The Wire: when TV goes underground
Young British fans have turned a gritty US cops and drugs show into cult viewing, says Marisol Grandon
Nintendo Wii - check. Big Sony Bravia telly - check. DVD boxsets of The Wire, seasons one, two, three and four? People in the know will check those too. Hailed by critics and fans as the best television cop show ever, The Wire is a phenomenon - not just for the quality of its drama, but for the way the word has been spreading.
One might as well dispense with conventional broadcasters when Britain's thinking young people are falling over themselves to recommend it to their friends, picking up on the enthusiasm of American critics and academics.
Back in 2003, Salon.com's Heather Havrilesky dubbed it "a Homeric epic of modern America", while the New York Times wrote: "If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire... unless, that is, he was already writing for it."
In Britain, critics from Charlie Brooker to Jim Shelley have extolled its virtues. "It makes The Sopranos look like The Waltons," said Shelley.
Part of the attraction is that the show has never been a commercial success. In Britain, it is more likely to be seen via a download or imported DVDs than on the minority FX cable channel. (It hasn't had a look-in on the BBC or ITV.) In America, where the fifth and final series concludes this week, it has never been a commercial hit to match the likes of other HBO shows such as The Sopranos.
So why all the fuss?
Creator/producer David Simon is a former crime reporter who wanted to depict the experiences of his writing partner Ed Burns, a former homicide detective. Set in the bleak city of Baltimore, which is 60 per cent African-American, The Wire looks at a side of modern America which never usually sees daylight in mainstream culture - a poor, brutally violent country with ghettoes to compete with the worst in the world.
Not since the television news cameras showed us New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has the spotlight been focused so directly on America's black underclass. It is the complete antithesis of The OC's generation of vapid 'American dream' television.
Told through a stunning ensemble cast - including a notable handful of British and Irish actors - the show deals with the ceaseless dance between crime and the law, a relentless merry-go-round of dashed virtue and dark triumph. In a genre that has gone stale since Hill Street Blues broke the mold in the 1980s, The Wire dazzles with complexity, honesty and deeply human characters - police, drug dealers, street soldiers, lawyers, politicians... You care about them all.
David Simon said recently: "We are not selling hope, or audience gratification, or cheap victories with this show. The Wire is making an argument about what institutions - bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the cultures of addiction, raw capitalism even - do to individuals. It is not designed purely as an entertainment. It is, I'm afraid, a somewhat angry show."
Season Four of 'The Wire' is broadcast in the UK on FX on Mondays at 10pm
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