“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Friday, April 03, 2009

'The Wire' goes to Britain

The Wire: arguably the greatest television programme ever made


No other series in history has attracted such critical praise, not least from the kind of high-minded cultural arbiters who would usually only watch a US crime drama with a peg on their nose. According to these critics, The Wire isn't merely the best thing on TV; it merits comparison with the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky. As the entertainment industry magazine Variety observed, "When television history is written, little else will rival The Wire, a series of such ambition that it is, perhaps inevitably, savoured only by the appreciative few."
Until very recently, this was true: The Wire was minority pursuit, an "unmissable" TV show that most viewers on both sides of the Atlantic had managed to miss. On HBO, the US cable network which produced and first broadcast five series of The Wire between 2002 and 2008, it attracted a zealous but relatively small following of around 4 million viewers an episode. In the UK, fans of The Wire were even thinner on the ground. When the fifth and final season reached its climax last year on the digital channel FX fewer than 70,000 viewers tuned in.

Last Monday, however, the appreciative few became the appreciative many as the BBC aired The Wire's very first episode, introducing the drama to a mainstream terrestrial audience for the first time. BBC2 is now showing all 60 episodes nightly, Monday to Friday. The drama made further headlines this week when the British actor Dominic West, one of the show's stars, criticised the BBC for drowning its schedules with costume dramas and failing to make any "high end contemporary stuff" to rival The Wire.

Regardless of whether you agree with West's sideswipe at the bonnets and britches brigade, he has a point about the "contemporary stuff". The Wire is a TV programme like no other. Its central character isn't a cop or a criminal but a city: the faded industrial port of Baltimore, Maryland. Over the course of 60 episodes and multiple storylines, The Wire portrays Baltimore – and by extension urban America as a whole – through the eyes of dozens of characters. Each series focuses on a different facet of the city, including the drug-ravaged housing projects, down-at-heel docks, crumbling public schools and corrupt political administration. Regardless of whether its characters are running drugs or running for office, The Wire refuses to make black-and-white judgements about them. Its prevailing moral universe is grey.

Much of The Wire's power derives from its authenticity. "All the things that have been depicted in The Wire over the past five years – the crime, the corruption – actually happened in Baltimore," says David Simon, one of the show's creators. "The storylines were stolen from real life." Simon wrote from experience: he is a former journalist who spent years working as a crime reporter on The Baltimore Sun. The series' co-creator, Ed Burns, is a former Baltimore homicide detective.
In fact, The Wire is so unflinching in its portrayal of the city and its problems that Sheila Dixon, the Mayor of Baltimore, has publicly criticised it for being "overly negative". (Incidentally, Dixon was indicted in January of this year for charges that included theft and misconduct in office.) While in 2005, during a trial in New York, members of a drugs gang said that they had been studying episodes of The Wire in order to learn about the latest police surveillance techniques, such was the show's realism.

Baltimore's fallen world of drug dealers and urban decay will strike some viewers as a depressing subject, which it is. The Wire is deliberately dense, dark and difficult to watch. Storylines take whole series to unravel, characters move in and out of focus – or are killed off without warning – as the labyrinthine plots develop, and some of the characters use street slang so impenetrable viewers are often forced to turn on the subtitles. David Simon, despairing of and despising most mainstream US television dramas, wants to force viewers of The Wire to concentrate and work hard for the show's rewards, just as they would when reading a challenging book.

In a sense, The Wire's aims are literary. "Our models are the big Russian novels," says Simon, "and also writers like Balzac. We're trying to do with modern-day Baltimore what Balzac did with Paris, or Dickens with London." This isn't quite the boast it sounds; The Wire's contributing writers include several novelists, including Simon himself and the acclaimed crime writers Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. "The show is structured like a visual novel," says Simon, "and these writers understand the complexity of theme." By making the show "difficult", Simon hopes to wean them off the pat plots and formulaic characterisation of most TV drama, and give them something to chew on instead.

One reason The Wire managed to break the mould is the creative licence Simon has been granted by the show's creators, HBO, the network also responsible Band of Brothers and the drama with which The Wire is most frequently compared, The Sopranos. HBO is paid for by subscription, which means it is less beholden to advertisers or obsessed with winning huge prime-time viewing figures for each and every show it makes. In 2005, HBO almost cancelled The Wire because its modest viewing figures couldn't justify the $50 million it costs to make each series. The show was saved after Simon pitched the storylines for series four and five to Chris Albrecht, an HBO executive. Albrecht was so taken with Simon's script ideas that he signed HBO up for two further series, even though they were unlikely to attract many new subscribers. It is hard to imagine an executive at any other US network putting a compelling plot before profit.

