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.