Small screen, bigger picture

When the NS film critic Ryan Gilbey started watching the HBO series The Wire, cinema suddenly began

Near the start of last year, I did something silly: I started watching the HBO series The Wire, set among the cops, dealers, politicians, longshoremen and schoolchildren of drugs-ravaged East Baltimore. I devoured the available box sets quickly, and soon the pictures that I was seeing in my capacity as film critic began to look compromised and conventional. The show had spoiled me. For a while, it all felt a bit touch-and-go. Perhaps I would be forced to vacate my day job, citing my addiction to The Wire just as those in public office routinely blame alcohol, drugs or rent boys. On the other hand, maybe my expectations had been systematically lowered after too much mediocre cinema, and the show would serve as the sort of jump-start required by my critical synapses.

That's the funny thing about The Wire. Despite all the people who bang on about it being the finest television series around, it really is the finest television series around. There are numerous reasons why it inspires such reverence and devotion. It is intelligently played by a mix'n'match cast that throws together pros and amateurs, ex-cons and former cops, not to mention two Brits sorely unappreciated at home: Dominic West as the cocksure detective Jimmy McNulty and Hackney-born Idris Elba as the panther-like criminal Stringer Bell.

The show incorporates opposing tones and flavours. The grimy, unforgiving milieu is spiked with gallows humour - McNulty and "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce), assessing a crime scene, use only variations on the word "fuck"; the chilling killer Snoop (Felicia Pearson) devises a far-from-foolproof means of determining whether the people she meets are from New York (and, therefore, acceptable fodder for murder). And the oppressive gloom and despair of season four, which zeroes in on a group of kids drawn to the streets, is tempered magically by the unheralded journey of Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), the inept detective who goes from being the cop who couldn't shoot straight, in season one, to a budding Miss Jean Brodie in his new vocation as high-school teacher.

Authenticity is paramount: you can almost smell the sad-clown smackhead Bubbles (Andre Royo) as he shuffles along behind his shopping trolley, and you fear for the one elderly resident left in the neighbourhood rechristened "Hamsterdam" after the cops turn it over to the dealers. Yet there is still space in the vérité bleakness for larger-than-life creations such as the pencil-thin Nation of Islam assassin Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts), or Omar Little (Michael K Williams), the gay, dandyish highwayman who gets his kicks and his cash from robbing the mighty Barksdale clan.

The series is written by the sharpest nibs in the business - former reporters such as the series creator and ex-journalist David Simon, his old Baltimore Sun colleagues Rafael Álvarez and William F Zorzi, and crime novelists including Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos. It was Pelecanos who came up with my favourite line from the first season: the mother of an angelic young dealer, who doesn't know her son is dead, complains that he owes her $10 and promises that next time she sees him, "I'll slap the bright out his eyes". Ouch.

But one of the show's most admirable qualities is that it doesn't give an inch - it doesn't talk down to you. Close-ups are rare; the house style favours instead the medium- or long-shot, which presents characters framed in their environment, reminding us how they became who they are. And there is no music (other than the credit sequence, one closing montage per season and whatever blasts out of the characters' car stereos). That means no aural pointers steering our sympathies, no pumped-up score to cheer on a chase or shoot-out. The series repays endless scrutiny; intellectual muscles are flexed by a few hours in its company. You have to raise your game just to keep up with the mumbled, newly minted slang and the tangled plot-lines, not to mention the political tit-for-tat games and Yojimbo-esque manipulations that are reproduced with only the tiniest variation from the mayoral office through the police department to the networks of gangsters, pushers and junkies.

In this respect, the show is uniquely democratic, both on a narrative level, with no single character or storyline taking precedence, and in its distribution of empathy - the deaths of thuggish, low-level drug dealers across the four seasons screened so far have proved to be every bit as traumatic for viewers as the instances of brave officers injured in the line of duty. The Wire makes no distinction between its players on either side of the law or straddling the divide. Sometimes that same refusal to respect social hierarchy becomes the meat of the drama itself. When the Barksdales' lawyer, Maurice Levy (played by Michael Kostroff), accuses Omar in court of being a parasite, he responds: "I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all the game, though, right?"

"Stoop kids" on the streets of West Baltimore in The Wire

These characters are infinitely fascinating and unpredictable; it is impossible to know who you will be rooting for from one moment to the next. Despite the monstrous acts that Stringer Bell sanctions, for instance, he is one of the most affecting creations in the show, not least in his misguided belief in himself as a respectable entrepreneur who can leave the streets behind. Stringer takes a college course in business and, hilariously, introduces formal language into heated powwows with minor dealers; he aspires to move into the legit property market, but once there he discovers that real-estate sharks are even more unscrupulous than their drug-peddling counterparts.

We ache for Stringer's ambition, and his gradual realisation that the gap between who he is and who he dreams of becoming is too vast to bridge - we feel deeply for him even though we know he has sanctioned the murder of teenage boys and law-abiding witnesses. If this means of nurturing sympathy for the devil sounds familiar, it is important to point out, as David Simon has, that the show rejects the Shakespearean model adopted by The Sopranos and Deadwood.

"[Those shows] offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of the central characters," he told Nick Hornby in an interview for the Believer. "Much of our modern theatre seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We're stealing instead from an earlier, less-travelled construct - the Greeks - lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The modern mind - particularly those of us in the west - finds such fatalism ancient and discomfiting, I think. We are a pretty self-actualised, self-worshipping crowd of postmoderns and the idea that, for all of our wherewithal and discretionary income and leisure, we're still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious."

It would be hard to tolerate another writer who invoked such highfalutin comparisons to describe his own work. But The Wire is not only great entertainment and great art, it is also abso lutely the series that we most need and deserve right now as dislocated, 21st-century nomads who have barely begun to ponder the consequences of our behaviour towards one another, and our planet.

Plainly put, The Wire breaks society apart, brick by brick, and shows us how it works, or doesn't work. In its rolling, unforced structure, where nothing is resolved in a single episode (and sometimes not at all), it goes boldly against the grain of our segmented, soundbitten culture, where everything is available in bite-sized clips on YouTube and edited to a metronome.

Simon has said that he wanted The Wire to be novelistic: that is, for it to build cumulatively like a novel and to incorporate digressions, rather than the recaps and cliffhangers that keep a casual channel-surfer up to speed. He is, in other words, playing the long game. You can see that in every frame of the show. Take season four, where the maltreatment of the teenage dealer Namond Brice (Julito McCullum) by his mother can only be intensified by our memories from the first season of one of his predecessors, D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr), whose own mother would bring him lunch while he was working, and who later implored him to serve his time in jail like a man. (Needless to say, that plot-line didn't end happily.)

In these ongoing narrative cycles, in which history constantly threatens to repeat itself, sociological and political points are made with a level of forcefulness and insight unavailable to more self-consciously political, banner-waving film-makers. My dream is that Stephen Poliakoff or Neil LaBute, or even the Ken Loach of recent years, would be prescribed a course of The Wire, just to prove to them that arguments mounted patiently with the pen and the movie camera are infinitely more persuasive than those tied to a brick and lobbed through the viewer's living-room window.

The final season of "The Wire" begins on FX (Sky channel 165) on 21 July

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism