A television show has properly entered the zeitgeist when British politicians start wading in with their opinions in the media. Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling came down from his ivory tower and apparently spent an evening out in the wilds of Moss Side with the Greater Manchester Police and the gang warfare they witnessed he immediately compared to the world of David Simon’s The Wire. The reaction from his Labour opposition, police and residents of Manchester all indicated he was stretching the comparison to breaking point to suggest that the levels of drug related violent crime in Manchester are anything like that in the Baltimore depicted in HBO’s acclaimed drama series.
Rafael Alvarez’s The Wire: Truth Be Told, a guide to all five seasons of the series, tackles many of the questions raised by The Wire about the morality of our politicians, our media and our police as well as, not surprisingly, touching on the reactions of Baltimore politicians to the perception the world has of Baltimore because of the series. In Mayor O’Malley To The Wire: Drop Dead, he examines reactions from those in positions of power in Baltimore, its politicians, its police and its workers. Mayor O’Malley and his successor Sheila Dixon were not pleased at how Baltimore was seen by viewers of the series. Dixon emphasised that the Baltimore of The Wire was only a very narrow depiction of the city itself.
The Wire was one of those television series where its reputation grew only steadily and it’s fair to say that its viewing figures across the 60 episodes transmitted on HBO between 2002 and 2008 were less than stellar. It struggled with ratings, with creator David Simon often accepting that the series’ complex plotting and challenging themes would likely alienate many in the audience as well as noting that the series was often in competition with less demanding but more successful fare such as Desperate Housewives. But word of mouth and DVD sales have increased the series profile and it finally made it to BBC2 in 2009, stripped across the week’s schedule in a post-Newsnight slot, earning it many more admirers. The Guardian continues to have such an intense love affair with the programme that it not only devotes many column inches to the series in print and on-line but it also, possibly due to a lack of BBCiplayer support, even streamed the first episode on its website for a brief time. It’s often evangelical stance about the series has become as much of a reason not to watch the series as the chattering classes belatedly latched onto the programme which hard core fans had supported from the get go.
It is clear that The Wire is an extraordinarily good drama and the main reason why it stands head and shoulders above other police series, such as NYPD Blue and Homicide, is that its focus isn’t just on drug crime and the way the cops deal with it. As the five seasons lengthily examine the internal politics of the drug ‘game’, Simon uses this long form, novelistic plot as an opportunity to excoriate free market capitalism and its anti-social effects. The Wire is more a portrait of urban decay, corruption and the fall out suffered by schools, the law, the state, local and regional politics and the media. In the midst of these themes is a story of how generations of children are left behind and either end up dead or addicted through their encounters with drug crime.
David Simon’s opening Introduction in the book captures much of his ambitions for the series, its themes and structure, as well as his personal take on where America has ended up.
“…so many were left in the shallows, men and women on the streets of Baltimore who are, every day, reminded that the wave has crested, and now, with economic tide at an ebb, they are simply worth less than they once were, if they were worth anything at all in a post-industrial economy…This is the world of The Wire, the America left behind.”
However, it’s not all about thematic analysis and Simon takes us on a journey that describes the series conception and development. This includes persuading HBO and producer Bob Colesberry to take the series on (the book’s prologue also reproduces David Simon’s begging letter to HBO, arguing why they should invest in and produce The Wire), to working with Ed Burns to shape it all, and finally hiring writers like Dennis Lahane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos. You also get the inside story on how British actor Dominic West auditioned for the role of Jimmy McNulty, the cocky, arrogant, self-destructive bad-boy cop at the centre of the Simon narrative. It’s an interesting look at how important it is for writers to become their own producers. They can at least protect their own material.
The prologue is concluded by an essay, Barack Obama: Wire Fan, that stretches credibility by suggesting that Obama, in touch with the zeitgeist that the series exists within, will turn out to be some kind of super President because he watches and admires the show. If The Wire shows us anything about politicians, and the central character of Mayor Tommy Carcetti is a prime example, is that their ambitions get curtailed and crushed no matter how much they seek to change for the good.
Alvarez’s format of a season overview and episode guide that follows is applied across the 60 episodes of all five seasons. The episode guides provide a basic plot breakdown highlighted with sections of dialogue. There isn’t an episode-by-episode analysis so its useful in that it provides a better understanding of the incoherencies of The Wire and reminds you of the ongoing story. Beyond this reframing of the series entire story arc, there is a wealth of accompanying essays. Laura Lippmann attempts to contextualise the role of the female characters in the series and concludes that whilst the show might fall back on tokenistic representations of women, even though there is a very strong female presence on the production side, you have to accept that The Wire is a very male orientated series and that the world and society it portrays unfortunately deals with women in a somewhat one dimensional fashion. Similarly, Alvarez devotes a chapter to one of the series most charismatic characters, Omar, the loner, gay gangster who avenges himself over the death of his lover in the first series. He examines both the character and provides a background to actor Michael Kenneth Williams.
Elsewhere, there’s a great essay on the three young black male characters, D’Angelo, Wallace and Dukie, who all seem to receive punishment for displaying their humanism within an increasingly hostile drug culture. Further more the book explores the way the series uses music; the creation and ultimate fate of the iconic orange sofa by veteran production designer Vince Peranio; there’s the reproduction of Nick Hornby’s fascinating interview with David Simon; analysis of male lead characters Bunk and McNulty and a warm tribute to the late producer Bob Colesberry.
The book is packed with hundreds of black and white photographs and there are three sections of images in full colour. A glossary offering a mix of simpler, well known terminology and the series more obfuscating language, and a full cast and credits breakdown for each season, round the volume off. The Wire: Truth Be Told is well worth reading for the compilation of essays alone and the episode guide will no doubt come in handy for those re-watching who’ll want to clarify some of the complex narrative they didn’t quite grasp on first viewing. What’s clear from reading Alvarez’s book is that The Wire purposefully steered away from the cop show format to indulge in a story on a far greater scale, one that digs deep beneath the violence, the drugs, politics and cynicism to find and illuminate those last remaining nuggets of humanity and nobility that exist where previously we’d convinced ourselves that none could now be found. And that’s why it’s a show worth watching.
The Wire: Truth Be Told Published - Rafael Alvarez (Published October 1st, 2009 Publisher Canongate Books Ltd ISBN9781847675989)