Tuesday 24 February 2009


Hard to believe that initially I wasn't too keen on the American drama series, The Wire, (see previous blog for clarification). Well, the daftnotstupid team (John and myself) have just finished the box set of Season Four (from Amazon) and it was so tremendous that I want to watch it all over again, now.

There are still plenty of characters from previous seasons, who are now like old friends - goodies and baddies alike - but there are lots of new ones, too (as in all the seasons). Quite a number die on the way because this is a brutal portrayal of life in the slums/ghettos of Baltimore and I'm sad when they do get the chop (well, most of them) but then the new characters become like friends, too, and I get so involved in their lives that I'm actually in mourning that we've finished Season Four and that there's only one more season to go because there is absolutely nothing on television that gets so under your skin as this drama series. For me, there is nothing that shows the human condition as ruthlessly or as thoroughly as The Wire and I feel I'm learning more about people/drugs/gangs/poverty and the massive underclass in America (no doubt the same in the UK) /the police and politics watching this than any documentary.

The acting is so terrific that I don't see the characters as actors but as real people. Character development is utterly believable, the plot deceptively tightly structured, and there is a mid-boggling scale, range and diversity of stories in each season which inter-link more vastly than the imagination can take in at one go.

The structure of The Wire reminds me very much of JB Priestley's classic play, An Inspector Calls, because seemingly insignificant events can ultimately have such damaging consequences that it quite takes your breath away. And you just don't see it coming. As a writer, I know only too well how difficult it is to do that. In fact, if I could write just as fractionally well as Ed Burns and George Pelecanos, I would be a very happy bunny.

The emphasis of Season Four is the education system, plus the usual politics in local government and the police force, and it's the education part that has so engaged me, having once been a teacher.

The main plot centres around Four young black boys - Richard, Namon, Dukie and Randy - all of whom have horrendous home backgrounds and learn barely a thing from the state system of education, which is geared towards useless testing (ring any bells?), has a staggering inability to provide for the needs of its pupils, and is vastly under- resourced, although the need to help lift these children out of their dismal backgrounds and poverty of hope or any sense of meaningful achievement is immense.

Our four boys start off as reasonably innocent (as innocent as you can be living in a drug/gang environment) and their initial pranks are more typical teenage stuff than anything else. But by the end of the series, they are all in serious trouble, one of them, for example, having become a hardened killer, and it's not really of their own making or deserved. It's a consequence of living in a ghetto where the authorities are mainly incapable of stepping in and giving valuable support. In fact, it's heartbreaking, and I keep thinking about these kids and how their lives are in such a mess and what will happen to them in Season Five, if they do re-appear. I have to keep telling myself that it's just a television drama but so much resonates with my own teaching experience in an Educational Priority Area in Sunderland, where I constantly had to balance maintaining some kind of law in the classroom with a need to accept the kids as they were and to show understanding rather than being judgmental.

In Season One, I was horrified at what seemed to be a total lack of interest by the police in solving/preventing crime but now I know that it's the system that makes effective policing so difficult, in particular, policing based on positive stats rather than effective policing and protection, and that the police have, quite rightly, become cynical. But there are a few genuinely talented and dedicated officers, politicians, teachers, ex-offenders and church ministers who can make a difference, and their efforts, even if they face enormous difficulties and have only limited success, give the show little glimmers of hope, contrary to the "there's no room for hope in this show" claim of one of the writers/producers.

And you very much get the sense that the writers/producers are doing more than producing an enthralling show - they're deliberately highlighting the plight of this forgotten underclass in America. It's not just the drama that shows this, but also the commentaries available during some of the episodes and the special ones at the end, where they talk with passion about wanting to be as authentic as possible in their description of how people live in Baltimore. Many of those involved in the show, both behind the camera and in front, have worked in Baltimore in the police/education departments, as crime reporters or have, themselves, been drug dealers, even killers, so they are drawing from a vast range of experience.

They have only made five seasons, each with roughly a dozen episodes, so when we've watched Season Five, which I'm getting from Lou for my birthday soon, it'll be time to start watching them all over again.

We're now half way through re-watching Season Four and it's incredible how much new we're picking up (this is where the brilliance of the structure comes in), that we missed first time round. I'd say that that's very good value for money. But it's such a pity that The Wire was not put out on main time television in either America or Britain and so it didn't receive the coverage that it deserves. Or that it has not been recognised in any television awards. Apparently, a lot of viewers in America don't like The Wire. I can understand it if they couldn't get past the first three episodes of Season One (see my previous blog) because it is very challenging television. However, there have been plenty of suggestions that the main reason is that people don't want to acknowledge that the kind of problems portrayed in The Wire actually exist. And all I can say to that is SHAME ON YOU ! If we don't acknowledge problems, then we don't do anything to rectify them. What kind of a humanity are we if we allow children from deprived areas to stay right down in the cesspit of life?

In my opinion, The Wire is even better that some of the big hitting American dramas such as The Sopranos, Damages, ER or 24.

And finally, my own wish is that every self-righteous, judgmental, smug citizen who would automatically dismiss those involved in the seedier side of life in Baltimore as shown in The Wire, should be forced to watch this show to see that there is good and bad in everyone, whether on the right side of the law or the wrong side, and that for many, many people they have no choice but to do what is necessary in order to survive. And that those of us who are fortunate not to have been born into a life of abject poverty should not judge those who haven't. "There but for the grace of God," is a good motto to remember.