Thursday 7 May 2009

The Wire and Shakespeare 1 - Characters

When the BBC started showing The Wire last month (only 7 years late guys -- good old BBC rapid response*) we had all the, now familiar, buzz about "the best TV series ever", we heard the Obama endorsements again but yesterday I heard someone say that it was Shakespearean.

Mmm Shakespearean. I would usually run a mile from such glibbery. I remember the late, and bashfully modest, Eastenders producer Tony Holland claiming that were Shakespeare alive "today" (this was in the 1980s) he would be writing for Albert Square. I can just see "Bill Stratford" (his nom de plume for Eastenders when he was moonlighting from the day job at Corrie) pops into the Queen Vic after filming had finished, he makes straight for his guiding mentor Tony Holland...

BS: Hi Tony fancy a drink?
TH: Yeah Bill mine's a pint of Churchill's
BS: Two Churchill's please Angie. Tony I wanted your advice on that new character Hammy I am working on. He doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind what to do...just found out his uncle Frank killed his old man, is shagging his old lady and Hammy thinks he's next in line. Just can't make up his mind whether to take a pop at Uncle or not.
TH: Look Bill when you've been in the game as long as me you'll know indecision don't put bums on seats. I'd write that out straight away. Have you thought about the old man coming back as a ghost? ... and where does Dot play in all this?

But despite my natural revulsion at Mr Holland's (God rest his soul) hubris and by association most of such claims, there is something in The Wire comparison. How come?

Health Warnings: 1. If you haven't yet seen The Wire I suggest you use your time to watch it rather than read this. 2. If you have seen it, be my guest although equally you might be better to watch it all over again rather than indulge in pointless Wiring and re-Wiring. 3. Finally I am in love with Omar Little (best character ever on TV according to Leader of the Free World - I'm in good company) so excuse any "little" indulgences in that regard.

I think we can find Shakespearean parallels in the characters, the themes, the language and in the overall humanity of The Wire. I am sure there are many more.

The Wire's shifting patchwork of characters could provide a lifetime's material for analysis. Not just because of numbers and range but -- like Shakespeare -- because of complexity. This is no haunt for the usual TV good or evil cutouts. Everyone displays a realistic mixture of traits. Like Shylock even the baddest Baltimorite would bleed if they were cut. This unflinching realism gives us real depth but it doesn't do so at the expense of the drama. Again like Shakespeare, The Wire's writers create a number of extraordinary characters and mix the mundane with the epic. Omar's cry of despair when he identifies his lover's body in Season 1 is the scream of a Greek tragic hero railing against Olympus. This is real drama. So is D'Angelo as our Hamlet playing out his moral confusion amid a wreath of family ties. So are the corrupt politicians and union bosses as they work through the ambiguities of power just like Shakespeare's kings. Even the fools have their depths and their clownish tears. It was certainly my own experience that leaving Wireworld is a bit like coming home from the spicy intensity of a trip to, say, India and finding everything too clean and bland. Mother's Pride after roti and sambal...Others have said the same. After all where else do we find an Omar Little?

Themes soon...

* I suspect we'll come back to that

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