Stuff I love - The Wire    

The thing about the Wire is that its not easy. Everybody will tell you what a great program it is possibly the best telly program ever. Nobody will tell you that for the first three episodes you'll wonder why you're watching it. The story opens and you are at the end of something. A trial is about to collapse. There are no helpful recaps by the characters in the story or voiceovers to explain what's going on. A bewildering array of characters come across the screen and you can't understand any of them. Some of them are talking in American street slang and some are using the jargon of their chosen profession (whether that be drug dealer, policeman or junkie) a lot of them are doing both. To be honest with you having watched all five series I still couldn't really say with any confidence that I understood a lot that the drug dealers were saying. However I was getting the jist by the end.

So not an easy program to watch. Well not initially anyway. I persisted and suddenly fourth episode in I found myself hooked and since then I've slowly and steadily watched this brilliant story unfold over five series. I watched them on DVD which is probably the easiest way to do it currently (although 'watch on demand' via cable or the net may be the future).

This is different to the run of the mill cop series that you get from the States. The scale is so different. Over the first series we follow a team of police trying to catch a gang of drug dealers. The sort of thing that would be resolved in a single episode of Starsky and Hutch is played over 12 or 13 episodes (and each episode is a hour long-  these were produced for HBO which doesn't have advert breaks). The case isn't broken by brilliant feats of deduction or tough guy all action detectives. Instead diligent effort and hours of investigation are required - just like in the real world.

At the same time we also see the world of the drug dealers which is really capitalism taken to its logical conclusion. In the last series one of the characters discusses with a lawyer how the police treat an injured team member (pensioned off or given an easy job) compared to how they are dealt with in the drug gang (they have to take the rap for a colleague and go to jail). The lawyer says 'Yes but they (the drug gang) run a tighter ship'.

We also see glimpses of how a junkie gets along. Sometimes involved in comical capers in attempts to raise money at other times we see the despair of his life.

The subsequent series develops these themes and expand to cover other aspects of Baltimore, the city where the series is set. In the second series we see the state of the docks which were once a big employer in the city. In the third series we follow a local politician as he resolves to run for the mayor's office. Best of all is the fourth series where we take a look at the city's schools and follow four kids from the slums. Finally in the fifth series we take a look inside the local newspaper - a subject close to David Simon's (co-creator of the series) heart since this is where he started.

All the time though we follow the unending battle against crime. We see how much of it is connected to the drugs trade. Although it might sound like a preachy program it isn't. Its pure story telling with loads of brilliant characters and interesting twists and turns. There is a high body count throughout and at any point a major character may be killed off and not necessarily at a climax of the series. As in real life most of the people who get killed are poor, black and not always innocent. I think only two police are killed in the entire series.

One of the features is that virtually every character has your sympathy because none of them are all bad and none are all good. Probably the biggest villains are the politicians and the senior police officers who see their careers as more important than actually solving problems. Virtually anybody who works in a big organisation (public or private sector) will recognise certain situations that occur within the police department where statistics are massaged and good work is frequently trampled over to gain short term glory.

The Wire has a lot to say about a lot of big subjects. The 'War on Drugs'. The way that politics works. The options that you have if you grow up poor and black in a place like Baltimore. The way that newspapers report stories. It doesn't spell anything out or spoon feed you. You have to read between the lines and figure it out for yourself.

In summary its not a series if you are looking for light hearted escapism. On the other hand its not a worthy slog (you know like those Thomas Hardy novels you once tried to read). Give it four epsiodes and it should unfold for you and you'll be glad you started.