A lot of ink, chemical and virtual, has been devoted to commentary on the HBO television drama series The Wire and rightly so because it is, without doubt, a unique and compelling production. For those of you who are not familiar with the show, the DVD boxed collection of all sixty episodes is available at good video rental outlets and I commend it to you. My wife and children are claiming neglect because I am now in my second consecutive viewing of the entire opus.
Crime fiction is a powerful magnet for readers and viewers alike. Bookshop shelves and television schedules are replete with crime genre titles, some good, some bad, a few exceptional. The runaway success of the local TV series Underbelly demonstrates a hearty appetite in mass audiences for stories about people who do things most of us would never dream of doing and, as a reward, have things most of us never will and, as a consequence, lose their lives in ways we would prefer not to. The most recent real-life (now dead) example being Sydney ‘businessman’ Michael McGurk.
The Wire, however, is in a class of its own because, from its conception at the hands of co-writers David Simon and Ed Burns, it set out to interrogate the American Dream.
Unlike Underbelly, which is snookered by its docu-drama form and concomitant defamation law implications, The Wire chooses fiction. Fiction grounded in a reality lived in and written about by Simon, who was, for twelve years, a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and Burns, a twenty-year veteran detective with the Baltimore Police Department.
The series is set in Baltimore, Maryland and has been called a ‘televisual novel’ because of its complex plotlines, long character development arcs and the sophistication of Simon’s screenplay writing. In a deft use of metaphor, the title suggests a connect between the use of surveillance technology in crime investigation and the show’s ‘bugging’ of its subject.
Simon has called the show editorial, ‘angry op-ed’, a reference to its forensic analysis of the decline of American institutions – police, schools, bureaucracy, political class, media – but above all, it is television drama of dazzling quality – complex, nuanced, authentic, wry and, at times, very funny. (Det. Kima Greggs: ‘This guy’s worse than a drug dealer. He’s a developer.’)
The Wire is the thinking person’s entertainment, which goes some way to explaining why it rated so poorly in the Nielsen viewer polls, yet attracted widespread critical acclaim. In an interview with PBS, David Simon outlines the political frame in which the show was constructed. “We are a country of democratic ideas and impulses,” says Simon, “but it is strained through some very oligarchical structures.”
Simon and Burns write from a principled stand on the failure of the American Dream to deliver its promise. “This stuff is systemic,” he says. “This is how an empire is eaten from within.” The Wire views the drug trade as a microcosm of late capitalism, a prescient analysis given that the show launched in 2002, well before the Global Financial Crisis.
That people were trading crap and calling it gold. And that’s what The Wire was about. It was about that which is – has no value, being emphasised as being meaningful. And that which is – has genuine meaning, being given low regard.
Think junk mortgage derivatives vs national health care.
In one hilarious sequence, the black drug lords introduce Robert’s Rules of Order in the running of their secret meetings, resulting in some fantastic one-liners (‘Chair recognise yo ass.’) and a reprimand to one overzealous soldier/businessman who decides to take minutes: ‘Motherfucker, you takin’ notes on a criminal conspiracy? What wrong with you, man?’
So, here we have a work of fiction that not only excoriates a corrupt, dysfunctional financial and political system that masquerades as Master of the Universe, but does so with verve.
Everything about The Wire sparkles. The writing, which delivers some of the best dialogue you will ever hear and draws extensively on the street patois of the project housing estates; the acting by a cast of otherwise unknowns which includes a cameo of one of Baltimore’s infamous (retired) drug dealers playing a minister of religion; the directing which allows actors to breathe into roles instead of jamming them into formulaic set pieces and stereotypes; the judicious use of source cues in the music; the risky but right choice to shoot entirely on location and, in doing so, to enlist the support of the City of Baltimore and the residents of some of its most troubled neighbourhoods. The Wire is community art writ large. It makes a grown man weep to see all that quality bundled into a television drama with something important to say.
Which brings me to Australian literature, and its general lack of intelligent coverage of the world we live in. Last year, Christos Tsiolkas’ book The Slap won a number of prizes, including the Nielsen BookData 2009 Booksellers’ Choice Award. The novel sold steadily throughout the year and one suspects at least one of the reasons for its success was its central premise: what does it mean when someone smacks another person’s child in public?
Tsiolkas is a writer with a keen grasp of the Australian zeitgeist and, although he does not labour the socio-political framework of the story, the well-deserved success of his book suggests that readers of literary fiction (middle-class women aged 30+?) were taken by his gritty telling of a controversial, backyard barbecue tale.
If the new release lists are any indication, perhaps it is publishers and not readers who continue to shy away from fiction that tackles contemporary social and, yes, political material. A book need not have a sign posted ‘issue’ to qualify as one that engages with the broader context in which a story takes place. It is as if we are collectively content to willfully ignore the glaringly obvious determinants of Australian society in favour of often wet, flavourless novels that privilege style over content.
All our stories occur against a backdrop of history, politics and economics but so few novels engage with it. In a parallel art form, The Wire, rare as it is, proves that quality and conscience can coexist but, as one character says: ‘Conscience do cost’.
In the case of the publication of Australian literary fiction, the cost may be the will to take a risk. Am I being too harsh and not harsh enough? Lord help me when my novel is published, but this question keeps nagging at me and I just have to ‘ventilate’, as they say.