by Richard Hart
Yes, the rumours are true. The word on the street is right; HBO’s TV show “The Wire” is probably the best television show you’ll ever see. If you’ve not watched it before, I envy you so much. The joy of watching it for the first time is one of the greatest media treats that exists.
HBO have a history of producing the most adult, most adventurous, most cutting edge and occasionally brilliant TV shows in existence. The Wire follows hot on the heels of shows like “Oz”, “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos.” Six Feet Under may have been the previous bench mark in a number of ways but even that pales before the might of David Simon s series.
In case you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, “The Wire” is a show about the corruption of big systems and the people within them. It reveals snapshots of life within the Baltimore Police and the drugs trade, largely at a street level. But it also shows politicians and teachers, students and union reps, reporters and lawyers. No one is ignored in the Wire, there is no stone left unturned.
David Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns have had many of the above careers themselves and there is a strong vein of reality running through the series. The story always feels believable, people seldom do things that don’t make some sort of sense, even if at the time they seem strange to you.
One of the most striking things about the series is the “code” that each character has. From the lowliest dealer to the highest ranking politician, they all have what they value and what they are willing to do to get there. Street dealer “Bodie” Braudus puts a great deal of stock in being seen to be tough and to stand by your allies. Smart aleck cop Jimmy McNulty believes he is smarter than the other cops and criminals whilst up and coming politician Tommy Carcetti believes he’s the only one with the vision to make a real change in Baltimore.
But no one personifies the complexity of a moral code more than the series wildcard; Omar Little. A rogue gangster who sticks up drug dealers, speaks in a sort of street eloquence and never “puts his gun on no civilian”, Omar is superbly played by Michael Williams and he’s effortlessly cool, incredibly smart and a true anti-hero.
The whole series is written with a deep realism, but also has a great sense of humour. The characters live in a dark and sad place and the best defence more often than not is humour. Cops and dealers crack jokes, banter and play tricks on each other; witness the wall of severed ties at the Homicide division. Even politicians and teachers need to let off steam too and the series grim tone is often offset (but not made trivial) by the jokes and banter that fly around within.
The very language of the series is a work of art in its own right too. The urban language that the dealers speak, that the cops don’t really understand, is full of short snappy phrases and nicknames for nearly everyone and everything. I found myself using phrases like “fo sho” and “mos def”, to my great embarrassment, after the Wire.
The story is a multi-layered tapestry where on the surface as the cops go after the street-smart drug dealers, lead by the charismatic pair of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. Bell, played by British actor Idris Elba, is the epitome of detached cool and is the first seasons most memorable antagonist. On the other side of the law are the Baltimore P.D, lead by Dominic West’s Jimmy McNulty but ably supported by a rich cast of characters. But this is just the foreground of the series. As the story goes on, we become more aware of the graft within the police force, with the corruption and the politics and we begin to see that change, if and when it happens, is seldom welcome and seldom permanent.
The acting is of a universally high standard, benefiting from an ensemble cast that eschews the normal policy of a lead character and a big star. Dominic West is the “focal point” of the first series and remains a likeable rogue throughout the series. But there are strong supporting turns from Lance Reddick as Cedric Daniels, Clarke Peters as Lester Freamon and Sonja Sohn as “Kima” Greggs. For me, the stand out amongst the cops is Wendell Pierce as “Bunk” Moreland whose excellence as a cop stands in contrast to his alcoholism and womanising (a common trait in the series).
However I think the single best actor in the entire five seasons is Andre Royo; who plays addict and street informant “Bubbles”. Bubbles becomes the cops informant in the first season and has the air of a classic Shakespearean “fool” about him. He is, on the surface of things, a laughable fool who gets into “capers” and is always one step ahead of a beating or arrest. But in reality no one understands the tragedy and the contradiction of the streets better than Bubbles. As Bubbles says “There is a thin line between heaven and hell”
I was going to sum up by saying what the Wire is about. But it’s about so many things that there is no way to accurately do that up. The Wire talks about contrast but it also talks about duality. The Wire is about loyalty but at its heart is betrayal and subterfuge. The Wire is about idealism but its tempered by large inflexible systems. The Wire is about crime and poverty, it’s also about greed and corruption.
At the end of the fifth season, which is admittedly not as strong as the first four, The Wire has told the story of a group of ordinary people who live and work in Baltimore. But you will feel as if you have watched a high epic, to which almost nothing else will ever compare. In terms of writing, direction, acting and the overall story telling, the Wire is not just a benchmark, it remains THE benchmark.
What are you waiting for?