Tories try to spoil the Wire

My Wire fan-status already took a knock when the Guardian started running a Wire-fan reading group and most of the posters seemed to be prats. But to find the Tories using the Wire, just to steal its perceived credibility for a soundbite, is making me gag.

The BBC website headline says

Parts of Britain ‘like The Wire’

I assumed that was a subject-verb-object construction, meaning “There are parts of Britain where people like the Wire.” Which is bound to be true but a bit of a strange news headline.

But it turned out they meant:

Parts of Britain (are) ‘like The Wire’

Even that is fair enough. After all, it’s a drama that’s deliberately meant to suspend disbelief through “realism” ffs. Bits of it feel “true” to me, “true” in terms of my experience of the world and of the ways people act. I don’t assume that makes it literally “true,” in a documentary sense. No one who’s ever watched a tv series before would assume it’s a literally “true” representation of life in Baltimore, let alone any UK city.

The Conservatives have compared parts of the UK to The Wire, a US television show which portrays inner-city drugs and violence.
In a speech, shadow home secretary Chris Grayling argued that the UK was suffering the same culture of gangs and street violence found in the US.
He said Labour had failed to ensure law and order was preserved in the poorest parts of the country. ..
Mr Grayling repeated his charge that poorer communities in the UK have been let down by Labour, saying: “The Wire has become a byword for urban deprivation and societal breakdown in modern America.”
He said: “When The Wire comes to Britain’s streets, it is the poor who suffer most. It is the poor who are the ones who have borne the brunt of the surge in violence under this government.

It’s pretty obvious at this point that Chris Grayling hasn’t really ever watched the Wire.

Because, if he had, he’d have noticed that the crimes aren’t just at street level.The economy, the political world and the media don’t exactly emerge unscathed.

Crocodile tears for the “poor” seem to be the Tories’ new election strategy. For instance, they claim that the poor are being let down.

Oh yes, “let down by rising crime” is the claim. I think that misinterpreting & manipulating crime figures is called “juking the stats” in the Wire. So you’d think that a Wire-o-phile like the shadow Tory Home secretary would have the grace to blush when he does it. (Seeing as all crime figures show falling rates)

OK, the Tories aren’t the BNP – which is also trying to corner the market in populist concern for the class-formerly-known-as-working (before the last Tory governments hammered it into the ground.) But they bear a pretty monstrous responsibility for the disaffection and poverty of so many neighbourhoods, where many people never found work since the 1980s. (Don’t make me repeat the list of Tory crimes against “no-such-thing-as-society”, because I will rant for hours.)

So it’s doubly sickening to see them both using the consequences of their own actions as a stick with which to beat the government and dragging the good name of the Wire into it.

Still, it’s all in the game, I suppose…..

The Wire on the BBC

How impressed am I? BBC2 is showing the Wire on Monday at 23:20.

Enough said.

Aid for Gaza

The usually-wonderful Marina Hyde makes a really good point in the Guardian today. About the effect that the Daily Mail campaign against some pathetically stupid BBC presenters (Ross and Brand) has had on the BBC’s nerve, making the BBC too cowardly to broadcast an appeal for aid to the people of Gaza.

Enough said, here’s Marina.

Baltimore isnt just in Maryland

David Simon wrote in the Guardian today. I hate trying to write anything about the Wire. I can’t do it justice. I just end up gushing about its genius or calling it Dickensian, a phrase that was neatly satirised in Series 5.

I also hate the way that appreciating the Wire has become a shorthand for being “hip and sensitive” in the UK, as I noticed when a fair few people interviewed in the Guardian, a couple of months ago, claimed to “only have a TV to watch the Wire….” (I find the Guardian’s Wire discussion forum too irritating to read, even though I have to admit that it’s mainly because the people who contribute so lamely and pretentiously just make me aware how lame and pretentious I sound on the same subject.)

Anyway, there’s a bit in this excellent piece where I think David Simon misunderstands the European popularity of the Wire.

