More Wire enthusiasm – tv as high art

Now that a fair bit of the latest Wire series has been on, it’s due for another fanatic reassessment. This series has been less immediately engaging but demanding immediate engagement from the Wire seems oddly immoral, given its depth.

Hence, this will be the start of a more serious appraisal of the Wire. Basically, it is magical in the way it looks at every level of an American city with perfect clarity, while still being totally successful as standard tv narrative. It’s not exactly escapist, though. You have to have a clear head to watch it. You’ll still miss half the things it’s saying. Or more, in my case, as I feel the need for subtitles in some parts.

One of the themes of the Wire has always been the way formal and informal societies mirror each other. For instance, Stringer Bell had a sales conference for his street dealers with a tedious presentation and yes men asking flattering questions. (If you’ve ever worked anywhere, you’ve been there.) In Series 4, they are making these points (maybe a little too obviously) in terms of education and politics.

The opening titles always turn out to have surprising resonances in any case, but, in this series, the opening titles scream circularity – with a circular image in almost every scene. There are lots of circular themes, among them, the way that culture is transmitted across generations. The school is a focus of a few well meaning attempts to rescue the kids. This is achieved partly by the University project fronted by the legalising ex-police chief – which is building on the knowledge that the corner kids have – and partly by the teacher – who was a crazed nerd policeman – providing food and clothes and interesting maths lessons. The ex-con with a boxing gym is trying to become a good role model as well as save some of the kids from trouble. Their small successes are trapped in a context of test-driven educational policies that run counter to real education, lack of resources and the overwhelmingly sordeid environment.

The efforts of the good police chief and the ex-policeman teacher and the ex-con boxer are mirrored in the lessons in killing that are provided by Marlowe’s minions to kids barely old enough to tie their own shoelaces. Marlowe’s two sidekicks are an apparently himocidal little girl and an older cold and psychopathic man. They make the Barksdales seem like choirboys. Omar clearly has the high moral ground, not least when Marlowe fits him up by killing a shop assistant (collateral damage in pursuit of a goal) and threatening the shop owner to claim he wittnessed Omar.

(In the most recent episode, they have been instructed to kill the would-be New York intruders on the Baltimore turf and leave bodies, contrary to their current success in disappearing any signs of their murders. They devise a bizarre test, based on intimate knowledge of local music, that even one of them is unable to pass. The first person in the street who refuses to provide the right answer is shot, seemingly at random, with his body left to be discovered and supposedly send a message to the New York gangs. The utter pointlessness and stupidity of this typifies Marlowe’s rule.)

The political stuff is very good, but less interesting as narrative than the street stuff, partly because it has telegraphed its message too much. Throughout his journey to becoming Mayor-elect, Carcetti has been as slimy as he always appeared. however, he seems to be about to do something right, for once, by choosing the old Wire boss as a Colonel. But, of course, he is putting the truly evil Rawls in as the police chief. The circularity theme suggests that it will be no time before the former levels of corruption and political manoeuvring are restored with a new cast in power.

The titles are themselves worthy of a fair bit of study. Each series has the same song sung in a different style (are you getting the resonance, here?) There is always a collection of images that crop up in the series and are both beautifully shot and subtly significant to the story lines. Each is followed by a quote from a character in the episode, which gathers resonance when you finally hear it and understand the concept.

In fact, the Wire is a true masterwork of television. US tv is getting better and better, while British tv is descending ever deeper into a reality celebrity home improvement swamp that is so far beneath the lowest common denominator that you would need an IQ in single digits to watch it some nights. If any tv series ever gets better than the Wire, there should really be a nobel prize for it.