The Wire is even a pioneer in the way it is watched. Thanks to its complexity, many viewers prefer to download episodes or buy each series on DVD so that they can watch it undisturbed or several episodes at a time. Tellingly, all five series remain in the top 40 DVD sales charts on, even though the first series has been available for seven years. The Wire is an archetypal slow-burning, word-of-mouth success.

Yesterday the final episode of the medical drama ER was broadcast in America. Over the course of its 15-year run, ER won a record 122 Emmy nominations and, at its peak, attracted more than 32 million viewers. Some commentators say it permanently altered the landscape of television drama.

By contrast, The Wire has never won an Emmy and often appears to have been watched by more enthusiastic TV critics than viewers. However, if the slowly mounting DVD and download sales are to be trusted, it is The Wire, not ER, that will be credited with changing the face of television. Perhaps now it is finally being aired on a terrestrial channel, The Wire will be savoured by more than an appreciative few.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'll be doggone, Trish, it was Robert 'Boo' Duvall, protector of little children.

  3. That Seventies Show! [Mark Steyn]

    In NR a couple of weeks back, I began a piece on the bailout/stimulus/whatever as follows:

    For Britons of a certain age, the defining moment of the pre-Thatcher years came in 1976 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, was forced to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund and seek a loan—just like any old president-for-life of one of those bankrupt banana republics dear old Bono is always urging debt relief for.

    Well, the Seventies are back:

    Britain should not be afraid or ashamed of taking money from the International Monetary Fund, a senior Cabinet minister has told the Daily Telegraph.

    Economists have warned that the UK's public finances are in such a bad state there is a real possibility that Britain will seek help from the fund.

    A lot more of this to come. As a Seventies-minded reader of mine puts it: Mamma Mia, here we go again...

  4. Would we care to flesh that out a little, bob?

  5. I think I'll skip it. I'm getting like my grandmother, tired of watching shootings.

    "The storylines were stolen from real life"

    The storyline of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' was taken from life too, of Harper Lee and Harper Lee's father's life, and some local cases. Harper Lee hung out with Truman Capote as a young woman.

  6. Just watched the movie, Robert Duvall was Boo or Bo.

  7. Atticus drives a car with suicide doors, Trish.

  8. Gregory Peck has a wonderful deep voice.

  9. You are not supposed to be watching the movie, marvelous creation though it is.

    (Boo is also the nickname of a recent prof of mathematics at the Air Force Academy - now in Qatar - whose sister, my former sister-in-law, bestowed Harper Lee's fictional moniker upon him when both were still in childhood.)

  10. You got to tell me when my deadline is. Thought I'd sneak the movie in if I had to fake it.

    No love story that I can see. Just trying to sell books, by mentioning a love story on the back cover of the paperback. That always sells a few copies.

  11. Study: Hawaii's Lessons in the Perils of Universal Health Insurance

    Highlights from the study:
    • Before expanding government programs to create “universal” health insurance, policymakers should consider states' experiences with similar efforts.

    • Hawaii created a universal health insurance program in hopes of reaching the uninsured population, but found that more than eight in ten of those who enrolled previously had insurance. Lawmakers decided to terminate this program just seven months after its launch.

    • Government programs to create free or subsidized insurance will encourage many who currently have private insurance to join the government program. This is inefficient and will ultimately erode the private insurance system in the United States.

    Executive Summary

    President Obama intends to greatly expand government's involvement in the provision of health insurance, moving toward the goal of “universal” health insurance coverage. He included $634 billion over ten years in his budget for healthcare reform, which his staff has characterized as a “down payment” for a more expensive reform package.

    President Obama will find a willing partner in the cause of expanding government’s role in our healthcare system in the Democrat majority Congress. Both Speaker Nancy Pelosii and Majority Leader Harry Reid have expressed support for universal insurance.

    Yet the American people should be concerned about the march toward greater government provision of health insurance. While President Obama pledged during the campaign that nothing will change for those satisfied with their current health insurance, that will be a difficult promise to keep.

  12. No, bob. See: The sole embassy wife who is a longtime member of the club, and whose place on the roster I am supposed to take upon her imminent move to Rome, has indicated that she just might do a Cliff Notes on this one. Time constraints and waning interest on her way out, you know.

