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The Wire - season four
cast: Dominic West, Jim True-Frost, Tristan Wilds, and Julito McCullum

creator: David Simon

749 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
Warner DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
To praise The Wire feels like a cliché. A series that is so regularly hailed as not only the best cop series ever made or 'the best thing on TV', but as the ultimate fruition and high-point of televised drama, does not need me cheering for it. It needs cash. Your cash! The Wire has been, throughout its existence an almost exemplary piece of television in its acting, writing, ideas, and breadth of vision. There is no room for debate about The Wire, there is simply the economics of culture: if you buy this DVD boxset, then there is an increased chance that something like The Wire might reappear on our screens. If you do not put your money where your mouth is then you are a part of the problem; tacitly accepting that the market for television can only ever be filled with talent shows or, if we're lucky, gaudy, childish nonsense with occasional flashes of inspiration such as Doctor Who. The economics of entertainment are changing and while these changes may well be for the better in terms of viewers being able to watch stuff for free, it is pretty clear that our culture has less and less time for serious and intelligent storytelling. If you are content with this state of affairs then so be it, but if you are not then I suggest you buy up this series on DVD. I now return you to your scheduled review.

The Wire, much like the case that its narrative is built around, has spread. Its first couple of series were paragons of the police procedural genre in that it was a crime story that focussed less upon who committed the crime and who solved it and more upon the minutiae of the process of solving a case from the politics of the police station to the process of cultivating an informant and working the scene of a crime. However, because The Wire is a series that is deeply wedded to social realism, its writers felt compelled to examine not only crime as a phenomenon but the place of crime in our society and the forces that shape it. Season two suggested links between crime and the economic marginalisation of not only black people but also the white working class who used to form the backbone of America's industrial productivity. Season three narrowed the scope somewhat by focussing upon the ill-informed posturing of our drugs policies and effectively speculated about what might happen if drugs were semi-legalised. Season four, massively broadens the scope by stepping out of the drug trade as a criminal problem and examining it as a social problem that interacts with wider social problems such as the failures of America's educational infrastructure and the increasingly corrupt nature of American politics. As such, this season of The Wire excels even by the incredibly high standards of the series as a whole. There are few political documentaries or news reports that are as intelligent and analytically focussed as the 13 episodes of this series. The plot of the fourth season unfolds across three different strands.

The first strand deals with the, by now, familiar world of Baltimore's drug trade. The major crimes unit are still chasing Avon Barksdale's money and political donations and after handing out a load of summons to notable Baltimore politicians, the political establishment works to have them shut down. The unit is gutted, its members reassigned but Greggs and Freamon hang on until a controlling and inept commanding officer convinces them to transfer back to homicide. With nobody working intelligence, the police miss the fact that the Barksdale organisation has been replaced by the small and ruthless but expanding gang run by the sociopathic Marlo Stansfield, a man so utterly adrift from any kind of sympathy or community spirit that even his fellow drug dealers think he needs socialising.

The second strand deals with Tommy Carcetti's bid to become the white mayor of a black town. Initially things do not look good as the incumbent mayor has a large war chest and the backing of every special interest group in the city but gradually his veneer of competence starts to fray as his machinations and lies start to become more and more apparent as Carcetti relentlessly hammers him simply by telling the truth about the dire straights the city is in.

The final strand is not only the most ambitious (as it involves the introduction of new areas and a long list of new characters) but also the most efficient. This strand deals with a group of teenaged kids growing up on the streets of Baltimore. Each of them comes from a slightly different background and has a slightly different character and temperament as a result. The boys are at the critical age where they effectively have to make a choice between the values and institutions of 'the game' (namely drug-dealing and crime) and the somewhat less tangible promises of white mainstream society. This choice is played out against an examination of the Baltimore school system (now boasting former detective Pryzblewski as a trainee teacher), which is frankly devastating. The series examines what the point of school actually is (socialisation as much as education) and considers the ways in which the political goals served by endless testing and targets actually work against the best interests of the children.

The way in which the schools are examined is reminiscent of the way they were looked at in Adam Curtis' documentary series The Trap (2007). In that series, Curtis argued that western governments have come to think of citizens as agents of purely rational self-interest. Economists such as Hayek and Buchanan slowly did away with concepts such as altruism and the public interest. As these economic models rose to prominence, they brought with them the game theoretical perspectives of the likes of John Nash who formalised rational self-interest and made it, in theory at least, predictable. With human behaviour rendered predictable and quantifiable, it became possible for governments to set strict targets. So, in Britain, the health of the NHS was gauged purely in terms of waiting lists and education became a matter of exam pass rates.

Evidently the same thing happened in America and The Wire picks up on this by showing how the teachers have learned to game the system; sacrificing the wider educational needs of students in favour of improved performance on narrow standardised tests upon which depend funding bonus for the schools. We see this in The Wire as Pryzblewski is forced to give up the lesson plan that is getting through to children in order to coach them for standardised tests they cannot hope to do well on. Similarly, Bunny Colvin (the police officer responsible for the creation of Hamsterdam in season three) is working with a team of education theorists on socialising the 'corner kids' (the kids that have given up on school and adopted the mindset required for slinging drugs on street corners), but despite some success in this area, the programme is cancelled and the corner kids are returned to their classes because in order to ensure that "no child be left behind" (one of the central slogans of US educational policy since the Clinton era).

The message of the fourth season of The Wire is that our government is set up in such a way as to encourage the wrong kind of behaviour. Rather than concentrating upon quality of life, the police are encouraged to lock people up or ignore crimes so that the politicians can show dropping crime statistics or increased conviction rates. Rather than educating our children, the school system herds them through a series of standardised tests which, by definition, are not suited to their particular needs. What is worse is that governments are addicted to this kind of thinking. Politics has been statistics focussed for so long that the entire infrastructure of the state is set up to train and promote people who know how to game the system and succeed by the hopelessly narrow and simplistic yardsticks that our media and political system demand.

In many ways, The Wire can be seen as an autopsy for a form of government. It points to the inner cities and sees generations of failure and alienation. It points to the police and it shows corruption, shortsightedness, and incompetence. This is a post-mortem for a way of life... after decades of myopic self-interest, selfishness and simplemindedness, the social infrastructure of western civilisation and America in particular is starting to come apart as the bottom falls out of whole cities leaving nothing but misery, poverty and death. It has been said that American science fiction has started to become increasingly interested in the end of America as a force in the world. Cyberpunk began this process but we can also see it in works such as those of Cormac McCarthy (2006's The Road, 2005's No Country For Old Men, and 1985's Blood Meridian). Despite the eerie eschatonic rhetoric of the Christian hard-right, The Wire is a more troubling beast... it is the sound of American liberalism admitting that they have been beaten despite being absolutely correct in their predictions about the perils of the pursuit of short term self-interest.

Played out over 13 episodes, The Wire's fourth season is relentlessly intelligent. However, despite this remarkable intelligence, the show never feels inaccessible or cold. Instead it features a cast of characters that are not only beautifully drawn, but also exquisitely acted. You simply will not find better television than this. It is nothing short of devastatingly powerful.

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