Britain has woken up to the dramatic quality of HBO's The Wire. But the programme also reveals how our TV viewing habits are changingby Peter Bazalgette / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Where Prospect goes, BBC2’s Newsnight Review follows. On a mid-July edition of this Friday night excitement, several of the assembled telly intellectuals were working themselves up about The Wire (screening on the FX channel)—a US cop drama that Prospect first tipped a year ago.
If, however, you are the sort of person who doesn’t have a clue where to find the FX Channel (165 on Sky) and who never buys DVDs (serials 1-4 of The Wire available via HMV, Amazon and others) then be warned: this is your last chance to catch the show because it is now in its final run.
I carefully use the word “serial” in relation to The Wire because it has a number of complex, unfolding storylines. It is typically not until around episode four that they begin to make sense. These days, we poor viewers are usually taken to have the concentration powers of a mayfly with attention deficit disorder. Thus most episodic drama has self-contained narratives that resolve within the hour—instant satisfaction, and nothing to worry our diminishing intellects for the rest of the week. Not so The Wire—where the plot uncoils exquisitely slowly throughout each serial between the featured Baltimore police unit, the street drug gangs and a local industry. For serial five, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has picked as his industry a fictionalised version of the Baltimore Sun, the newspaper where he began as a journalist.
The title of The Wire refers to the innovative electronics with which the police eavesdrop on their suspects. But in serial five, Simon turns all this on its head. The unit sits tight at base, and there are no wiretaps going on at all. The mayor of Baltimore has promised to improve the city’s education statistics and channels all his resources to the schools. As a result the police have an overtime ban and requests for expensive wiretaps are turned down. Out of this develops a brilliant exploration of our contemporary obsession with statistical targets and the unintended consequences that flow from it.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” was the mantra of the 1980s. When Thatcher and then Blair realised that our state education was failing, our health service wasn’t delivering and our police had a private agenda of their own, they introduced a vast range of targets and measurements. Then the targets became an end in themselves and things went a bit weird. When universities realised they were to be judged by the quality of degrees obtained by their students, then, of course, they handed out more top degrees. This inflation has meant that now around 60 per cent of graduates get first-class or upper second-class degrees—just ten years ago this figure was 45 per cent. GPs refuse to give patients appointments several weeks in advance because otherwise they appear on a waiting list and ruin the statistics. And the police develop a predilection for chasing minor crimes that can be solved while neglecting more serious ones, so as to demonstrate a splendid clear-up rate. David Simon takes this territory and develops it into an even richer farce.
Jimmy McNulty (pictured, right) is an alcoholic policeman with a taste for shagging prostitutes on car bonnets in the early hours. In other words, he’s a regular guy. He decides that if he can invent a serial killer, the mayor will have to respond to the publicity and give the police more resources. He takes a few, unrelated homeless deaths and links them by pretending they were all strangled. This includes going to the morgue and applying his own hands to the throat of one uncomplaining corpse. Next he makes it look as though red ribbons were left on their wrists. Unfortunately, the killer who “gift-wraps his victims” merely merits a passing mention in the Baltimore Sun. McNulty is advised that only a sexual angle will make the front page. So he insinuates to a rookie reporter that there is such an angle. The reporter responds, memorably, “Is someone sodomising homeless men?” This is less to McNulty’s taste—as we know, he likes it rough but straight. So he tells her, “He’s started biting them… inside thigh, right asscheek, left nipple—is that twisted enough for you?” Now you’re talking, McNulty. Give that man a front-page story.
What McNulty has not bargained for is another reporter, Scott, who has an even sharper taste for fiction than he does. Scott is faking his way to the top of the Baltimore Sun (a newspaper, like all others, that is in decline but, strangely, appears to have no online edition). To grab the story, Scott calls his own mobile posing as the serial killer. Eventually the mayor gives McNulty’s unit some of its overtime back, but by episode four we know that this theme is deliciously out of control. It seems you can neither measure it nor manage it in Baltimore.
There’s a trend among bien pensants to eschew British television and watch US shows on DVD. They’re foolish to overlook the likes of Shameless, Life On Mars and Cranford. But their viewing habits are the middle-aged equivalent of younger folk playing online games. Across the media diaspora, we can increasingly plan our own entertainment independently from television schedules. So several US dramas that cannot attract a prime-time audience in Britain still command a following here as viewers mine this “long tail” of possibilities. The American television market is so big that cable channels can invest sizeable budgets into a number of thoughtful, minority-interest pieces. And although The Wire is passing, another treat is on its way for the Yankee fan club—David Simon’s new serial for HBO, Generation Kill. It features the invasion of Iraq, the statistics on which are perhaps best avoided altogether.