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Unknown Man No. 89
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When the Women Come Out to Dance
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Film and TV

Moment of Vengeance
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Glitz (TV)
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Border Shootout
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Get Shorty
Last Stand at Saber River
Pronto
Touch
Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast (TV)
Jackie Brown
Maximum Bob
Out of Sight
Karen Sisco
The Big Bounce (II)
Be Cool (2005)
The Ambassador
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Killshot (2009)
Freaky Deaky
The Tonto Woman
Sparks
Justified
Life of Crime

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Wire: “Hurrah for Smart Literary TV”

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John Williams discusses The Wire in an article in The Guardian entitled, “Is this the best TV series ever made?”

Some time in the 1980s it struck me that mainstream contemporary fiction was doing a woeful job of reflecting what was going on in our modern-day cities. Meanwhile, in the world of crime fiction, writers like Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky and the late, great George V Higgins were turning out books that married social realism to energetic storytelling. They, and others who followed in their footsteps, such as Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos, successfully conveyed the notion that out there on the streets was a world that Miss Marple and Hill Street Blues were never going to set right, a world that Amis and McEwan, or McInerney and Ellis, barely seemed to realise existed.

I was so enthused by this notion that I wrote a book called Into The Badlands in which I roamed America, talked to its great crime novelists, and fleshed out my case. And for the next decade or so I suppose I mostly still believed in it. But as I went on reviewing crime fiction in the Noughties, I felt an increasing sense of disappointment at the prevailing lack of ambition to do anything more than entertain. Everything people always used to say about crime fiction - isn’t it just a formula? - seemed to be true. There was a plague of serial killers, pathologists and profilers, cops with bad marriages and drink problems. Lumbering plots with saccharine endings. I couldn’t deny it any longer: the world of crime fiction had ceased to interest me.

Then I watched The Wire. And there was everything I’d liked in the work of Higgins or Leonard or Pelecanos: the inventive dialogue, the characters etched in shades of grey, the prevailing mood of moral ambiguity and profound cynicism as to the motives and efficacy of the forces of law and order. There, in particular, was the sustained attack on the war on drugs - a war that makes the Iraq adventure look well thought out - that neither our newspapers nor our novelists (with the shining exception of Richard Price) seemed able to make. There, in a nutshell, was the revival of American social realism: the Steinbeck/Hammett/Algren tradition that seemed to have been lost in a welter of postmodernism, post-colonialism and pure unadulterated schlock.

So I watched The Wire, and watched it some more, and nodded my head in respect as it widened its brief to take on education and politics, becoming positively Zola-esque in its detailing of the ways in which the rich and the powerful fail and exploit and madden the poor and the powerless and - in Baltimore at least - the black.

My one consolation, I suppose, in finding a TV series that is so much better than contemporary crime fiction is that much of the series is actually down to writers - not screenplay writers but book writers. Its progenitor, David Simon, made his name with a wonderful non-fiction account of policing in Baltimore called Homicide. And the show’s regular writers include the aforementioned George Pelecanos and Richard Price, as well as Dennis Lehane.

Which is perhaps why, for me, The Wire is so satisfying. It’s got all the advantages of a great series of crime novels, plus moving pictures - and for once there’s no one telling the writer that it’ll only sell if they stick a serial killer in the middle of it. So hurrah for smart literary TV; and boo to dumbed-down crime fiction.

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