted”. How wrong I was. I couldn’t know that casual viewing could only lead to harder obsession. I could have talked to “Frank” but by then it was too late. The pace at which I gorged myself on episodes upped so much that I have consumed the five series at three times the recommended metabolic televisual rate since late last autumn, so much so that I am on re-views now and have already seen series one again. Any suggestions for my next TV fix are welcome.

The great thing about The Wire, of course, is there is so much going on that a second viewing is never going to suffer from the law of diminishing returns. In fact unless you were taking notes in your detectives notebook the first time around there’s almost no way you could have held on to all that info. If you say a “hell no” to this then quite possibly you are David Simon, the show’s creator.

Oh, The Wire, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… well at least four of them…

Sentiment: First and foremost, unlike anything else I have ever seen The Wire is a back-handed celebration to public service, to a day’s work, honest or dishonest, to the fact that life is a struggle and the victories are often short-lived and just about allow us to get through the next hurdle.

Sense of place: The gravitational pull of the show is such that there were times that I felt like I was living in Baltimore. Sometimes when I went out in the morning I often had to double-take because my house lacked a stoop and wasn’t painted in a vibrant pastel red. Yes, I’d say there were times, after the body-dropping series four in particular, when I felt a tad more jumpy on the streets at night but at other times I would be looking at bright winter sun thinking is it always like this in Baltimore? Is that why they call their paper The Baltimore Sun?

Personality: watching The Wire and being drawn in by it characters made me play a kind of I-Spy traits with people I observed. Did authoritarian types fall into a Rawlsian ball-breaking category or were they more prone to a Danielsesque straight-laced determination, what approach is more successful for budding lotharios an unreconstructed Herc act or a smooth Lester? At this juncture I should say that in the What Wire Character Are You? Test on Facebook I was Lester Freamon. Surely some mistake? I have never been smooth in my life but I guess seven questions weren’t enough to show that up. Such idle thinking is testimony to the power of the characters, the bottom line to any successful show. Sure, there were times when the sheer magnitude of what the show had to juggle meant that characters had to fade into the background. I missed Kima and McNulty in the really rather depressing series four but Prez came into his own to lead the disheartening education angle.

Humour: Humour came in various hues is integral to the show. Two instances that spring to mind are McNulty (the English actor Dominic West) trying out his English accent a la Dick van Dyke in series two and Omar, in series one, commenting: “Bird sure brings out the best in people don’t he” as Bird is getting smacked about in the Homicide interview room. But there are many more. As a journalist I found some of the newsroom antics in series five pretty close to home (and occasionally close to the funny bone) and there was at least point where I remember shouting “aha, you see, it is like that!”. This recognition, incidentally, is not a view shared by one Baltimore Sun journalist who was quick to point out that times have moved on since David Simon worked for them:

With a show for which the series are so distinct it’s impossible not to have favourites. I guess the most diplomatic answer is to say that I love them all equally but necessarily in that order. 3-1-2-5-4 is how I roll in case you were interested. I think all Wire fans should have a similar series code number so they can be tapped and matched up to a suitable partner-in-crime.

I did my grieving for the end of The Wire early, at the end of series three in fact. After it finished I sat, cigarette in hand, listening to “Baltimore”, the version by The Tamlins which I cannot believe wasn’t used for The Wire (and a similar view is expressed for the original version by Randy Newman here in the 11th paragraph). “Oh, Baltimore/Man, it’s hard just to live, just to live”, that could have been the series’ tagline. (I am sure someone has asked David Simon about this song at some symposium and a fan who outranks me will no do doubt be on my case about this and put me straight).

Anyway… there were a number of reasons for my preference for series three. The fall of the Barksdale empire is obviously significant and ends a long journey that started in series one. Moreover, there was the demise of Bunny Colvin’s Hamsterdam, an experiment that had allowed the residents to return their ravaged streets to a state that they could be proud of, something which I hoped would play stronger to Carcetti’s initial idealistic zeal. Whatever the ins and outs of The Wire’s relation to reality and the success of similar experiments see the fictional Hamsterdam fail was incredibly moving and one of greatest low-to-high-to-low moments in the show that had been set up by series one so effectively.

There are so many debates to be had about the plot and characters in this piece of “Did you see? TV” I can only scratch the surface here with a lot of background profiling still to do. Now that my journey with the show has ended (bar repeats) I can safely check out IMDB to gem up on the cast without risking spoilers; I nearly came a cropper when I was checking out London geezer Idris Elba narrowly avoiding seeing that his character, the savvy Stringer Bell, was about to cop it. Similarly troublesome was a scan through The Wire’s Facebook fan page and a few giveaway RIP comments. Though by that time I could have placed bets on Bodie and Omar (the two RIPs I saw) not going the distance. Omar hobbling around town on his own trying to knock off Marlow’s crew was almost as sad as seeing the kids at Perez’s school struggle with their environment. Oh, and Prop Joe coming a cropper was very disappointing. Joe’s character builds up nicely on the outside track to become almost as significant a charisma as Stringer or Avon were. Besides where can you get a good independent electronic fix-it shop these days?

So, now, having finished The Wire and without fearing spoilers, I can wade through the acres of coverage that the series has garnered to find out more about the intriguing casting (e.g. Ed Norris for one), the ironies, the misdemeanours, the past lives (Clarke Peters writing Five Guys Names Moe for example) the myths and reality and what the legacy of the series is. I might even get my pop cultural tourist stripes and visit Baltimore, not so much to retrace The Wire’s steps but perhaps to bear witness to the positives as outlined here by an ex-mayor.

Not since the aforementioned Avengers or Buffy have I felt so lived-in by a TV series and so captivated by the on-screen and off-screen dynamics of creating a world, spellbound by TV, feeling like it was created on a different planet. Paradoxically of course, this series has some very real precedents and yet its consequent symbolism becomes hyper-real in the imagination.

Despite an appetite to embark on a voyage of discovery about The Wire I have to put my hand up to belonging to the ignorance is bliss/I saw nuthin’ school of life and say that I like my pop cultural tarts with a side helping of mystery. A forensic knowledge belongs to those who built the show, that’s their story, literally.

As a humble viewer I get to build my own world in the same was as the interpretation of a song belongs to the individual after it has left the artist. For example do I gain from knowing that the inspiration for Bubbles was a CI from back in the 1960s? If I have to blow off the dust of the image does that take the edge off one of the more positive final storylines? Knowledge is a double-edged sword but that the post-show journey could be peppered with surprise and disappointment only reflects the show itself and then back on life and therein the show’s strength.

I guess writing this has been my post-series therapy, akin to Take That fans needing counselling when the band initially split. Life unplugged gonna be sheeee-it for a while. No doubt. But, you know what they, you’ve seen the show now buy the t-shirt and indeed I have my Carcetti for Mayor t-shirt to look forward to arriving in the post. There’s nothing so bittersweet as the taste of quashed idealism – that Carcetti so memorably represents – a sentiment the show specialised in without ever giving us cause to lose heart completely.

One thing is fo’ sho’, I heart The Wire.