Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Box Set Blues: The Wire, Series 4


Anyone who listens to Dissecting Worlds will know that talking about The Wire has become a bit of a running gag for us, and anyone who reads a certain class of Broadsheet newspaper will probably be likewise aware that the show has been the "go to guy" when any pundit wants to annoint a Greatest TV Show Ever Made. In fact The Wire now comes with so many plaudits heaped around it that I can almost imagine it putting people off watching it, or at least watching the first couple of episodes and wondering what the hell the fuss was about. But our watch-through has just finished the fourth season, and whilst it's not the best series of the show, it's possibly the most typical.  

Previously, on The Wire, we've had a pretty good all round tour of the Drug Trade, the decline in traditional industries, the politics of the Police Department and City Council, and established a huge and complex cast of characters. So naturally Season Four introduces a bunch more, and takes a long look at how the education system contributes (or rather doesn't) to the lives of the four West Baltimore freinds over the course of a year. In the meantime, new Drug Baron Marlo Stansfield is quietly consolidating his hold on the Corners, filling the gap left by the final demise of the Barksdale Organisation, whilst the Police and City Hall maneuver to accomodate the new incomming Mayor Carcetti. So, yeah, this is not a "jumping on series".

One of the big themes of The Wire is that more things change, the more they stay the same; that the faces change, but the weight of institutions and culture, be it on the Street or in the Council Chamber, erode any ability to make meaningful change, no matter how hard you try. Some individuals may prosper, some may crash and burn, but the structures endure whether you want them to or not, trapping people within them. Its a sobering message, and one that makes this series, with its focus on kids growing up into that system, probably the bleakest of the shows run. It's also the one that feels a little contrived.

Its the kids, I guess. You have four of them, all freinds from typical if disperate backgrounds in the poverty and drug-ridden West Side. Their arcs, and eventual ends, feel designed to representiative, and whilst it's certainly not predictable by the final episode their four very different fates feel slightly artificially "neat". I mean, The Wire has always been social commentary, and always been about sending a message, but its the first time that I really felt it's novel-like structure poke up above the surface and wave a flag around, especially with the final episodes cathartic, tragic shooting.

Its nit-picking, of course, because on the whole is exactly the show that it is reputed to me. Dozens of rounded, complex characters orbit around each other, often completely unaware of how decisions that are made elsewhere are affecting them. There are few heroes, and few villians, just people, living the lives as they see fit, and it's enthralling to watch, for all it can leave you saddened and angry at the waste and futility up there on the screen. And it is shot through with some great performances, especially from the kids, and manages the tricky job of balancing a series of ongoing storylines heading into series five with the more contained plot lines revolving around the schools.

So yes, I am going to conclude that The Wire is one of the Greatest TV Shows Ever Made, and it's fourth series may not be its strongest, but is probably it's hardest hitting.