Why we're hooked on The Wire

DVD boxed-sets are changing the face of television, and one American cop show is leading the trend, writes Paul Whitelaw

ALTHOUGH terrestrial television ratings might be down across the board, people are actually watching more television than ever. It's just that they happen to be watching it in their own time, when and where they want, in a manner that was unimaginable even ten years ago. Not only are people increasingly experiencing TV on the internet or via Sky+, they're also buying far more DVD box-sets.

This has dramatically altered the manner in which we absorb what is generally known as long-form storytelling. It may have even altered the way in which writers tell their long-form stories.

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What unites the top five best-selling DVDs on Amazon UK at the moment is that they're all US television shows, none of which performed particularly well when first shown on British TV. This is obviously something of an understatement when it comes to HBO's The Wire, the first few seasons of which were watched by virtually no-one when it was shown on the relatively obscure satellite channel FX. And yet The Wire takes up an incredible three places in the top five, alongside season one of The Tudors and the second season of Heroes.

How has this happened? Simple: ecstatically positive reviews on a near unprecedented scale. There isn't a TV critic in the land, it seems, who hasn't spent the past 18 months metaphorically grabbing their readers by the lapels and screaming at them to watch The Wire. The result: a genuine word-of-mouth success.

I myself was initially sceptical that it could live up to such hype. After all, TV critics often tend to run in herds, blindly jumping on whatever bandwagon appears to be gathering speed at the time. I say this as a TV critic myself, albeit one who prefers to ignore the consensus – especially one that decides that The Sopranos is the greatest TV show of all time, when in fact it's nothing more than an above-average gangster drama. The fact that most critics have claimed the same of The Wire made me want to dislike it on general principle.

But, seeing as the only thing worse than a snob is a professional contrarian, I'll happily admit that in this case the consensus is correct: The Wire is magnificent.

Like so many others, I came to accept this inarguable truth not by catching it at some ungodly hour on FX, but via the luxury of a DVD box-set. Like the similarly compelling (but not at all similar in content) 24, I simply can't imagine watching The Wire in weekly instalments. For one thing, this sprawling cop show is far more complex than any TV drama I have ever seen, so thank God for the pause and rewind buttons.

I like to think of myself as an intelligent man (someone has to), but it wasn't until about four episodes into season one that I managed to get a grip on what was going on. It's utterly baffling to begin with, as multiple characters come and go without much introduction or explanation of what they're doing.

The dialogue is thick with police jargon and street slang, meaning that I found some scenes virtually unintelligible. The Wire is a programme that demands your full attention but eventually it repays you, and once it begins to weave its spell you'll find yourself, much like several of its characters, totally hooked and desperate for more.

Each season focuses on a different facet of life on the Baltimore streets, from the street-level drug trade, to port corruption, city bureaucracy, the school system and the local print media. The main focus is usually, but not always, a wire-tap operation orchestrated by a dysfunctional police unit, who spend as much time battling the political self-interest of their superiors as they do crime.

Created by former Baltimore police reporter David Simon (whose credits include the similarly gritty Homicide: Life on the Street), The Wire is wreathed in authenticity, whether dealing with the unglamorous minutiae and petty power struggles of the police force, or the squalor, violence, and ambiguous motivations of the criminals. There are no such things as good guys and bad guys in this unflinching world. The ostensible villains are often sympathetic, the cops often thuggish and corrupt.

In most other shows, The Wire's nominal hero, Detective McNulty, would be characterised simply as a standard-issue maverick cop, whereas here his self-destructive behaviour is depicted as utterly pathetic. Likewise, the character of junkie informant Bubbles is so much more than a loveable, Huggy Bear-like stereotype, just as coolly Machiavellian crime boss Stringer Bell or shotgun-wielding gangster Omar are fully-rounded characters with convincing inner lives. The Wire never strains for significance, but is nevertheless profound (and regularly very funny). Simon and his writers have the enviable knack of placing powerful speeches in their characters' mouths that never sound forced or stagey.

This depth of writing is effortlessly matched by the uniformly superb ensemble cast. It's one of those rare shows in which everything just clicks to achieve something approaching perfection. The Wire makes you realise just how simplistic most television writing is by comparison.

It also benefits immensely from the DVD format, and I don't doubt that Simon & Co have deliberately written this continuity-heavy drama secure in the knowledge that fans will watch an entire series in the space of just a few days.

Watching several episodes of The Wire in one sitting means that there is simply no need for repetitive exposition or obviously signposted plot development, something that the writers of the otherwise entertaining 24 or Heroes could learn from. Its success on DVD is something for rival shows to fear, in that it proves that large audiences are more than capable of understanding and enjoying relatively complicated dramas that don't talk down to them.

If this spurs others into upping their game in terms of quality writing, then for once the harried cops of the Baltimore PD may have sealed their case.

ADDICTED TO THE DRAMA

IT'S 12:30AM and and one of the episodes in the box set of The Wire has just come to an end. My two children look at me guiltily. "Time for a re-up, dad?"

A re-up, as all fans of the multi-layered crime series already know, is a drugs stash resupply. And as The Wire is my family's drug of choice, a re-up means pressing the "play" button, watching the HBO logo emerge out of the fizzing grey on the screen, settling back to watch another episode of the best TV show never to make it to UK Freeview (come on, Channel 4, where were you?) and deciding not to worry about getting up in the morning.

On Friday night, with a box set lined up next to the DVD player and no out-of-bed deadline, things can get ridiculous. Five-hour marathons aren't unknown, each of us stumbling off to bed at 3:30am. The hell with setting a good example on the early-to-bed, early-to-rise score. This stuff is seriously addictive.

With The Wire, my children (15-year-old James, 17-year-old Amy) and I are watching TV in a way that's new to us. Blasting through the boxed sets, with our own in-joke commentaries and questions, is so much more enjoyable than watching episodes individually – even (heresy, I know) the cinema.

So yes, we're addicts. But addicted to quality drama that doesn't insult the intelligence of its audience, with a complexity each of us can tease out as we watch it together, that tackles social issues without sentimentality. We've probably had more discussions on morality through watching The Wire than anything else we've ever seen together. (True, we're so mutually embarrassed that we fast-forward through the sex scenes, but even that's become another in-joke.)

We pay the price for our addiction, or at least I do. Zavvi has boxed sets at 25 per series, which is the best price I've found out so far. For the enjoyment The Wire brings three-quarters of my family (my wife can't see past the violence and hasn't become addicted), it's a price worth paying.

As I'm this paper's books editor and the Edinburgh International Book Festival means I'm doing at least two extra jobs right now, I'm going cold turkey this week and next: August will be largely Wire-less in the Robinson household. But, come September, we'll be back, mainlining Season Four. The final series hits the stores on 22 September. I can't wait…

If that's going to be the last re-up of marathon-watchable TV, I'll get back to handling the medium in a more responsible manner. But as long as there are unwatched episodes of McNulty and co rooting out the Baltimore bad guys, don't hold your breath.

DAVID ROBINSON

The top five best-selling DVD box-sets currently available on Amazon.co.uk:

1 The Wire

Season One

2 Heroes

Season Two

3 The Wire

Season Two

4 The Wire

Season Three

5 The Tudors

Season One