Philip Hensher: What scandal lurks behind 'The Wire'?

Share
Related Topics

Everyone agrees that The Wire is a great classic; it has been called the best series ever made by television, anywhere. It looks to me very much like a work of the highest literary art. As British viewers watch it heading into the later stretches of its fifth and last series, it maintains the power and range that have left everyone who has ever seen it struggling for superlatives. But – let's admit it – you haven't seen it; it's quite likely you haven't even heard of it. The first episode of this last series, broadcast on the FX cable channel, gathered only 38,000 viewers. It's a complete scandal.

The Wire is an HBO series. Set in Baltimore, it initially looked rather like an unusual police procedural: a small unit is mounting an elaborate case against a powerful drugs gang with the aid of surveillance – the wire of the title. As series succeeded series, however, it spread outwards into the corrupt political establishment, into trade unionism, into the desperate state of public education, and finally into the operations of the press.

With its colossal range and huge cast, it delivers a tremendous account of a society in terminal decline. The terrible effects of the vast drug trade on a city are explored at leisure, and its implications unswervingly set out. You have the feeling that nothing has been skimped, nothing smoothed over, and the final effect of these intricate connections is very much the same as a great Dickens.

It takes its time. People rise to power in the course of dozens of episodes, whether in a cynical mayoral campaign, through the ranks of the police, or in the stratified organisation of the gangs. (One of the pleasures of the series is its elegant parallels between the structure of corrupt public organisations and the drugs trade.) An act committed in the first series may not bear full consequences until the third or fourth. This immense scale is unique in American television, and it gives the series an unmatched weight.

It is the best, most moving, often funniest and most constantly surprising show ever made, and you know something unusual has been achieved when your sympathies are entirely engaged with a heroin-addicted police informant or a violent murderer who makes his living robbing and killing drug dealers. There is nothing like it in the world.

So why hasn't it been allowed to make more of an impact here? Most of its fans, like me, wait and buy the DVD sets and indulge in its full novelistic range. But it should from the start have been snapped up by a major terrestrial channel. I wonder why that didn't happen. Could it be the dense and demanding dialogue? The gritty setting? Or could it, just possibly, be that four-fifths of its remarkable cast are black? No, surely not that last one.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PSV/PCV & HGV Mechanics

£29000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: PSV/PCV Mechanics & HGV mechani...

Recruitment Genius: Reprographics Operator

£12500 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest independent Reprogr...

Recruitment Genius: Web Design Apprentice

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a well established websit...

Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher

£120 - £145 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher X2 Materni...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

How to really be a YouTube star: Be white and wealthy

Olly Lennard
 

The Tate’s secrecy about its BP sponsorship figures was shameful

David Lister
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee