Sunday, 11 September 2011

Why television is great, or, The best TV series ever, or, (more accurately), The only TV series I bother watching

OK people. This is in danger of going seriously off the main topic of this blog. Our subject for today, no less than lyrical waxings on my favourite TV series of all time - The Wire. [postscript: This is actually a rather meaningless accolade in my case, as I don't like television and I don't even own one. Perhaps more accurately I should say "the only TV series I bother watching", but you know, it doesn't have the same ring...]

So what's it about?
The Wire is a US-made drama set in Baltimore, Maryland about street life, gangs, drugs, police, capitalism, education, violence. It's brilliance is essentially down to the makers' total rejection of one all-prevailing, all-encompassing myth in film and television: that the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad.

The show's heroes are guys like Omar on the left here. This is a guy who is never far from his shotgun and is for the most part prone to firing it in people's skulls. He's killed on numerous occasions throughout the three and a half series's I've watched to date, and robbed countless more times. Written like that, the uninitiated might find it hard to understand how one could fall for the guy. But the genius of the show is that it does what I can't in cold-hard prose, namely that of turning a serial killer with a dangerously high tolerance to extreme violence into a character you can't help but cheer on, or shed tears for.

Or another example...Roland Pryzbylewski (said: Prezboloosky). This character begins in series 1 as a terrible cop who is only hired because he has a relation high up in the force. He ends pistol-whipping a teenage, and gets moved to a paper-pushing job. In a later series he kills another cop by accident and is forced out altogether in disgrace. But, in series 4 he returns to play a starring role as a teacher in a local school where he proves to be capable, patient, fair and makes personal sacrifices for the sake of members of his class.

Real = messy
There's hardly a character in the whole show either who is trying to do something good, but has a few skeletons in the closet, or who is still capable of showing affection to or dealing fairly with another person despite being a murderous villain. And critics the world over have praised The Wire for its realism.

Whilst nearly all TV and film simplify or exaggerate human behaviour or relationships for the sake of drama, The Wire, through its refusal to do this, shows that the whole truth about a person, makes for a far more compelling watch: the earnest, ambitious mayor-to-be Carcetti, who plans to clean up the city, but occasionally cheats on his wife; the dishevelled detective McNulty, who puts everything on the line for the sake of what he sees to be right, but spends three series messing up his family life and drinking himself under; the drug addict Bubbles who'll pull virtually any petty crime going to get his next fix, who gets mugged, beaten and kicked when he's down time and time again, yet his contributions to those who help him often play a pivotal role in the outcome of each series.

I really admire the makers of the show. The creators are actually from Baltimore. The characters and stories are based on his own experiences in the city. Many of the smaller roles are played by untrained actors from the neighbourhoods the scenes are set in. In one sense you can take the whole of The Wire as one great collective sigh of exasperation from its makers, at the bureaucracy of government services, the failures of the current war on drugs, the school system, the ghettoisation and disconnection of the underclasses from the main body of society. Seen in this context, one can only marvel at the eloquence of such a sigh... Their work is inspiring, educational, life-affirming, and deeply challenging to me, as someone who would like to follow in their footsteps in using art in this way.

See. This. Show.

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