Culture: 'The Wire' needs tightening up

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The Independent Online

The fifth and final season of The Wire – the best American TV show ever broadcast, according to Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate – will make its British debut on 21 July... on the little-known cable channel FX. The sad truth, you see, is that The Wire has never been a ratings success. When the series was originally broadcast in America, it was rarely seen by more than 4.5m people.

I've only recently started watching it, having bought season one on DVD, and I can't say I'm completely mesmerised. Set in Baltimore, it is certainly well-written and no one could doubt its authenticity: the show's creator, David Simon, was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun for 12 years while his writing partner, Ed Burns, spent 20 years in Baltimore's police department. Its depiction of life in a failing American city – the African-American experience, in particular – is surely the most accurate there has ever been on television.

Yet The Wire doesn't just strive to be more realistic than shows such as CSI and Law and Order. Simon has employed some of America's best crime novelists to write episodes, including Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos, and his literary ambitions easily outstrip those of his competitors. Last year, he told The New Yorker that the writing staff had "ripped off" authors such as Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. "We've basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy and applied it to the modern city-state," he said. That, in turn, points to another distinctive feature of The Wire: it is animated by Simon's abiding anger about the destructive effect of what he calls "raw, unencumbered capitalism".

The upshot is that each season is less like a TV show than an epic novel, with a sprawling cast of characters, a dense, interlocking plot, and an underlying moral vision. The problem is that so intent is Simon on venting his rage about the collapse of America's social fabric that he leaves out all the lowbrow devices which make the greatest works of social realism so entertaining. Charles Dickens, for instance, included mystery and romance in his novels, not to mention comedy, horror and suspense. Without such tricks, The Wire can often be quite heavy going.

Don't get me wrong; once you've seen four or five episodes, you do care deeply about the characters and I'm looking forward to seasons two to five. But the best American TV shows, such as The Shield and Damages, combine serious themes with a cornucopia of cheap tricks – and there's nothing wrong with that.