Sunday, August 09, 2009

Tapping The Wire

I'm a pretty relaxed guy when it comes to defending the stuff I like. I wasn't always. I used to be very pugnacious in my defense of music, films and TV. Especially TV. I used to think that a slight against a show I loved was a slight against me, as if the person accusing Farscape of being ''Just 'The Muppets' in Space'' was somehow besmirching my name and implying that I was inferior for liking it. Over the years I've mellowed somewhat and can get through my daily life without indulging in a tirade about why the stuff I like is better than the stuff you like, even though it almost certainly is.

There is, however, one raw nerve in my otherwise cool demeanour that, if touched, will send me into a fit of apoplexy. That nerve comes in the form of HBO's The Wire, a show which I genuinely believe may be the finest television show ever made.

Now, I have no problem with people disagreeing with me on this point. There are plenty of other shows out there that are great and if people want to say that The Wire isn't as good as The Sopranos or The Shield or Arrested Development then that is absolutely fine with me. They are entitled to their opinions and I am fine with that.

What irks me, what truly, fundamentally irks me, is the way in which some people will dismiss The Wire out of hand without attempting to come to grips with it on its own terms.

Let me set the scene. I was in Blockbuster yesterday picking out some films to watch this week since I'm very quickly running out of material for these entries (in case you're wondering, I checked out Dark City, Apocalypto, Save The Green Planet, Open Hearts and Intacto). As I was waiting in the queue at the Big Blue, I overheard a couple of the staff members discussing the fact that all their copies of The Wire were out, and one of them said ''I watched 20 minutes of it the other night. I don't know what everyone else is on about, I thought it was really boring''.

God, I could have slammed his face right through the counter then. Right through the fucking counter.

This argument of ''I watched 20 minutes of it and I didn't like it'' may hold water for some shows, but it is absolutely the wrong way to talk about The Wire and, for me, represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the show on the part of the viewer.

For anyone who doesn't know, The Wire is a police procedural set in Baltimore, created by David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun. During his time on the Sun, Simon reported from the streets of Baltimore, the murder capital of the United States, and detailed the fight against drugs, prostitution and violence, a fight that the police were so obviously losing. Simon transfers his journalistic instincts to television by creating a meticulously constructed show that details (detail being a key word) how investigations are conducted and what life is like for everyone involved in the war on crime. Each season of the show adds a new element to the world, creating a rich tapestry that seeks not only to entertain but also to offer a critique of the modern American city. If there is a central theme to The Wire, it's that there are bigger forces at work that will always crush the individuals that stand against them. Simon has often said that it is a Greek tragedy, with the gods replaced by institutions.

Now, that alone should entice people to watch the show and it has done so, making The Wire one of the true marvels of the DVD age; a show that had almost non-existent ratings but had such strong word of mouth and such strong DVD sales that it was able to survive when any other show may have failed.

The problem comes when people try to dip their toe into The Wire and try to see if they will like it. Dipping your toe in may work for more episodic television shows, but is a completely wrong-headed way to approached watching The Wire. It is a show that you have to dive headfirst into to get anything out of it. To watch an episode partway through a season, only watch 20 minutes then declare it to be not as good as everyone says it is would be like turning to Chapter 15 of Moby Dick, then complaining that all they did was eat soup. It misses the point of the thing entirely.

The Wire is in essence a series of novels for television; each episode is a chapter, each season is a book. To try to gauge the quality of it by watching an isolated episode is to treat it as just any old cop show, but The Wire is so much more complex and detailed than that. It requires patience for the viewer to truly get anything from it but once you do get it, once you break through into the world of good po-leece, re-ups and wire-taps, you will be so very richly rewarded for it; you will discover a television show unlike any other, one which says ''Fuck you'' to conventions of televised storytelling and the very notion of a ''casual viewer''. It's a show that values dedication and, though it demands a lot of you, it gives so much more back.

So, the next time someone says that they only watched 20 minutes and they found it boring, or if you are one of those people yourself, try sitting down and watching the very first episode all the way through. If it's not for you, fair enough, you gave it your best shot. But if it intrigues you, if it find watching to be an engrossing experience, then keep going way down in the hole, you might find something truly transcendent there.

And yes, I stole the title from a programme Charlie Brooker made about The Wire. What do you people want from me? It's 11:30 on a Sunday and I am literally forming this stuff out of thin air to meet my own stupid self-imposed requirement. I think I should be cut a teeny tiny bit of slack for stealing a title.