Sarah Sands:'The Wire' leads television into a golden age

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Rather like the liberal press, The Wire is more culturally influential than its audience size suggests. EastEnders (6.8 million viewers) has the numbers, but does not change the way we think. Conversations about The Wire last longer than the programme. Subtitles or not? Cultural comparisons – Law and Order? Balzac?

My niche interest is in the heritage of the actors. I love it that I saw Clarke Peters on the stage of the National in Guys and Dolls. I note that Dominic West has defied the magnetic poles by being an Etonian, from Sheffield.

The main pleasure of The Wire is that it is self-referential. Just as everyone has loudly expressed their personal support for Barack Obama, and dated it competitively to Illinois, so people offer their addiction to The Wire as a credential. We are used to people making personal statements through their choice of newspaper, but I cannot remember choice of television programme being such a defining form of self-expression before.

Dominic West last week described watching "these incredibly cool looking people" walking towards him and one of them calling out to him: "I love you." It was Zadie Smith. By watching The Wire, we might become mates with these people.

"There is a sense among people who have watched it that they are part of a secret society," says West. He has stumbled upon the mission statement of a thousand advertising agencies and brand management consultants. Yet there was no marketing agenda. The Wire happened all by itself.

For barren years we heard television executives yacketing about Martini principles and push-me pull-you models and digital delivery. The strategic thinking was that television was so diverse that a commonly watched programme would become an anachronism. Newspapers axed their television critics on the grounds that no two people would ever share the same programme.

Yet it turned out that everyone longed to discuss what was on television last night. There may be hundreds of digital channels available yet we gather around the same two or three programmes. The BBC's 10pm news. The Apprentice. Robin Hood. Word of mouth is an unstoppable force.

The absorption in television is deeper than ever. The arrival of the boxed set has brought about a Lenten commitment to television programmes. Many people have 60 programmes of The Wire to get through. My own, more redneck television addiction, is to the preposterous real-time thriller 24. That is 24 hours of television per series. I have cleared Monday evenings for as long as I can remember. Elsewhere there are people who know more about Prison Break than they know about their own spouses. Teenage girls have adopted Effy in Skins as their bad, cool friend and Freddy as the boyfriend they have yet to meet.

The power of television is that it feels closer than film. You can see why Sarah Brown chose Ruth Jones from Gavin and Stacey to come to her G20 party, rather than, say, the more remote Keira Knightley. Just as we started to write off television, it enters its golden age.

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