Last week the fifth season of The Wire arrived on our screens, trailing clouds of glory and topped by a critical halo. There is a scary amount of reverence surrounding this Baltimore cop show. You have to be careful when you're watching it on download (or for the satellite swanks among us, channel FX) because – shhh! – there are simply some Things That Should Not Be Said When Watching The Wire, such as:
1) What did he just say?
2) Who or what is Pookie, and why does Pookie get on 'da main man's bitches yo'?
3) Is that the baddie? Who-dunnit?
4) A little flashback would be handy here.
5) Why am I not enjoying this more when it is evidently an outstanding piece of work and does it mean I am a culturally worthless moron?
On the other hand, there are lots of Things You Are Meant to Say While Watching The Wire, such as:
1) "HBO is America's national theatre, no?"
2) "This lifts its thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality ... pass the crisps." (That's a quote from the show's creator, David Simon – except for the crisps bit.)
3) "You know that two of the stars are actually Brits?"
4) "This just shows up our telly so badly."
So much for the dos and don'ts of Wire Watching. Silence is probably the best option. I say forget all the received opinion and just come to it as fresh as you can. Even if you came to series five cold, from a Wireless world, you'd have found plenty to enjoy: the way the dialogue is at once naturalistic and aphor-istic ("Every day, the same shit," mutters a police officer), the outstanding naturalism of the performances (Clark Johnson as city editor Gus Haynes! Wow!) and the special, overheard, overseen quality. The camera here is always an eye: a witness, news footage, CCTV, the view of the gods. It is a series for a surveillance age. It is all too easy to wax pretentious about The Wire – did you notice the ludic leitmotif, continuing into series five with the game of Connect Four, yah? – so let's pack in the adulation and move on to something mediocre, like Burn Up.
This environmental thriller threatened to fry your brain along with the planet. A riddle encrypted on to an enigma is passed off a rooftop and into a waiting car. It all looks magnificently scenic, and Marc Warren makes the best of fist-gulpingly awful lines such as "the phoenix, my dears, may yet rise from the hydrocarbons". But what did any of it mean? On the whole it was best not to bother keeping up. The conclusion was so weak and hackneyed – a babel of newscaster voices, some telling good tidings, some bad – that you were left impotently raging at the end, wanting all those hours back.
In among the debris of good intentions and bad plotting, there were a few memorable vignettes. A delegation of Buddhist monks following an oil executive around a conference was a striking image. Setting a match to the methane gas under the Canadian ice, Neve Campbell and Rupert Penry-Jones had a moment of sexual and environmental awakening (don't you hate it when that happens?) and retired to an ice-bound research cabin to give the planet a good seeing to. Resonances of Doctor Zhivago, yes; but resonances of R Kelly, too ("Trapped in the Igloo"?). The West Wing's Bradley Whitfield put in a customarily roistering performance, without seeming to notice that his long speeches ("Thank God for global warming! America's foreign policy depends on it!" etcetera) were embarrassingly crudely written. Burn up, tune out and turn off, I'm afraid.
The other big disappointment was John Barrowman: the Making of Me, a programme that tried to use DNA science to prove the actor's sexuality, which is like trying to use a telescope to prove that the sun is shining. Still, it did feature a brain scan that had been digitally manipulated so it appeared to be dancing in time to a Broadway show tune, which is certainly some kind of achievement. There was a wonderfully 21st-century moment when Barrowman was appalled to be told he was genetically straight, but even that was a tease, an outright lie to get some good material for the trailer. The science was communicated with such enervating dumbness that you gave up caring about it. The real mystery was John Barrowman, our creepiest cult hero. His public persona is a permanent audition for Tom Cruise, but in private with his parents he speaks like a Glaswegian clansman. A puzzle science can never explain, only showbusiness.
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