Monday 10 December 2018

The Wire: best cop show ever

Edel Coffey

The humble cop show has been a staple of television drama almost since the invention of the box itself. Despite the format's longevity, cop shows tend to be looked down on by their more intellectual peers. Just as crime writing is considered a lowly fiction genre, these shows too are generally considered trite entertainment, with simplistic concepts of good and evil and stories circling around a final resolution of the bad guy getting what he deserves.

But for the last 30 years, they have presented some of television's best programmes, culminating most recently with the American series The Wire, which returned to TG4 this week.

The Wire is a cop show, but not as we know it. A New York Times critic said: "If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it." Some have called it Shakespearean, but its creator and co-writer David Simon says it's more Greek tragedy.

Simon, a former journalist and creator of the equally fine show Homicide: Life on the Streets, teamed up with Ed Burns, an ex-homicide cop of 20 years and an inner-city teacher.

The Wire blatantly ignored the traditional rules of television in an effort to create something grander than the average show. The format used for the series was that of the novel, and the writers included novelists George Pelecanos (A Firing Offense), Richard Price (Clockers) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River).

Set in Baltimore, one of America's most dangerous cities, it deals primarily with a police department and the war on drugs, but the overarching theme running from the first episode of season one right through to the last episode of season five, is the death of the American dream and the social decay of the American city.

It has been described as an elegy for America's working class and Simon himself has admitted the show is a "political tract masquerading as a cop show". Each season takes an element of society and examines the effect its decline has on the citizens. So season one looks at drugs and the streets, season two unemployment and the docks, season three introduces politicians and the city hall, season four looks at an impotent school system, while season five takes on an ailing press.

Sounds ambitious? It is.

While the show is slowly growing from cult status to an all-out classic (even Coronation Street has referenced it), one of the reasons it has remained under the radar for so long was due to its challenging format. The creators admitted the audience was not their first priority; Simon recently said: "F**k the casual viewer" and "Frankly, we don't give a f**k about you." Simon's main aim was to provoke. "That, for us, was job one. We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions."

This attitude sums up why The Wire never achieved the kind of hit ratings of other HBO dramas such as The Sopranos. It didn't offer the kind of cosy satisfying conclusions that allow you turn off the television and sleep easy in your bed; one friend was left in tears at the desolate ending of season two. The reason for the harsh storylines is because they are mostly based in fact. As a journalist for the Baltimore Sun for 12 years, Simon had seen his fair share and Burns' experience left him with plenty of anecdotes too.

The word 'gritty' is often overused when it comes to crime television, so much so that it has almost lost its currency, but there is no other word to describe The Wire. It makes The Sopranos look like a technicolour fairytale.

Baltimore city is the perfect backdrop to the show. Once a great hub of industry, with fine buildings, many of the city's houses are now dilapidated and boarded up. It is also one of America's most dangerous cities.

The show was constantly critically acclaimed during its American run, but ignored by the awards ceremonies. The Emmys snubbed the show, giving it just one nomination during its five-year run, which provoked accusations of racism (the show's cast is mostly black). Like everything else about the show, its huge ensemble cast, with more than 40 regular characters, authentically reflected Baltimore's ethnic make-up.

The casting is inspired -- nobody is beautiful (in the same way everyone in CSI is). Some are fat, some are thin, some are gay, some are straight, some are white, the majority are black, some are racist, some are sexist. Some of the actors are even former delinquents and gang-bangers from the streets of Baltimore. Part of the show's uniqueness was down to the fact that it has no real lead character, with several of them given equal weight.

There are a few standouts however. Omar, the homosexual, amoral stick-up guy who never swears; Bubbles, the heroin-addicted police informer; Stringer Bell, the drug lord who is taking a course in business management on the side. If there is a star of the show, the closest thing to it is Detective McNulty, the Jameson-drinking, wife-and-girlfriend-cheating cop who is his own worst enemy. Despite his constant missteps and self-sabotage, he is what the department calls 'good po-leece'.

While the awards were snubbing it, Wire fans were springing up everywhere. It is the kind of show that inspires obsession, loyalty and all-consuming interest. Wire fans are known in cyberspace and beyond as 'Wire Bores' due to the unending level of interest they have in the show. The Wire challenges the viewer like no other television show before, making easy judgements difficult. There are no good guys or bad guys, no black or white storylines. All the characters, whether drug dealers, dope fiends, politicians or detectives, have real lives, experiences, relationships and problems, and all of them are as likable or detestable as the next, a moral ambiguity rarely seen on television.

The Wire is a sharp reminder that cop dramas do not have to be vacuous or trite, and that when they are as good as this, they can even change your way of thinking about almost everything.

The fifth and final season of 'The Wire' is on TG4, Monday nights. Season one is currently showing on Channel 6, Thursday nights.

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