31 May 2009

A class act

Series two of The Wire has just finished on BBC Two, and it represents one of those rare occasions when a much-lauded TV series actually matches the hype. Long talked of in reverent tones by aficionados of the small screen, it marks another triumph by HBO in world-leading, original TV drama - and another nail in the coffin of that hoary old truism that the UK makes the best TV in the world.

I certainly love it for all the things it has rightly been celebrated for - plot strands woven carefully to allow fully-developed characters to emerge, rather than being forced into clumsy exposition by the need to get to an ad break; fizzing dialogue and naturalistic set pieces; complex story-telling that feels no need to patronise the audience. "True that", as several of the show's characters would probably express it. But its real brilliance for me is it the way it attempts to tell a story of America in class terms, rather than along the usual racial lines.

Series one was centred on a drug-dealing business run on a run-down housing project in Baltimore. The tenants and users are predominantly African-American, the cops largely white, yet it manages to avoid the expected cheap reductions of black-on-white conflict that a lesser series would have grasped for, in an attempt to make easy (melo)drama. Nor does it posit the familiar approach of so-called "edgy" cop series, such as The Shield, that "cops and criminals are just two sides of the same coin". The characters are wholly believable because their actions are rational given the constraints they work within; life choices are a function of social class, and options are limited. Both police and criminals make unenviable moral choices every day, where the compunction to act rationally (in economic terms) does not sit easily with any desire they might have to act morally.

Each side of the line there is a clear class structure into which people fit; some will break out of this straitjacket, but the majority will not. It is very unusual, and a bit disconcerting, to watch an American drama that does not reinforce the national shibboleths of Individualism and Opportunity being the birthright of all. The way to get ahead in the America of The Wire is either to cut corners or play the system and wait your turn - the police are not there to do good any more than the drugs racketeer is. They are pawns in a bigger game, not masters of their own fate.

Ironically, behind this lies another, very British class tale - the lead cop, a blue-collar Irish-American, is actually played by a British alumnus of Eton, whereas the thoughtful, entrepreneurial head of the crime syndicate, whose earnings outstrip a police Sergeant's many times, is another British actor from Hackney. Not only is this a cop show playing against type, but, it would seem, so are its leading men.

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