But at the same time, I’m acutely aware that our dystopian depiction of Baltimore has more appeal the farther one travels from America. The Wire is, of course, dissent of a kind and it is true that there are many of my countrymen who are in fundamental disagreement with the manner in which the nation is being governed and managed. But somehow, it sounds better to my ear when it’s my own people talking trash and calling our problems out……
…But the emotion in all of that sometimes leads the overseas commentary about Baltimore and The Wire toward something that I don’t recognise as accurate.
Baltimore is not the inner circle of hell. It is not entirely devoured by a drug economy that serves as its last viable industry. It is not a place in which gangsters routinely fire clip after clip, spraying the streets in daylight ambushes. It is not unlivable, or devoid of humanity, or a reservoir of unmitigated human despair.

It may be about Baltimore but it’s not just about Baltimore. The truth of the Wire isn’t that it describes Baltimore life accurately. It clearly doesn’t. It’s a TV series not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Artistic licence, ffs. What is true in the Wire is the truth of art, i.e. what it says about being the human condition. You’d imagine the only people who would watch it and assume it’s all literally true would be those people who follow soap story-lines as if they are reportage.

I don’t know anything about Baltimore but it’s a pretty “true” depiction of my neighbourhood and my city. Parts of my neighbourhood and parts of the life of my city, granted. Not true all the time and not true of everybody, but there’s enough reality in there for me to recognise it:

Racism; violence; gang warfare; war on drugs; wars over drugs; corruption; soul-destroying education; hopeless kids; traditional industries destroyed; gentrification, and all.

That doesn’t make my city an inner circle of hell, either, although parts of it might qualify as outer circles. Baltimore doesn’t have a monopoly on that stuff. It could be almost any city in the former industrial centres. It’s also just as true of many cities in the emerging economies. What’s amazing about the Wire is not just its accurate sociology, though.

It’s the writing, it’s the characters, it’s the acting, it’s the attention to visual detail. It’s the fact that someone managed to make a series that is really great on a standard superficial TV-watching level and still cram in a social analysis at the same time.

More media stuff

The Guardian seems to have started a Wire discussion group. It would be churlish to suggest that the Guardian, as an entity, never took as much interest in the Wire before it centred round a newspaper office.

(Charlie Brooker and a couple of other Guardian tv reviewers were the honourable exceptions to this.)

I’m going to steal its intro warning to explain why I haven’t been indulging in my customary gushing over the genius of the Wire:

SPOILER ALERT: Usual rules: No giving the game away if you’ve gone further; don’t spoil it for yourself if you are further behind.

Basically, it’s too difficult to remember which Wire events are OK to write about and which aren’t, in case I spoil someone’s enjoyment. Sadly, I’ve already spoilt it for myself by seeing it already. I know what’s going to happen in the wind-up part of the 5-series set, so I don’t want to watch it until I’ve forgotten enough detail to make it watchable again.

There’s an Iraq war short series from “the team who brought you the Wire.” I would be grateful if someone who’s seen it in the US will tell me if it’s good. I’ve decided to wait till it’s on television here, so as not to spoil it, in case it is good.

However, I’m so squeamish that I won’t want to watch it if it’s too distressing. Which, given that it’s about the Iraq war, is probably a certainty. So I’m in two minds about the whole thing and would welcome any guidance.

Otherwise completely unconnected to the above rambling, except for being also interesting in today’s Guardian, there’s an article by Hicham Yezza, the academic who’s waiting to be deported after downloading the al-qaeda manual for a colleague.

The UN’s committee on human rights has just published a report criticising Britain’s anti-terror laws and the resulting curbs on civil liberties. For many commentators the issues raised are mostly a matter of academic abstractions and speculative meanderings. For me, it is anything but. These laws have destroyed my life. (from Hicham Yezza in the Guardian.)

I had lazily assumed that this nonsense was all sorted out months ago. It appears not. Just because the media have lost interest doesn’t mean that this absurdity has been undone. In fact, some inexorable process – that Yezza characterises as Kafkaesque – seems have been set going.

Wire 1 on FX-truly great episode

After mildly slagging off the Wire (that’s British for insulting, I have decided to insert idiomatic translations) I am forced to bow before it. I had forgotten that it ebbs and flows in quality. From great to genius, The episode on Monday on FX was a true work of genius.

