Don’t worry, this isn’t another article triumphing The Wire. You don’t need another person pouring praise on the sprawling ‘dickensian’ crime drama and its dozens of intriguing characters ‘sharing a dark corner of the American experiment’. And no, this isn’t an opinion piece pointing out that the majority of folk enjoying this mostly-black gangster crime show are white middle class media workers. Well, it is, as that is true, but only just a bit. If you’ve not yet watched ‘The best thing on television since the invention of radio’ I’d recommend you read my friend Sameer’s 100% spoiler-free piece instead. What interests me is the method by which it became popularised in this country, and what it means for future groundbreaking programming.
When The Wire finished in the US in 2008 it’s passing didn’t generate much noise in the UK press outside of a small but vocal group of supporters at The Guardian. They’d been drumming support for the little-known show for a couple of years, much helped by columnist Charlie Brooker’s three minute stamp-of-approval on his BBC show Screenwipe in 2007. However, the only people who could take them up on their recommendation were those with niche non-terrestrial channel FX. That, or someone with enough of a conviction that this was must-watch TV that they’d shell out for DVD boxsets of something they’d not seen an episode of.
No, the only real way to watch The Wire was either borrowing DVD boxsets from friends, or copying illegally downloaded files from friends. Either way, I’m pretty sure HBO wouldn’t have approved, and either way it involves getting the show for free and all at once. That last part to me is key, because I don’t believe this could have happened any earlier in the show’s existence. Downloading has been on the increase for years, yes, and there is the shift in watching habits where folk now have myriad devices to comfortably watch something on, whereas in 2002 they didn’t. But still, the Wire bandwagon wasn’t anywhere near rolling up to BBC2 by the time of the show’s critically lauded third series aired in 2004, despite having a strong cult following.
The Wire is a very complex show, unforgiving to those who don’t have the patience to watch every episode, structured apparently like a novel. Nothing much happens but build-up for eight or nine episodes per season, at which point the viewer is rewarded with two or three hours of brilliant pay-off. Its creator David Simon apparently didn’t pay too much regard for those who want to be able to dip into the programme episodically, famously saying “Fuck the casual viewer”. It’s this reason that once the show became being distributed across water coolers in increasingly high capacity pen-drives it always came with the caveat: “You have to get into it. Watch four or five episodes back-to-back and then you’ll be hooked!” Then once that hump was passed, you’ll be approaching each season’s home straight, at which point the receiver of the ‘product’ will respond “I got to episode nine and literally had to watch the rest!” Indeed, it’s very much like the very addictive substances around which the society of this fictionalised Baltimore revolves around. TV crack.
It’s being consumed in this manner that has given The Wire it’s huge success in this country. By being able to watch the whole thing at once, we can satisfy our craving for the later episodes’ action that stems from six hours of exposition and setting the scene. If the beginning of each season takes a while to get going anyway it’s doubly grueling to have to wait another whole week to get what you know will be more of the same, as US audiences did. In it’s native country, whilst given much higher exposure than it did here, it still won no Emmies in it’s five year run.
I watched The Wire last year, riding just behind the crest of that wave Brooker started over two years ago. By that time it’d become ‘must-see’ TV that any self-respecting metropolitan urbanite had downloaded and passed on months before. They’d all watched it over the space of a couple of weeks, and gleefully tease new-comers to the show about what’s to come. This I didn’t mind though, as I myself love a little bit of snobbery. What I did find odd though was people’s reaction to the speed at which I watched it.
It took me about nine months. Apologies Charlie Brooker, but sixty whole hours of intense crime drama have to be spread about it for less-gangland weathered people like myself. Each episode is one hour, and that’s without any nice comforting ads. I found if I watched more than one episode in a row I’d start making direct comparisons between the life of young hoppers selling heroin on the corners of ‘B-more’ (I’m sorry) and my immediate neighbours. I’d be walking the streets near where I live in Islington, nodding sagely at anyone not wearing a shirt and tie, aware finally of the plight of Britain’s burgeoning underclass. I’m not in ‘The Game’ though, so I knew I would be alright. I don’t even like football, and I know everyone works to a strict moral code. Like I said, this is why I had to string it out over a considerable time.
When a series ended I waited a few weeks, a month even, before starting the next. Aware that each one starts a year or so after the previous, it’d feel it a bit disjointed to make such a leap the moment the end credits fade. Instead I’d have a break, think for a while about the bleakness of everyone’s lives, about how we’re all trapped in the workings of a giant heroin-fueled machine, take a deep breath, and put the next DVD in. But none of my contemporaries did. They’d all hammered through a series in four days, sticking firmly to our stereotype as binge consumers. They’d enjoyed it immensely, of course, and many talk of rewatching it someday. But the fact they guzzle it all down in one nobody is in disagreement with; that’s the future of how we watch TV.
But how can it be? The Wire took six long years to make, or at least to produce. You could count the years David Simon spent researching the thing, and clock it up to about nine or ten. And during that time, the production of the show in actual real-life Baltimore created so many jobs in the area for it to significantly benefit the overall economy of the city. Actors from London relocated their family, or took huge breaks from them, in order to dedicate six months a year to film. Everyone worked very, very hard for a good chunk of their career, and we lap it up greedily in about a month. The same could obviously be said for any great book, or film, which can be finished with in a tiny fraction of that, but I feel that’s different. Those are standalone, and intended to be read or watched within those periods. With The Wire I feel we’ve cheated.
The Wire is television, and in this country we’ve always had a weird relationship with that. It’s not a film, which we don’t mind if are shit. No media in which ‘Meet the Spartans’ exists can also have a culture of people constantly complaining about ‘dumbing down’. Idiots pay £11.60, lights dazzle, and even if it was bobbins they probably go home satisfied. Compare that with the fraction £11.60 would represent of the licence fee, and how much programming that would afford the television consumer. That’s roughly a tenth of their years television being utter balls, and them not minding. We’re much more critical of television than the rubbish films we pay infinitely more to see. If Doctor Who isn’t on a par with some rose-tinted vision people have of programming in the 70s, the BBC is criticised and the state of British programming is brought into question. People phone up to complain, and yet a good few thousand are still going to see ‘Bride Wars’. We have particularly high standards for our licence-fee-funded television, but in today’s post-iPlayer climate we’re watching all the good stuff far too quickly. If I were to choose now to watch only the highest-quality, most-hyped and celebrated television programmes, I’ll find myself culturally bereft by around 2014. Christ, if you choose to binge one of the staple BBC 6-part comedies you can get through a whole programme in an afternoon!
This is my worry. Television production companies can’t hope to produce shows at the pace we’ve gotten accustomed to consuming them at, and at some point we’re going to run out. We’ve gotten greedy on our big fat US dramas and we’ve forgotten that in the UK we don’t have enough budget to make more than three episodes of Doctor Who a year. People want to use their Sky Wotsits and Virgin Doo-hickies to filter through the rubbish and have nothing but un-edited awesome of an evening, but eventually that entertainment pipe is going to run dry. You have to take the rough with the smooth, The Wire’s with the Deal or No Deal’s.