Lit­er­ary clas­sic, se­ri­ally

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCH­ETT

ANY­BODY who ar­gues that tele­vi­sion has helped de­stroy the great tra­di­tion of the novel is not pay­ing enough at­ten­tion to, well, TV, or at least to se­rial dra­mas. This for­mat, born on net­work TV, now has audiences in­de­pen­dent of the net­works.

Take The Wire , which has aired here on ca­ble TV and is per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple of the post- net­work world. Cer­tainly this show uses the form of the TV drama, those 60- minute se­ries ( if you in­clude the ads) that are broad­cast at the same time ev­ery week and in which the same char­ac­ters ap­pear in sto­ries that are en­tirely self- con­tained or form some sort of se­rial story.

But don’t be mis­led by its fa­mil­iar for­mat. The Wire is best watched in the way peo­ple read nov­els: at your own pace, tak­ing your time to go back over bits you es­pe­cially en­joyed or did not un­der­stand the first time.

Think es­pe­cially of the sort of 19th- cen­tury se­ri­alised sto­ries, the ones with com­plex casts of char­ac­ters and ex­pan­sive plots, that filled the role TV took on in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury. The sort of sto­ries Dick­ens and Zola wrote and that were adored by enor­mous audiences and are with us still. Only now such sagas of pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety come with pic­tures.

In the past 20 years the Amer­i­cans have rein­vented the sprawl­ing so­cial novel of pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety on TV. Se­ries such as The So­pra­nos and The West Wing take longer to watch than it does to read much 19th- cen­tury marathon fic­tion. Dra­mas such as Dead­wood and the re­cent Aus­tralian con­tri­bu­tion to the video crime novel, Un­der­belly, re- cre­ate cul­tures, as op­posed to im­ages, as vividly as any­thing the mas­ter writ­ers of se­rial fic­tion man­aged.

Now, for the price of a new lit­er­ary novel, you can buy an en­tire se­ries of The Wire on DVD. If you en­joy it there are an­other four se­ries, a to­tal of 60 episodes, mak­ing it as rich and com­plex a drama as any­thing writ­ten about the pol­i­tics of poverty and power in a sin­gle city.

If pub­lished in fic­tional form, The Wire would be hailed as a great po­lit­i­cal novel, a story ex­plain­ing a city in the way William Kennedy’s re­mark­able se­ries of Al­bany nov­els ex­am­ine the evo­lu­tion of the Demo­cratic ma­chine through a cen­tury or so in up­state New York. The way Zola’s Les Rougon- Mac­quart 20- novel se­quence chron­i­cled pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety in Sec­ond Em­pire Paris. The Wire is about pol­i­tics: the pol­i­tics of crime, of polic­ing, of power struc­tures in schools and bu­reau­cra­cies and of the power of the press in the mid- At­lantic US city of Bal­ti­more.

The first se­ries is in the form of a po­lice pro­ce­dural, with a cast of char­ac­ters and plot struc­ture that in sum­mary sounds like a Steven Bochco cop- noir se­ries. It is cer­tainly hard to imag­ine se­ries one of The Wire if Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue had not set the scene.

The Wire also owes a lot to the var­i­ous Law & Or­der fran­chises for the way they es­tab­lished the con­ven­tions of con­tem­po­rary crime drama, where po­lice per­son­al­i­ties and pol­i­tics are as im­por­tant to plots as catch­ing crooks.

The first se­ries of The Wire fo­cuses on the strug­gle be­tween two tribes. Its core char­ac­ter is Jimmy McNulty, a ded­i­cated, if so­cially dys­func- tional, de­tec­tive who hap­pens across a drug syn­di­cate op­er­at­ing un­der the law en­force­ment radar. Dis­liked for his in­abil­ity to con­ceal his con­tempt for ca­reerist cops, McNulty strug­gles to get any­one to ad­dress his al­le­ga­tions.

When he fi­nally gets a squad, he is set up to fail for ask­ing the right ques­tions about the wrong peo­ple. Sad­dled with a com­ple­ment of in­com­pe­tents and time- servers over­whelm­ing the work of the com­mit­ted cops — a street- smart woman, an older of­fi­cer in ex­ile — he’s a com­man­der whose am­bi­tion is over­whelmed by his sense of duty.

The squad’s en­e­mies are the sol­diers in the drug net­work run by Avon Barks­dale and his evil off­sider Stringer Bell, which has its own pol­i­tics and fac­tion fights. As with the po­lice, Barks­dale’s foot sol­diers range from bru­tal thugs to am­biva­lent ide­al­ists who hope good, for some, can come from what they do. The plots cen­tre on the strug­gles within and be­tween the two camps and they take a great deal of ef­fort to un­der­stand, es­pe­cially if you don’t speak the so­ci­olect used by Bal­ti­more’s black un­der­class.

But there is a great deal go­ing on in this se­ries that makes it much more so­cial com­men­tary than shoot-’ em- up. Like the fog that en­velops Lon­don’s land­scape and life at the start of Dick­ens’s Bleak House, drugs and the money they make per­vade The Wire.

From the first episode it is ob­vi­ous that cor­rupt po­lice and politi­cians are in­volved with drug money. ( Hint: if you think you know who the crook cop­pers are by episode three, you’re wrong.) But the drugs are a metaphor for the cor­rup­tion that is al­ways en­demic in any or­gan­i­sa­tion, and for the am­bi­tion and fear of law en­force­ment ca­reerists that make polic­ing a mat­ter more of process than out­comes.

It’s en­tirely un­der­stand­able why The Wire drives Bal­ti­more boost­ers nuts be­cause it is ob­vi­ous the au­thors be­lieve it is a city damned. And not just a city.

Al­though no­body makes po­lit­i­cal speeches in the show, its ar­gu­ments ob­vi­ously ap­ply to ev­ery Amer­i­can ur­ban area where the wel­fare class pro­vides a mar­ket for drug run­ners and pas­sively ac­cepts the op­por­tunism of parish pump politi­cians. But what is sur­pris­ing is that more peo­ple are not en­raged by the first se­ries of The Wire, for the way in which it ques­tions the core of Amer­i­can pub­lic cul­ture: the pri­macy of the fam­ily as the na­tion’s glue for good.

In one scene Barks­dale’s sis­ter as­sures him that his nephew will do what the dealer de­sires, be­cause she ‘‘ raised him right’’. And in an­other she makes a speech that is a stan­dard in all sorts of Amer­i­can movies, about the way fam­ily is all. Ex­cept in this case pro­tect­ing the fam­ily re­quires an in­di­vid­ual to go to prison to en­sure ev­ery­body else con­tin­ues to live in crim­i­nally funded lux­ury.

It is a bru­tal par­ody of the cult of fam­ily and it goes to the heart of The Wire ’ s mes­sage: in this Amer­ica there is no one to trust, no uni­ver­sal val­ues to be­lieve in, no pro­tec­tion from the fog of greed and am­bi­tion that en­gulfs ev­ery­body.

This is a dark but pro­foundly con­vinc­ing drama. And there are four more se­ries to watch.

The Wire is a lit­er­ary clas­sic, with a depth of plot and cast of con­vinc­ing char­ac­ters Dick­ens would have ad­mired.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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