With the long overdue release of Seasons Three and Four to DVD, HBO’s extraordinary The Wire continues on its rightful format. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM extols the show’s progress to date. (contains spoilers)

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THE LITERATURE on The Wire has reached such hyperbolic proportions that new viewers may look for ways in which to critique its hype. It’s an intimidating prospect with “greatest ever” a common accompaniment to most critical reports of the show. Commercially ignored, but thankfully carried through to its natural conclusion on HBO, The Wire boasts a legion of fans who approach the show with an almost religious fervour. But to be fair, the show is that good. Reports calling it the greatest TV show of all-time might be pointless in terms of canonical debate, but in my personal opinion only The Simpsons in its hey-day could possibly rival this in terms of American television. In terms of drama, there’s no question – the righteous anger, the glimpses of humour, the sharply drawn characters, and the breathtaking scale of its vision confirm the show’s genius. If Tolstoy grew up as a drug-addled profanity laden alcoholic in the ‘hood, The Wire might have replaced War and Peace. Reading a review of the third and fourth season is probably pointless unless the first two have been watched. The show doesn’t reward casual viewership, or once a week viewing: it was a show made for DVD, preferably to be watched in as few sittings as possible. But all this makes for one of the richest visual experiences you could have.

The third season reverts back to focusing on the Barksdale gang, who had played a secondary role in Season Two. Avon has been released from prison, but Stringer finds his reign at the top has had personal benefits. The civil war between the two becomes almost Shakespearian in its power interplay – Avon unable to give up the original rationale for being in a gang – the power, the adrenaline – and Stringer wanting to escape, go legit. A question that Wire fans will probably ask each other some day is ‘were you an Avon or a Stringer man?’ Other characters gain prominence in the gang war: the new rising ‘star’ Marlo Stanfield who took advantage of Avon’s incarceration and the general confusion caused by Season One’s police investigation to gain a foothold; Omar, the one character who manages to largely avoid the dehumanising effect of institutions (be they gangs, the police, the mayoralty etc.), continues his merry unpredictable jaunt through Baltimore’s streets. The only misstep is Brother Mouzone, a one-note assassin who is probably a bit too self-consciously ‘cool’. Of course, McNulty et al are back again, investigating who they believe to be in charge of the drug trade, but like the futility of the “War on Drugs”, someone else will invaribly come in and fill the void.

But the crime is only part of the story. Season Three expands its vision to include the mayoralty race, where incumbent Royce is facing a challenge from two younger ambitious opponents. The most unlikely candidate is young, “white” Tommy Carcetti, trying to appeal to the city’s large “black” base. Carcetti is a mix of the smarmy and the idealist, his good looks representing a Kennedy (or Obama) type figure, whose drive and determination mask the pessimistic (or inevitable) outcomes that the writers believe result in politics. The three candidates double-cross each other, win alliances with key bureaucratic decisions (Burrell and Rawls, the two highest ranking police officers play prominent roles), make empty promises to the constituency. The same machinations that destroy individual potential in the drug trade, the police and the unions are emphasised in the bureaucracy, politicians and the voting public. However, the show cannot be accused of not offering any solutions. A concurrent storyline surrounds Major Colvin, whose experiment to make even a dent on the drug trade involves the creation of a ‘legalised’ drug-zone (called “Hamsterdam”) where dealers and clientele can buy without fear of police arrest, making the remaining street corners dealer-free. Of course, Colvin doesn’t really tell anyone with a bit of power, and as soon as the media, the bureaucracy and the mayoralty get involved, the hypocritical outrage isn’t unexpected. Colvin’s approach appeared to have some positive results; it was a potential way to deal with the futile war on drugs. The character of Carv also comes into his own as well, demonstrating the type of policing which could have an effect. Cutty, a recently released prisoner is also another character tussling with the old life and the new. But again, the show’s overall arc shows how seemingly rational (if unconventional) approaches struggle to fit within the broader environment.

“...the righteous anger, the glimpses of humour, the sharply drawn characters, and the breathtaking scale of its vision confirm the show’s genius. If Tolstoy grew up as a drug-addled profanity laden alcoholic in the ‘hood, The Wire might have replaced War and Peace.”

The show’s uncompromising and gruelling nature feels so close to realism, that Season Four could almost be accused of dealing in sentimentality. But a more accurate way of describing Season Four is that it’s a kick in the balls. A devastating demolition of education, politics and bureaucracy, the film charts how four young students (loosely intermediate age) get chewed up and spat out of the system. Whereas, the first and third chapter could to an extent be accused of playing on stereotypes of “black” criminality, the overwhelming frustration of the fourth chapter is that class and racial politics have their root in something more institutionally ingrained. Baltimore is a city burning itself up like a cigarette, and “white” and “black” are simply the tobacco.

The fourth shows that the lure of drugs and easy money seems pretty inevitable with an education system that doesn’t seem to really care. Prez, following his ‘misdemeanour’ in the third season, ends up becoming a high school maths teacher, demonstrating (eventually) a bit more aptitude for the career. However he finds the ridiculousness of the system means students just slip through the cracks. (If anyone ever tells you that it’s a good idea to uniformly nationally test young kids and making school funding contingent on this, punch them). Teachers are told by school staff to keep the classroom really hot, so students will be sleepy and won’t cause mischief. Truants are rounded up once a month to make sure the stats don’t look too bad. Curriculum is taught for the sole purpose of passing tests – wider contextual learning (which again, appeared to work) doesn’t really cut it compared to needing to look good on the stats for funding.

Colvin finds himself administering a programme dealing with troubled kids in the school and dealing with patronising academic idealism and misconceptions. The brash and occasionally violent students become test-cases for a programme which seeks to find alternative ways of teaching troubled students (there is an utterly brilliant/brutal scene where the kids go to an upper-class restaurant). Meanwhile the police investigation continues in earnest, although characters like McNulty become less important. The focus has shifted to Marlo, and figuring out how Marlo has been able to maintain power without dropping bodies. When the bodies are eventually found, it’s of no surprise that the initial reaction of the mayoralty and the policemen is to make sure it appears in the previous year’s (hence Royce’s) statistics. The vast array of characters continues to expand, the show expertly bringing more and more into the mix.

It’s remarkable how The Wire manages to maintain its breadth of vision in such a seemingly short space of time. The visuals are understated, the dialogue perfectly composed. The narrative arc requires some patience, however, once the show has you in its grasp, it’s flowing through your veins. Each one hour episode packs so much characterisation and depth, it’s of no surprise that fans of the show find themselves zealously talking about it for hours. The Wire is a truly remarkable achievement, an intensely moving and powerful piece of television, a show that you feel like you live. I cannot recommend it enough.