THE passing of a much- loved but little seen television drama has captured media attention in the US recently. The Wire , a police drama set in Baltimore, may not be familiar to Australian audiences. Yet it has jumped out from the shadow of the higher- profile HBO series The Sopranos , following the screening of its final episode in the US last month.
In Australia, The Wire is now consigned to sporadic late- night screenings on the Nine Network, while the earlier series are running on Fox 8.
The first two of the five series are available on DVD, and DVD Letterbox is ploughing through them with great pleasure. It is the best cop drama on TV.
The US press mourned the program’s passing not only because presidential candidate Barack Obama cited it as the best show on TV recently.
No, The Wire is understated, complex and diverting. The conventions of TV cop dramas are now too obvious even to parody. But somehow The Wire keeps it very real. It looks like the Mona Lisa next to rubbish such as the Law & Order franchise.
The credit must go back to the source, David Simon, a former crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun . His sense that the process of crime fighting is inexorable and is hampered by procedure and vanity is unnerving but ultimately far more realistic than could be imagined.
There are no easy resolutions, pat endings or cheap conventions in The Wire , just a relentless grind ( for the characters, not viewers) through missed opportunities, procedural frustrations and the occasional collar.
This was a bold narrative play by Simon, who had previously dealt with the sugary nature of the US commercial networks when he wrote and was executive producer on Homicide: Life on the Streets .
Much of his work was bolstered by the writing of Ed Burns, a 20- year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, and a roster of well- credentialled directors and writers including novelists Dennis Lehane ( Mystic River , Gone, Baby Gone ) and Richard Price ( Clockers ).
Those writers in particular would account for much of the fruity language in the series, although the reality is TV rarely comes close to replicating the language of the street. Again, here it feels real, although I can’t admit to having dealt or bought illicit substances on the streets of Baltimore.
The most enticing aspect of the show to me though — and I’m only into the second series — is its focus on different aspects of what might be considered the Baltimore crime scene.
The first series stars Dominic West, who thankfully has elevated himself beyond some bland film work, as Detective Jimmy McNulty, a man who begins as world- weary and descends from there.
He is a captivating character who begins policing drugs, then moves into the city’s port in the second series. The third, fourth and fifth series focus on the city’s bureaucracy, school system and newspaper ( The Baltimore Sun ), respectively.
Reports from the US suggest the fifth series’ depiction of newspaper life is the most realistic yet seen on TV.
That’s an enticing prospect for a journalist who recently re- viewed the otherwise brilliant British miniseries State of Play , and was mightily frustrated by its unrealistic newsroom.
I recommend The Wire to those pining for a replacement for The Sopranos . It presents a reality, wisdom and point of view that is rare on TV. DISC WATCH: Atonement ( Universal, MA15+, $ 29.95) THE adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel still seems more like a best picture Oscar winner than No Country for Old Men.
bodeym@ theaustralian. com. au
Fine performance: Dominic West stars in The Wire