    One of us has to actually read it.

  13. Starling's in Qatar, Trish.
    MIT trained Boeing Engineer before getting into Business.
    Match made in heaven!
    ...if Qatar can be called that.

  14. If you wait til the evite goes out, there may not be enough time to get 'er done comfortably.

  15. So Qatar is where the mathematicians go. Isn't that interesting?

  16. Atticus put a bullet dead center in that rabid dog. I think the symbols of garden, mockingbird and rabid dog could have been better combined into one dramatic scene. The way the movie has it the rabid dog gets shot in a dusty street. Put the dog in the garden attacking a mocking bird and have him take the bullet there, is better. Preferably at the end of the movie somehow.

  17. One of us has to actually read it.

    Well, yes, we probably should, come to think of it. And I'll try to get it done this weekend.

    But I've still got 'The Misfis' to watch first.

  18. Okay, you remind me of my son. "This is the way it should have ended." Or unfolded.

    But it didn't.

    You take a work as it is.

  19. Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?

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  21. Max Keiser:

    All gangsters die; They got to; It's justice.

  22. Belgium offered to send 35 military trainers and Spain offered 12

    Obumble has turned the tide in Afghanistan.

    Obama Stiffed By NATO

    Friends, allies, enemies, everyone is stiffing Obama. And why not, it's cost free.

  23. I got to downscale my synapses folks. I've been awake too long.

    Why We Need Sleep

  24. Interesting photo on your link Bob. Nato is useless and serves no benefit to the US. I have no idea why the Germans even maintain the pretense of a military. You want some good soldiers, get some Guatemalans, Salvadorians and Dominicans. They know how to fight and will die for a green card.

  25. Those Europeons, bob, they did not lose anything in Afghanistan. They've got no reason to be there, none at all.

    Had no reason when GW Bush was President, none now that Barak Obama is President, either.

    Just not in their national interest, to spend either blood or treasure there.

  26. Bob. This year isn't going to be a repeat of last year in Afghanistan.

    And we owe much of that to Bush.

    Pakistan remains to be lost.

    We'll see.

  27. I see the Pakis are embarrassed by their Islamic warriors...

    "Pakistan's top judge has called for a court hearing into the public flogging of a teenage girl, which was captured on video and shown around the world.
    Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has ordered police and government officials from the north-western Swat Valley to bring the girl to court next week."

  28. As you can tell, we're pretty excited around here for the Tesla Model S, but Detroit Electric, a company that was making electric cars back in the early 1900's, has given us yet another car to get excited about. Yesterday, the company announced that they are partnering with Malaysian auto manufacturer Proton Holdings to produce the E63, an all-electric sedan that will hit the market ahead of the Tesla Model S.

    The E63 will be a four-door sedan with two range options: either 111 miles for $23,000 to $26,000 or 200 miles for $28,000 to $33,000. The company plans to introduce the car in Europe and Asia in February 2010 and then in the U.S. a few months later. The quick turnaround will be possible by outfitting Proton's existing car models with Detroit Electric's engine design instead of designing a whole new model.

    The E63 lacks the beautiful design and the luxury details of the Model S, but it looks like a pretty sporty sedan. It has a top speed of 112 mph and can do 0-62 in under eight seconds. So, for all the people out there for whom the Model S is out of reach, the E63 may be a perfectly suitable substitute.

    Still expensive, but getting better.

  29. If I were manufacturing an electric car, I'd go for the name "Electron" rather than "Proton", but maybe it was already spoken for. I certainly wouldn't use "Neutron".

    I was once in a Radio Shack looking for something or other, and the young girl asked me if she could help. "Do you have any proton monitors," says I, which was an old line from Miami Vice.

    She looked at me kinda strange, and went off to check with the manager, before I could tell her I was joking.

    They didn't have any.

  30. ACORNs Up To Our Ears

    Scroll down to O'Reilly and Dick Morris video.

  31. "Neutron" is a mishmash of carbON and NEUTRal.

  32. Mətušélaḥ: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?

    Bernanke pulled a trillion dollars out of his ass hole, why not?

  33. EU to gay women "It's Leswegian".

    To placate angry residents of the island of Lesbos in Greece, the EU standards committes has decided to call homosexual women "Leswegians" not lesbians.

  34. Les swegians--bunch of French/Swedish/Norwegian lesbians