Another look at The Wire, now being shown on BBC 2
Wading through the superlatives that are lavished on The Wire, the five-season HBO drama exploring the social politics of Baltimore, Maryland, and the police department's Sisyphean attempts to deal with the city's drug trade and the near-uncontrollable crime it generates, can be an exhausting business.
It's been variously described as "Shakespearean", "Dickensian", and indeed "the greatest television programme ever made." Its depictions of working-class life in Baltimore (which, when written about, invariably have the words "grittily realistic" stuck on the front) have sent the liberal media crit-erati into a proper tizzy — practically wetting themselves in a clamour to applaud the show's realism. But you really shouldn't let that put you off.
While I've never been to Baltimore, and my years as a street-corner drug-dealer are well behind me now, I have it on better authority than some smug, middle-class Guardianista that The Wire actually is pretty true to life. You probably should believe the hype.
Felicia Pearson, for example, who plays chillingly violent gangster Snoop, asserted in an interview that “my life is like The Wire”. Like many of the show's cast, she had no background in acting and quite a substantial background in street crime, facing manslaughter charges at the age of fourteen. The producers’ decision to cast unknowns like Pearson, and to eschew genre conventions like “previously on...” segments and cross-cutting narrative techniques prevented the show from ever gaining the mass audience or mainstream popularity of a show like The Sopranos, but it did ensure that plot and character — rather than stars and clever techniques — were foregrounded.
There’s plenty to get stuck into politically, too. The show’s creator David Simon says that the second season, which focuses on dockworkers and their union, is “a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class.…[I]t is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social compact , raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.”
That’s not say that the show is, as some have argued, implicitly Marxist, but it is, if nothing else, an honest attempt to depict urban life in a modern city, with all the struggles and tectonic frictions that this entails. There are no cookie-cutter goodies or baddies, just a staggering array of genuinely human characters compelled by socio-economic interests that they are sometimes able to resist and fight against, but which sometimes sweep them along, often despite their better judgement and conscience.
And when a show is driven along by nothing more than a practically unadulterated focus on these struggles, it’s hard for an audience not to get totally and utterly swept up with them too.