“Go straight to JB Hi Fi and buy season one of The Wire . Trust me.”
I received that email from a friend a few months ago. I trusted him. It was worth it.
I watch a lot of my telly on DVD these days. I’ve grown tired of networks slicing shows up for ads, scheduling them unpredictably or, worst of all, acquiring them and shelving them indefinitely. On DVD I watch what I like, when I like, and, sadly, for as many consecutive hours as I like. And I know I’m not alone. So, for Telly Watch to embrace this move away from the traditional broadcast structure, on the last Thursday of every month I’ll have a look at a show that isn’t on telly.
The Wire (an HBO show horribly mistreated by Seven in Australia and thus no longer on air) is essentially a cop show: the story of a crack squad of police on the trail of one of Baltimore’s most successful drug dealers. But to reduce it to goodies and baddies is to call Good Vibrations a pretty song about a girl’s hair. The Wire , quite simply, is unlike any television show you’ve ever seen.
Even to call it a television show is misleading. Its creators prefer to think of it as a television novel. The hour-long episodes are not constructed with peaks and troughs and some kind of resolution, but rather, each instalment of The Wire is like a chapter in the novel that is slowly unfolding in front of you. The opening credits roll, things happen for an hour, the show ends.
And every one of those things that happens is important. So meticulously is The Wire written that when a season comes to an end (the fifth and final is now airing in the States) every moment in every episode will have served its purpose. As Lester Freamon, one of The Wire ’s cops, says: “we’re building something here… and all the pieces matter”. He’s right. The intricacy of The Wire ’s plotting is, frankly, staggering.
If it sounds complicated, it is. As The Wire grows with each season to include new playing areas – the docks, city hall, the public school system – it asks more and more of its viewers, requiring them to keep in their minds more stories, more characters, more relationships. The Wire in season four is perfectly happy to bring back a one-scene character from season one and expect its viewers not only to be able to identify her immediately, but to recall who she works for, what she’s done, and where her loyalties lie. It’s demanding.
But with those demands come the great rewards of storytelling that takes its time with character, and setting, and detail. For all its mind-boggling narrative complexity, The Wire is never confused. You know exactly where you are with every character in every scene. You see clearly each step in their battles with the institution that rules their life, whether it be the police force, the longshoremans’ union, City Hall, the education department, or their drug crew.
And most importantly, you understand every choice they make in the most important battles in drama: the battles with themselves. Because amidst the sweeping magnitude of The Wire ’s universe, it is the smallest of details that take you right to the core of the characters and bring emotional moments of heartbreaking resonance. The show is big, but its magic is always in the small.
So if you’re looking for a DVD project (and I will be helping you find one on the last Thursday of every month), go straight to JB and buy season one of The Wire. Trust me.