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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border