Monday, 3 November 2008

The Wire

Martin D. Holmes reaches for the remote and enjoys The Wire.

The Wire: Television at its finest.

Once in a while, in the land of television, there comes a show that just gets it right. HBO, the channel that brought us The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, once again deliver a ground-breaking television spectacle...The Wire, a show that just gets it right.

The premise of The Wire sounds fairly simple; a special police unit investigate a drug organisation running in the slums of West Baltimore, with the aim to incarcerate the inconspicuous drug-lord Avon Barksdale. But this is far from a typical cat and mouse chase, as we delve in to the inner-workings of the law, abundant with corrupt cops, lying lawyers and sly senators which is paralleled beautifully with the inner-workings of an expansive, urban drug crew, with it's own visible hierarchy.

The immediate attractiveness of The Wire is its authenticity. This isn't your typical crime-drama bursting with Hollywood beauty. Unconcerned with pearly white teeth and smooth skin; no reliance on good lighting to hide the actor's bad spots; unfathomable plots are not unravelled and then sewn up with in one episode and characters rarely achieve redemption. This is a credit honoured to creator David Simon, a former journalist for the Baltimore Sun and his writing partner Ed Burns, an ex-Baltimore cop. Drawing inspiration from real life incidents gives the show it's natural flavour and careful attention to detail. The Wire is bold, honest and real.

Although at first the street slang and Baltimore police jargon may be jarring, it is a staple of the show that you eventually become accustomed to and you'll soon find yourself referring to the police as the “Five-O” and claiming that your caffé latte is “good product”. What is also daunting is the amount of characters. One of The Wire's many selling points is it's masterful ensemble cast, displaying an outstanding array of talent. Keeping track of who is who can be a struggle, but the large cast is something you begin to appreciate as the show develops and the plots and characters start to tie together. This is a cast that has you locked on to their every move.

One of the stand outs is Dominic West, who puts in a terrific performance as McNulty, a maverick cop whose confidence and brashness in the wrong hands could have been overbearing. West has managed to find the perfect balance between arsehole and endearing, which makes McNulty one of the most likeable, charismatic and watchable characters.

Another memorable performance comes from Michael K. Williams as Omar, the gangster Robin Hood, stealing from the dealers to give to the addicts. Enigmatic, terrifying and down right defiant, yet possibly the most captivating character.

It is Larry Gilliard Jr however, who gives perhaps the most interesting performance. Gilliard plays the conflicted D'Angelo, cousin of the infamous Avon Barksdale. Trapped in a world of crime and violence, D'Angelo continually questions his choice of lifestyle and the actions of his friends and family. Gilliard portrays the angst and confusion of this character to perfection, drawing sympathy and anger from the viewer simultaneously.

The Wire is by no means a 'star-studded' affair, you probably haven't heard of the majority of the actors and that's because many of them are local to Baltimore, picked specifically for their talents rather than 'name-value'. David Simon himself has explained how he is still surprised that he got a show with an 80% African-American cast on US television and the fact that the majority of the actors are 'unknowns'. This once again lends itself to the authenticity of the show, as you are able to see these characters as 'real', as opposed to a famous person playing a role. Not since The Godfather have a group of actors delivered such tenacious, realistic performances that you are totally mesmerised by the world they are creating.

But the star of the show is Baltimore itself. It's gritty and bleak landscape not only provide the backdrop for the movement of urban city life but also provide the tone and feel for a scene. The harsh surroundings fill in the gap for the intentionally missing soundtrack and help to encapsulate the raw atmosphere of the show. From the train tracks where McNulty spends his nights drinking, to the drug-ridden terraces, to Orlando's night-club, you begin to associate the characters with the scenery and vice versa.

But amongst it's grittiness The Wire manages to maintain a great sense of humour, even drawing laughs from the most dislikeable characters. With its Seinfeld-like conversations about the rules of chess or how much money the man who invented the chicken McNugget earns, it sustains it's realistic approach while also being eye-wateringly funny. This tone is set from the opening scene of the very first episode, in which McNulty ponders how a murdered street dealer got the nickname 'Snot'. And this inventive humour continues throughout the series, most evident in a scene consisting entirely of the word 'fuck' and it's many variations. The humour counterbalances the drama well, so that things never become too heavy-handed.

It's steady build of plot and careful character development, combined with it's lack of dependence on cliff-hanger endings and disregard of cringe-worthy clichés, makes The Wire a refreshingly realistic crime drama. The show is like a great novel, you can't just read one chapter and then give up, thinking you know all that there is to come. The Wire is a slow burner but persist and you will be treated to an intricately interwoven plot that expands with every episode, your jaw dropping further every minute, as the pieces of the puzzle steadily fall in to place and your left applauding as the final episode draws to a close. This is a show way more than a simple crime investigation, this is a microscope in to urban city life.

The Wire is television at its finest.

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