The Wire.

TV Much the same as everyone else, I rarely manage to keep to new year’s resolutions mainly because they’re general, unachievable challenges that in retrospect looked entirely foolhardy. So this year I decided to set myself a goal that wasn’t just achievable but which circumstance made easy.

Watch The Wire.

Which with the aid of the big freeze/cold snap, prolonged break from work over Christmas (and the usual media led order not to go out unless it’s completely necessary), meant that once I’d started on the 1st January, I was (to paraphrase the lyrics in the title music) in the hole of Baltimore non-stop for sixteen days, averaging 3.75 episodes a day. Which on reflection looks positively leisurely.

This seems to be the best way to experience the series. Watching week to week, year to year, the power of some of writer/creator David Simon’s thematic interconnections and the point he’s making about the cyclical nature of the broken society couldn’t be quite as strong. It's might also why I've felt depressed and despondent since Christmas -- so admittedly I always feel depressed and despondent after Christmas.

Reducing the show to these brief comments seems like an exercise in futility, not least because so much has been written about the programme in the past decade. I’m oddly muted in fact, in that way that usually happens when I’ve found something so profoundly moving, interesting and, well, perfect that talking about it has the potential to diminish it somehow. See also my reviews of an average Steven Moffat episode of Doctor Who (not that there is such a thing).

So I’m going to simply focus on a single character in the final series and this where you have to stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled. Right here.

The Wire isn't a typical police series -- it's not even a typical television series. It's a soap opera for people who don't like soap operas, but unlike soap operas, the story is bigger than the characters, Simon's thematic concerns scrawled in big letters across his scripts rather than smuggled in between a diet of arguments, disaster and sex (though there's plenty of that too).

McNulty is the character who best demonstrates that Simon isn’t interested in making a traditional series. As written in the first few series, McNulty is a fairly standard “lead” character, the loveable anti-establishment rogue who breaks all the rules. Some of the most memorable scenes feature McNulty swearing or getting drunk or both, along with his homicide partner Bunk. Example:



Then in the fourth season, having cleaned up his act, he all but disappears from the story, having shifted departments to become a uniformed foot soldier. As far as I can tell it’s not because Dominic West was particularly busy, it’s simply because Simon had other interests, wanting to focus on Balitimore politics and the school system instead.

There can’t be many series that would sideline its audience connection character quite so readily and so well and indeed there’s no chance that this would have happened on US network television. 24’s Jack Bauer doesn't sod off for episodes at a time, even if he’s travelling halfway across the country. But in the environs of HBO, Simon had the latitude for this.

And when McNulty returns as a leading character for the final season, he’s back to his old ways, drinking and swearing. but the system has forced him to do unspeakable acts - fabricating evidence in order to manufacture a serial killer, which has ramifications that effect all of the other characters. The elements which made the character so likeable in the first three years are twisted slightly so that they become repellent.

Initially it’s an emotional wrench, and feels like betrayal of the character. The fifth season is often criticised as the moment when The Wire went off the boil and I initially compared it to the fifth season of The West Wing and Season Six of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. In those series, well loved characters were clearly being misunderstood by new writers (John Wells & Marti Noxon), the magic of each series falling into a hole.

Except with the novelistic nature of the series it becomes apparent that McNulty has been pushed into a corner by the system and that he’s doing some very bad things for the best of reasons, manipulating the media’s obsession with sensationalism for his own ends. Simon engages Lester, the wise “father figure” as the partner in crime which somehow makes the unconscionable palatable and eventually bloody heroic.

At that point we can step out of the story and notice that Simon’s demonstrating that dozens and dozens of people die in the city every day because of systemic problems but the media doesn’t care – to them there is such a thing as mundane homicide; when multiple murderer Omar, a major figure in the community and the show is finally offed, his death doesn’t even merit a couple of sentences in the local paper, not deemed newsworthy enough by the editor.

Which means that somehow, even though we know that what McNulty’s doing is erroneous, we don’t want him to be discovered, we want his subterfuge to continue, eventually we’re even, like Lester, trying to think of new ways he can develop bogus evidence – or is that just me? We’re even desperate for his colleague Kima not to rat him out before the illegal wire taps reveal their evidence.

Reading back through those paragraphs I can tell that I’ve failed to really capture the complexity of what Simon’s achieved, perhaps because of the speed with which I watched the series, perhaps because it really is a series to be experienced rather than written about, infinitely complex and dead simple at the same time.

I'll get back to you after I've watched it again.

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