Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why The Wire isn't as good as people say it is

It's a few years now since The Wire finished, but like a dread necromancer, the hordes of zombies it masters are still blindly blathering its brilliance have not succumbed to the ravages of time. And they cannot be reasoned with. In their Manichean worldview, there are only those who love The Wire unreservedly, and those who have not seen it yet. Oh, and a group of perverse untermenschen who have seen it, but fail to praise it to the heavens because they're just contrary, or idiots, or both. I'm not sure if black, white and one shade of grey is so much better than seeing things just in black and white after all. I'm not saying it's terrible. I'm not saying it lacks redeeming features. I'm not even denying that, in the main, I enjoyed watching it. But for it to be the best thing ever? Why all the fuss? It is, after all, a television series, and there's quite a few of those. And people can accept that you don't worship at the altar of Sex And The City or The Sopranos without branding you as a venal idiot.

Why then, all the praise for The Wire? Could it just be that the entire audience only saw it after shelling out hard cash for innumerable box sets, and in a paradigmatic case of the Emperor's New Clothes, couldn't bear to admit that it was just another television programme?1

Let's consider some of the reasons The Wire is so much better than anything else, ever:

It's Novelistic. Watching The Wire is like reading a novel, something that requires hard work and intellectual engagement. I suspect this view is most frequently propounded by people who don't read many novels. I've read a lot of novels (more than three, in fact) and one major difference is that things tend to happen. Indeed, in most novels the author tries to ensure there are some events, as part of something known as a "plot", rather than just a bunch of people hanging around. OK, the written form is handicapped by not having a Tom Waits song being played once every hour, but that wasn't such an impediment to my enjoyment of Austen, or Dickens, or Hemingway, or Fitzgerald. (See, I told you I'd read more than three novels.) "Novelistic" doesn't just mean "longer than the attention span of a gnat". And why should it be praiseworthy? Television is a different medium to books, so it doesn't have to accord to the same standards. I don't think it would say much about my breakfast croissant if it was Shakespearean, or if I wanted to say that my sofa was contrapuntal. Apart from that I was maybe a bit ashamed of what I was doing? So why the defensiveness?

Partly, because The Wire is like nothing else on television. That's right, it never resorts to cheap gimmickry like slow motion, or substituting acting for loud music, or flashbacks. Except for when it's convenient for it to do so, at which point everyone has to pretend they haven't seen this happen and were collectively out of the room while The Bad Guys strutted into view or Somebody Had A Moment Of Self Doubt.

This isn't adulation. This is more like a pyramid scheme where you have to recruit more people rather than admit you made a mistake investing your life in this thing.

But to be fair, it has rich subtexts and explores the parallels between criminals and the rest of society. No, no it doesn't. Not unless you think "subtext" is showing a criminal doing something, and then cutting immediately to a policeman doing the exact same thing, and then repeating that a couple of times just in case we didn't pick it up immediately. Ok, Dickens did fill his books with characters named like Mrs Goodfellow (nice) and Mr Utterbastard (a scoundrel) but I don't think novelistic is meant to be "subtle as a bag of dog turds aflame on my front doorstep". It wouldn't be so bad if you hadn't already been told about the wonderful subtleties and structure of The Wire, but by now you'll be rather disappointed at whoever recommended this to you. Was it the same person who suggested Star Wars as a subtle and tender meditation upon the nature of broken families and the taboo of incest? Are things becoming clearer now?

But the thing is, it's realistic and grounded in deep research. Well, strangely, although I read both The Corner and Homicide, neither book ever mentioned there being many members of the Baltimore Police Department blessed with an English accent. Surely I'm not the only person to have noticed the fundamental incongruity of how Dominic Green speaks throughout the show?

Finally, it's special because there's no desperation to wrap everything up neatly. It's a slice of life, with the ambiguity and the lack of resolution that entails. Shut up. Shut up. No, shut up, shut up, shut up. And when you've finished shutting up, go and watch the final episode of Season 5 and when, at the end of it, with the warm feeling of closure, happy endings for those who deserved it and comeuppances for those who didn't, keep your lip buttoned, your mouth shut, and try not to pretend that this was a mystical experience which spoke meaningful truths in a way no other object ever could.

Don't turn round and say that I wasn't watching it properly, like you're some shopworn Marxist who doesn't understand that the failure of your theory to admit any potential for falsification is actually a weakness of your worldview, not a strength.

Don't tell me I need to watch all sixty-odd hours of it other again, to get a proper appreciation of what was going on.

Don't say I'm just being contrary, because there's no way on earth anyone could think of The Wire as ever being less than perfect.

Just hush, and think a little on what you've become.

1 Although you could avoid that particular cognitive bias by watching it all on illegally duplicated DVDs sold for fifteen USD by a cheeky chappy in Shenzhen, but then that's a whole different sort of naughtiness we shouldn't condone.


klein bicycle said...

This is such a laughably bad critique that I don't know where to begin.

Let's try "It's realistic and grounded in deep research" where the criticism consists of one actor's accent (read: "there are no foreigners in our police trollolol"). The machinations of the press, education and political systems, labour unions and police are wholly accurate, or so Baltimore natives say.

Unique? Yep, even when using slow motion (Avon wagging his finger at Daniels is perfect). Whereas other American shows focus on the individual and the (distinctly American) 'anything you set your mind to' mentality, The Wire draws upon Ancient Greek tradition and the individual's submission to forces beyond their control.

The rest of your points can be similarly dismantled.

I hear there's a good book around here for people who like people who think they're much cleverer than they really are, and judging from the self-assuring narcissistic failpost you spewed out, you have my recommendation to read it. Now go, and never speak again.

Mr Cushtie said...

Is that whooshing sound the noise of you missing the point?

Or is it the air rushing towards the implosion of pretentiousness where you're trying to invoke Ancient Greek tradition?

I'm terribly sorry that not everything on the Internet conforms exactly to your opinions, but I'm sure you could mention it to God next time he telephones you, and then he'll straighten everything out.

Minnie Bus said...

Way to chasing away your other commenter. Would a little "Wonderful commentary. I am totally convinced to switch to your perspective!" hurt that much?

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