The programme focuses on Bodie, di Angelo and Chief Daniels, each of whom is at a pivotal moment. There are so many layers of meaning that it I can’t begin to do it justice. I would be outputting exhuberantly semiotic stuff until next year. And that would be just for one episode.

So, I’ll just pick out a few points in a shamefully lame way.

On third viewing, I realised that Bodie puts on the executioner’s cap before he shoots the other child, in an episode of true horror. After this, he wears it more or less consistently. It expresses Bodie’s having become a “soldier,” a disposable cheap executioner for the Darksdales.

At the moment of the shooting, Bodie’s lieutenant is sobbing. The about-to-be-victim pisses himself. Bodie is horrified at having to shoot a boy. But he is not going to stop what he is doing either. He gets the boy to affirm that he is a man not a boy. Earlier, the about-to-be-shot boy has told Bodie that he is “a man” rather than a boy. At which point he looks about fourteen. Even the killers, despatched by Stringer Bell to do the shooting, look older. And one of the them looks 16.

Bodie has made a sort of low-level Faustian deal with Stringer Bell, as Stringer has implied that he can rise in the business if he gets rid of Ritchie. So, Bodie has already prepared to kill for a slight chance of a small improvement in his circumstances.

The Wire writers are showing us that the soldiers are children, living in desperate poverty and shooting each other over crumbs, both victims and perpetrators of the social values that support the whole system.

The moral implications of this killing are played out for Bodie through later series, as Bodie begins to dissent more and more from his role and to pay a heavy price for becoming an ethical being.

One immediate moral implication is that diAngelo, who has been getting increasingly disenchanted with his part in the Barksdales and is coming to ask himself moral questions about his life, explodes with anger about the murder of the child. This sets in train a decision to betray the gang. Which will soon become an epic moral struggle for him.

Both diAngelo and Bodie find that the development of remorse and the stirring of an ethical conscience do not bring any rewards. I think the Wire breaks some ground here. There is no sense of virtue justly rewarded and villainy justly punished. It is not a simple morality tale. Characters are killed off or survive, partly as a result of their actions but mainly as a consequence of the actions of others. You can’t just step out of “the game” by repenting.

At the same that diAngelo is developing an ethical sense, Chief Daniels is doing the same. There is battle of wits, rather than guns, between Commissioner Burrell and Chief Daniels. Burrell tries to applythe blackmail leverage he’s been holding over Daniels. He is being ordered by the political machine to stop the investigation, because it had uncovered a money relationship between the Barksdale gang and some Senators.

Daniels stands up, literally and metaphorically. As does di Angelo when he challenges Stringer Bell.

Daniels reminds Burrell that others would lose more by exposing him than would Daniels. They would have already used their leverage but for the fact that the greatest fear of the political machine is publicity. They have no intention of using their information against Daniels. So he calls Burrell’s bluff.

This stuff was powerfully moving. The moral complexities are laid out brilliantly through the masterly acting.

(As well as the writing, – taken for granted as pure genius-, the direction, the costumes, the sets, the use of music and anything else you can think of. The HBO marketing is naff, but The Wire’s got to pull an audience to satisfy its paymasters. And for bringing the Sopranos and the Wire to the television, I will forgive HBO pretty well anything.

News on the Wire

Casual, even indiscriminate, blog searching came up the news that HBO have finally given the Wire Series 5 a release date in the US at least. (wahay, w00t, etc.) It’s supposed to focus on the media.

In the UK, FX is showing all series straight through from Series 1 and is then supposed to go straight into series 5, when it runs out of previous episodes. I make that about a year in the future in the UK, which you’d expect to be at least 6 months after the US. The HBO site seemed to show no signs of having any future series on the go at all so I was getting a mite worried.

I know I shouldn’t even think this, let alone say it, but some episodes of series 1 have been pretty poor. (Strike me down now, Thor.) Series 1 will morph straight into series 2 which was generally poor for most of its run. When I say “poor”, it’s a relative term. The Wire is still so far ahead of anything else that even its poor episodes are pretty gosh-darned good.

