Tapping into the system

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The camera pans across a row of dilapidated and boarded up vacant properties. Stencilled across the doors is the message, "If animal trapped call 410 396 6286." Yet there are no trapped animals, just abandoned children living on their wits.

Welcome to the world of West Baltimore USA, and the setting of HBO's powerful television series The Wire.

Over the course of its four series (a fifth and final is in pre-production) The Wire takes you into the world of drug dealers, cops, politicians and junkies. In doing so it opens up the maggot-riddled carcass of US capitalism.

The Wire uses its 12-episode, hour-long format to develop rich characters, complex plots and sub-plots. The series captures a universe where easy distinctions between good and evil and crime and punishment are challenged at every turn. The New York Times wrote, "If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it."

The first three series are devoted to the police attempts to bring down the vicious Barksdale drug gang. Avon Barksdale is your classic gang leader - violent, totally ruthless and a hypocrite to boot. He sees himself as a head of his community, lecturing others about loyalty and family values at the same time as he guns down anyone who gets in his way.

Then there is Avon's Machiavellian sidekick, Stringer Bell, a man who earns his cash from the streets and learns his methodology at business school. The money rolls in, legitimate businesses are opened and swathes of property on Baltimore's lucrative waterfront are bought up, prompting one detective to observe, "So Stringer and Avon are worse than drugs dealers - they're property developers now."

One of the other protagonists of the series is the openly gay gangster Omar. His sexuality cuts him off from his homophobic counterparts. He is a loner, a violent one-man stick-up artist. He earns his money stealing drugs and cash from other gangs and earns the loyalty of local people by handing out free drugs - he is a real life "Robin of the hood". At one point he wears a T-shirt emblazoned with "I am the American Dream".

Then there is D'Angelo - "D" to his friends. D is a middle ranking drug pusher who is suffocating and caught in a trap. He becomes repulsed by the violence of his gang bosses on one side and the police who want to jail him on the other, but however hard he tries he can't escape the madness. In one poignant moment in the first series he says, "I feel freer in prison that I do on the streets."

Then there are the cops - violent, corrupt, bigoted and dysfunctional. If they are the solution then, as one of the writers and creators of the series David Simon says, "we are asking the wrong questions".

There are no heroes in The Wire - just villains and victims - and many are both. The biggest villains are the politicians that run city hall. These neocon monsters sit back and allow sections of the city to descend into hell. They take their percentage cut from the drug barons and every now and then order a drug bust to keep the press happy. They created the mess and they perpetuate the problems.

It is the little cinematic touches and sub-plots that make the programme such compelling viewing. For example, in the second season you see a woman in the background just scrubbing the steps to her door while in the foreground the drug dealers gather. In every episode you see her just scrubbing her steps and in every episode the drug dealers are moving closer and closer. In the final episode they're sitting on her steps and she has a "For sale" sign in her window.

Much of the success of The Wire in the US is down to its maker HBO and its policy of making high quality television programmes like The Sopranos, Sex in the City and Band of Brothers. HBO is living proof that it is possible to make good quality television and reach massive audiences.

The programme may be set in Baltimore but its spotlight is directed at the heart of US power and the weakness that lies at its centre. As David Simon said, "Series three opens with two towers being blown up. This initiates a dumb and protracted war. Now people will come to me and ask, 'Is there a metaphor here?' Well what the fuck do you think?"

Don't miss this show - beg, steal, borrow or hustle yourself a copy!


Series one to three of The Wire are out now on DVD. Series four is showing on Channel FX.