Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Bullying, lies and other distortions down in the hole with the devil
Hours before settling down with the last-ever episode of The Wire, I found pre-entertainment watching police toy with a P-plater in our street. For 90 red-and-blue flashing minutes, they blocked rush-hour traffic (rather than park nice under the tree) as I hung over my balcony, inhaling the testosterone that shimmered off the scene like two-stroke.
I felt like a bit part in Pretty Baby, a scene demanding a hot summer’s night, bougainvillea and cleavage. We had the boug, but the evening was cool and, cleavage-wise, I found the will to resist.
Squatting the boy in the gutter, they turned out his pockets, searched his car and threatened him with a “full cavity search”. (Ewww, I’m thinking. Here?) But eventually they let him go, bagging only the bong from the dipstick’s front seat and a reinforced – indeed, widely shared – sense of their own impotence. Meanwhile, to general street amusement, several local drug-lieutenants had cycled on by, unmolested, scrutinising the scene with patent interest.
The Wire opens similarly, on a stoop in West Baltimore, only there’s blood in the gutter, the boy – Snotboogie – is dead and the air-mix has more business, less hormone. Sixty episodes later it finishes with a true-life amalgam of good and evil in their usual disguises. And here’s the thing. It’s all one story – intricate, nuanced, character-driven, but as complex, coherent and richly satisfactory as a good read. It establishes writer David Simon as the Tolstoy of our time. And it’s television.
The Wire sends critics into wreathing paroxysms of superlatives. “The greatest dramatic series ever produced for television,” says one. “A masterpiece,” says another. “Funny, odd, sad and engrossing”, “human, funny and … rivetingly entertaining”, “brilliant, scathing, sprawling”. The Wire is better than The Sopranos, The West Wing and Six Feet Under put together; more moving, edgier, less self-conscious. Many call it simply “the best series on TV, ever”.
Ten years ago, cinema had the smart crowd. Now, as screenwriting guru Robert McKee recently told his Sydney audience, television is the medium of the moment; the only narrative form that is getting better, not worse.
Television is the future of story, and it is where the good writers are going, now that cinema has disappeared up its own box-office (Simon’s co-writers include Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane). Making a TiVo, in McKee’s words, “as essential as a toilet”. His evidence? Exhibit A, The Wire.
The critics aren’t alone. In Wire blogs the word “perfection” crops up a lot. And for how many TV shows, five seasons long-in-the-tooth, do viewers start a petition to have the writer change his mind and create a sixth, like it’s some kind of public interest issue?
Which perhaps it is. The Wire, says Simon, “is about the American city and how we live together. It’s about how all of us – cop, longshoreman, politician, judge, lawyer – are compromised by and must contend with the institutions to which we are committed”.
Easy to say, but this is in fact the show’s guiding star. Simon has been called “the angriest man in television”, and it wasn’t meant kindly. But if he is that angry (and it doesn’t show in the writing – more a kind of wise sadness) we should be grateful. For Simon, a long time hack at the Baltimore Sun, was enraged into acting-out the old paradox that fiction can take you closer to truth than documentary.
This commitment to the real keeps the camera wide; showing the godforsaken urbs. It keeps the story linear (but skeined like a soap) and the sound-package gritty. Almost the only music telling you what to feel is the unforgettable theme tune, (You Gotta Keep the Devil) Way Down in the Hole, written and occasionally sung by Tom Waits.
The truth principle also keeps the language real. So profane that in one scene the dialogue is comprised solely of variations on the f-word, which may be what took Aunty eight years to screen it. So “street” that, although for some characters you may need subtitles, the rhythms of it will visit your dreaming life.
The Wire may look like a cop show, but it feels like an Augustinian meditation on the nature of evil, like a 21st century homicide investigation into truth. It may make Underbelly look like The Wiggles (our murder rate is a hundredth that of Baltimore, aka Bodymore, Murdaland) but it deals with our stuff all right.
In showing how lying, bullying and self-interest systemically distort our police, democratic, education, legal and newspaper institutions, as definitively as they shape organised crime, Simon sketches in the bars of the cage. But he also lets us glimpse the key.
At a personal level, although the game is always the game, redemption requires honour, courage or something like love. But Simon’s picture is, always, much bigger than that. When it comes to the “war on drugs”, now traducing my ‘hood quite as surely (if not as violently) as West Baltimore, we could do worse than heed detective Carver; “You can’t even call this shit a war. Wars end.”