But put yourself in the shoes of someone (for example moi) who has been sounding off about the Wire being the greatest work of art ever shown on television, etc, for so long that people I know have even started listening to me and watching it.

And then I find myself shamefacedly having to say “Well, that one wasn’t a very good episode” or “You have to watch them ALL to really get into the characters and storylines” or lame things like that, that sound like I’m covering my back over boosting something that turned out to be a bit naff.

Rewatching series 1 for the third pass, it is indeed still stuck a bit too much in a “TV crime” genre. That is good. Nothing wrong with the genre as such. But, I have to admit there is more cliche TV crime stuff in the first series than you’d expect after you’ve been acclimatised to nature of the Wire series as a whole. The whole set of programmes just slowly edges its way out of the “crime” category and turns into genius.

Or maybe it’s just that I don’t like McNulty, who is the central character in the first series. His character is a bit too irritating. It’s rooted in the cliche lone-wolf Philip Marlowe “flawed investigator with integrity” mould. Series 1 was just finding its feet, so it too often took the easy way out. Someone decided that McNulty’s character was supposed to bring bad to all those around him as a result of his arrogance, or something. So the cast have to keep saying that, in case you haven’t picked up on it. I can’t say that I would have picked up on it, to be honest, but that doesn’t mean that repeatedly telling me that’s what I’m supposed to see constitutes character development.

Sadly, last night’s rerun milked the whole “officer-down” scenario to death. The corrupt and manipulative Commissioner Burrell turned out to be a tower of non-judgemental sympathy to Kima’s partner. Even the repellent Rawls was there to give out sensitive heartfelt manly consolation to a McNulty whose guilt was expressed by his hands being covered with Kima’s blood. Come on. Out damned spot and all that? He wasn’t even remotely to blame. (He even threw up in a bin because she’d been shot, which seemed a bit out of character for a homicide detective.)

When a TV cop show presents someone drenched to the elbow in someone else’s blood, followed by them doing a symbolic handwashing Pilate-thing, it’s time to start putting extra notches on your cliche gun.

(I guess this blog post must be an example of what is the Americans call “tough love”, by the way. I adore the Wire but I’m not letting it get away with self-indulgence……..)

If you have started watching the Wire reruns and don’t think it’s so groundbreaking, stick with it. Because it gets more and more subtle and complex and goes deeper and deeper into the way society works.

Plus, the McNulty character is barely in it after series 1 and a bit of the series 2. He must have been too busy being a digitally-remastered Spartan, for which much thanks.

Why don’t you just switch your television on..

…. and watch the Wire?

If you haven’t seen it and you are in the UK and you have Sky or cable, watch it now.

Series 1- Episode one should be on FX now. NOW unless it’s way past ten o’clock. In which case you can catch it on the repeats (possibly Sunday. Don’t as me, I’m not the TV Guide.)

If you have seen it, you probably want to watch it again a few more times anyway.

You’ll thank me later.

Charlie Brooker tries to get you to watch the Wire

Charlie Brooker has just struggled to do the Wire justice on FX. And failed. But you can’t blame him. No one can really do the Wire justice. All you do is end up saying “Best TV programme ever made” or “work of art”

He started out funny and fanatical. He was basically agreeing that it’s really boring listening to people banging on about such and such an American tv programme being great. But in any case, you can ignore them all because only the Wire was worth watching. And it’s “a true work of art.”
Then there were various talking heads, a few of whom were recognisable, saying “it’s a work of art” and so on. Someone said a freind from America had said it was the best thing that had been on TV since Abigail’s Party . Alexei Sayle said “Hi, my names Alexei and I’m a Wire-aholic”

The rest of the programme was pretty pesh. It even achieved the seemingly impossible and used clips in a way that made the Wire look corny and formulaic.

The interviews were so focussed on the British and Irish actors in the Wire as to have Brooker forced to misrepresent the plot. He introduced Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) as the leader of the Barksdale crew. Argh. This rides roughshod over a whole subplot, in which Stringer is manoeuvring his way through the ranks to take over. (Starting as the dumber but tougher Avon Barksdale’s sycophantic sidekick, he works in his own ideas about puttting the Barksdale gang on a standard commercial footing and goes for Avon’s crown.)

