Literary classic, serially
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