Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Done because we are too menny
I wasn't going to write about The Wire. Well, that's not quite true: I was going to write about it on several occasions, but thought better of it. At first I was going to write about how odd it was that a show that had provoked such a positive response from those who'd seen it was being tucked away from view, and whether this was a conscious effort by producers and programmers to keep it cultish and nichey, and what that means for the future of television and other media. And then I was going to write something about Urmee Khan and her very odd CiF piece about the essential maleness of the show and its devotees, and whether art was more or less 'gendered' since the development of feminist criticism. And most recently I was going to write about how annoying it was that those devotees (Charlie Brooker, Nick Hornby, Alexei Sayle – maybe Khan did have a point) seemed unable to explain the greatness of The Wire beyond variations on "It's the greatest TV show ever made, and you've just got to blimmin' watch it, right?"
Of course, this was all before I'd actually watched it, so I'm rather glad I didn't write that last piece, because that's pretty much my pitch as well, although I don't think it's quite the greatest TV show ever, but more of that later. An argument could be made that the truly great works of art are like love and God and hummus, in that they transcend the normal constraints of critical language, and all you can really do is to affirm your own faith in their wonders and hope that someone else takes the hint.
But now I’ve chainsmoked every episode of the first two seasons, I can hazard a few one-liners as to why The Wire is so good. Many people herald its authenticity, but since I’ve never visited Baltimore or sold heroin I can’t comment on that. It comes from the same creative stable (and has the same urban backdrop) as Homicide: Life on the Street, a truly great cop show that has been consistently edged out of the critical canon by the distinctly inferior NYPD Blue (in much the same way as Chicago Hope never had a prayer against the earnest breastbeating of ER). Where The Wire betters its predecessor is that it has the nerve to stretch a single storyline over an entire season, and then to withhold from the audience any real notion of closure. This is why Wire evangelists insist that you can’t judge the show from a couple of isolated episodes. You have to invest time and emotional commitment.
This insistence on challenging and stretching the viewer is shared with The Wire’s only competitor as the greatest American crime show ever – the first season of Murder One, which also had the balls to follow a single case, with all its longueurs and reversals and dead ends, and dare the audience to keep up. (Too few did, it seems, and so by the second series it had become just another bloody lawyer show, in easily-digested chunks. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.)
Of course, in order to become the greatest cop show of all time, anywhere, The Wire would have to cut free from the safety harness of even that one single, season-long case, and throw its characters into a state of messy, almost plotless existence, where all they can do is react to occurrences that seem beyond their or the scriptwriters’ control. And they’d have to make all the cameras hand-held, and make the sound really bad, and ensure that it looks like it’s about to rain 90% of the time, and have that bloke from Early Doors in it. Oh yeah, and bribe critics to use the word verité in every review. But I don't want to dwell on The Cops; instead, I'll keep it up my sleeve as a card I can play every time someone tells me that American TV is now the best in the world.
Going back to the first time I thought about writing about The Wire, but decided not to, I’m still aware that only a minority have watched it, so this may all be academic. Once again, I’ll encourage you to seek it out, because it is very, very good. But I’d better throw you something a little more inclusive, about which more of you might have an opinion. It’s a tired cliché, usually in the context of high vs low culture, that if Dickens were alive today, he’d be writing EastEnders. This is probably true, and it’s usually predicated on the fact that his novels were originally published as serials. Anyone who saw the fabulous BBC version of Bleak House from a couple of years ago will understand the notion of his narratives as blue-chip soaps.
But Dickens wouldn’t have been able to write The Wire. His plots, however fragmented, always lead to resolution and closure. Not all his characters are absolute demons or angels, but he’s not into moral ambiguity; there’s always a sense of rightness and justice in his authorial voice. At the same time, even when he’s challenging an evil of his age (bad schools, workhouses, the convolutions of the legal system), he’s too conservative to challenge the fundamentals of Victorian patriarchy and capitalism that let them all exist.
Compare this with the best works of Thomas Hardy. Although many of his novels, like those of Dickens, were originally written as serials, I’ve always thought they have more of an overall narrative arc; the self-contained bits of business with characters that pop up for a couple of chapters, then recede, are far less common. Also, he usually spares us those incident-packed journeys from one location to another; instead, his locations have the chance to settle in the imagination throughout a story, so that in many cases (most notably Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native), they can be regarded as characters in their own right (in the same way that Baltimore exists as a brooding presence in the universe of The Wire, and the favelas exert a malign influence of their own in City of God).
Hardy’s characters are as developed and ‘real’ as those of Dickens, but they exist in an amoral universe, buffeted and blown without recourse to any notion of happy endings; if a vaguely happy ending does occur, as in Far From the Madding Crowd, it's as much by dumb luck as by anything, and there's still going to be plenty of collateral damage. Hardy was only 16 years younger than Dickens, but his world view is utterly different: uncertain, agnostic, post-Darwinian. His heroes - think of Jude or Tess - try to better themselves, but get slapped down for their presumption. 19th-century Wessex and 21st-century Baltimore are united by their abject unfairness.
So, the pat response is that if Dickens were writing mainstream soaps, Hardy might be writing something like The Wire, where the environment itself becomes the most important, powerful, predatory player in the game, and the only one that knows all the rules. And, if you’re tired of over-enthusiastic remote-wielders urging you to accept their gospel that The Wire is or isn't better than The Shield or Lost or Balamory, maybe it’s time to sidestep that particular argument, and accept my contention that Hardy is better than Dickens.