The talking head suggestions as to why the greatest TV series ever made wasn’t even remotely popular threw up the likeliest reasons as being that
(a) most people are too stupid to appreciate it,
(b) it’s very complex and cumulative so you have to commit to the whole thing or it’s too hard to follow and
(c) its cast is 70% black, so it would never reach a mass US audience. All probably true.
(Plus the extravagant use of cuss-words, I suspect, given that the Charlie Brooker trailer show had to blot out half the dialogue in its clips. It’s probably never going to be on mainstream TV. But, then, as one of the talking heads said, you want everyone to watch it but you also want it to kep it as your own secret.)

The main point here is that you can’t do the Wire justice. Everyone who loves it is awestruck. You just end up gushing or saying ludicrous things like “it’s your civic duty to watch it” as Charlie Brooker did at the end, “or else watch celebrity goose-wrestling on ITV6.”

Date for the Wire

Public service announcement:
(For Wire fanatics and potential converts)

It seems that 23 July is the date when FX starts showing all the existing series again. This news came courtesy of a Guardian comment on a post asking where to find decent TV.

FX begins a complete run of seasons 1 – 4 Mondays at 10pm starting July 23rd. Once they’ve done that they will launch staight into the 5th (and, sadly, final) series in 2008.
Posted by vertigowooyay on June 19, 2007 12:20 PM.

It’s all in the game

A job in any sci-fi movie or tv series is a job for life.

Actors get constantly recycled within the genre. Think of the self-effacing officer from the original Star Trek turning up as the sinister Bester in Babylon 5. Officer Sun and the captain from Starscape becoming SG1 crew members. Quark from Deep Space Nine in Buffy. The Doctor from Voyager in almost everything. Even the Quantum Leap man became the captain of Enterprise (did I mention it doesn’t have to be good sci-fi?) And so on.

The same applies to tv cop shows. (There is a certain amount of cop/sci-fi crossover but I guess that probably just constitutes an acting career rather than a pattern. E.g. The blonde woman out of last year’s series with the fishy aliens is in more cop & medical shows than she was in fish episodes.)

I am now going to make a mockery of my pure and true love of the Wire by sharing my personal TV trivia game.

(Don’t judge me too harshly, here. I’m just following HBO’s lead. They offer downloads of “Naimond’s” choice of classic hip-hop, or such.)

The original game consisted of trying to spot the entire cast of the Wire in old LawnOrder episodes. Anything from the LawnOrder stable counted (classic Law and Order, Special Victims or Criminal Intent. Or even the new spinoff, with lawyers, that’s set slightly outside the format, that I haven’t really got into. In fact even old episodes of Homicide might count, if I am feeling pushed for successes.

So far, I can only really claim Avon Barksdale, Omar and the female cop for definite, because I only recently realised the gameplay was up to a really extended scoring system. Bit I think I’ve seen Stringer Bell in one. And I’m sure I started squealing with joy because Marlow was spotted in an episode.

Then I thought, even with the most intense TV watching, it wouldn’t be possible to match the whole cast to Law and Order spinoffs or precursors.

So the new challenge is to match every speaking part actor in the Wire to EITHER a Law and Order character – 1 point each episode – OR the most comically different role in any visual medium – 5 points, but it’s got to be REALLY funny.

This lets me score points for McNulty in the 500 and Bodie in the Cosby Show. Omar scores 10 in anything, for being so extreme. Naimond’s mom would score 10 as well, but I’ve never seen her in anything else.

My ambition is to find the whole Barksdale crew. Contributions welcome. All the same, it only counts if I actually see it. Shortcuts like searching IMDB cost 10 conceptual penalty points for nerdiness above and beyond the call of duty.

My alternative ongoing games include:

  • “spot the musicians turned actors” by music genre –
  • e.g. Method Man and IceT – LawnOrder and the Wire –
  • Spandau Ballet – now TV/movie villains in a crasser version of the “Ray Winstone loveable
    Cockney villian” archetypes
  • Phil Collins, ditto,
  • One of the bros out of Bros.. ditto..
  • I just refuse to count Will Smith and Kylie as I think they took the reverse direction. And in any case, people only count if they are either respected and/or unspeakably naff in either genre.

Juking the stats

The Wire (official “best tv series ever”) shows how the need to mess about with statistics distorts the nature of policing. It’s called something impenetrable like “juking the stats” (duking? jooking? dooking? On the basis of a brief Googling, I went with juking as it seems to mean “being deceptive”.)

The drive to constantly improve crime figures – numbers of crime and clear up rates – leads to several wrong-headed initiatitives, such as harrassing large numbers of people for petty misdemeanours in pointless swoops and attempting to ignore the existence of large numbers of bodies left by Stansfield’s crew.

As in art, so in life, to add yet another cliche to the “crimes against cliche use” tally in this blog’s statistics. British police are now protesting about the distortions created by the drive to improve statistics.
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So this really is Dickens for 21st century

In an old Wire-ophile post here, I called the Wire Dickens for the 21st century.

In case that wasn’t clear enough, this was supposed to be a compliment…. I was referring to Dickens’ passionate awareness of social injustice, the huge cast of wierd characters and his plots that took in every section of society. (Obviously, I’m alive in the 21st century, so I think the Wire outshines Dickens, but that’s just me.)

I have carefully failed to rave endlessly about Wire series 4 because I blatantly can’t do it justice. Plus, I have to see it a few more times to even begin to tie together the plot strands and understand the subtle ironies and get all the references. yada. yada.

But wow, there is actually going to be a Dickens for the 21st century and its name is Dickens World.

No, really. A faked Victorian London is being created as we speak. According to the BBC:

The overall effect is rather like Disney painted brown and plunged into twilight.

“Highlights” will allegedly include a Great Expectations boat ride, a Haunted House of Ebenezer Scrooge, Newgate Debtor’s Prison and a Dotheboys Hall Victorian classroom.

I must admit to being baffled as to who this is going to appeal to. I thought of myself, aged about 8, an obsessive reader who was lucky enough to live next door to a public library. I vacuumed up all of Dickens’ books, although even I recoiled at the mawkish bits. I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed Dickens World at all.

Kids who don’t enjoy reading Dickens are not going to have any idea what any of the set pieces are about. So I imagine it will be a depressing experience to visit a downbeat version of Disney World for them.

Even in the event that a non-reading-obsessed child becomes interested by it and picks up a copy of Great Expectations or David Copperfield…. Bloody Hell, these are A Level English Literature set books. That will put off the average kid from reading for life.

This park was thought up by the creator of Santa’s World and (Hans Christian) Andersen World. Theme parks based round a Christmas myth and a collection of only moderately disturbing fairy tales. ( Not a Brothers Grimm Theme Park, you might note.)

Somehow a theme park based on child labour, workhouses, disease, debtor’s prisons, homeless orphans and child thieves’ gangs doesn’t seem like very much in the way of fun.

No, what am I thinking? I am putting in my patent claim now for the concept of a Wire theme park. (I have already drawn up the specs. I’m not wasting an investment opportunity by putting the details here.)

No, forget that. It’s in the USA, it may not be harrowing enough. What about a theme park that shows what life is like in parts of the cities of the developing world. Do you see the entertainment potential in child labour, orphans, child thieves’ gangs, ruin, disease, homeless kids raising each other in the streets? Blimey. What fun.

Virgin really crying out to be sacrificed now

Grrr. Virgin Cable TV:-

Sky One= no great loss.
FX = only channel you can legitimately watch the Wire on UK TV.

Happily rewatching series 4 tonight, ready to catch all the smart bits of dialogue that I didn’t quite get the first time or read the messages supposedly coded into Omar’s t-shirts by the costume designers that I wasn’t paying attention to. And so on.

Screen goes blank five minutes after the credits.

Ominous blue box comes up, holding the words that I’m not authorised to view this channel.

So it costs about £80 a month – for broadband, tv and a phone I make barely half a dozen local calls on – no matter what the ads say – and they can’t even pay out the Wire now?