The Wire’s peculiar debt to sketch comedy

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for pretty much the whole of The Wire.

clock downCheeseshop

This summer, I had the privilege of being able to watch the complete box set of The Wire. And it really is a privilege. The programme is the realist novel par excellence for the 21st century, and should be as secure in the canon as the more traditionally feted Dickens and Eliot are. That its medium is the small screen only makes it more powerful; it arrives to the viewer through the vessel of mass readership, just as Great Expectations and Middlemarch reached their readers through All The Year Round and Blackwood’s magazine respectively. To continue such an analogy, the box set is the equivalent of the ornate, high-investment bound copy released a few years later.

Hardback copy of Middlemarch.

Hardback copy of Middlemarch.

There are many shows that have become successful through television and then found a second life with box set sales, but in my (fairly limited) experience, only The Wire comes remotely close to answering the question that haunted the great 19th century novelists: what is to be done?

Any attempt to address the whole of a series which manages to contain nearly all aspects of the American urban experience is an Icarean project, so in the meantime I want to focus on one specific scene, my favourite from the entire series: Omar visiting Proposition Joe’s shop in season 4 episode 11, ‘A New Day’.

The set-up of the scene is a good example of what sets The Wire apart from its competitors: complete bravery in writing, and a tonal flexibility that ensures the series always rises above trying to portray a lowest common denominator image of the streets. The scene begins with a Tarantinoesque fragment of conversation, as Cheese logically concludes that midgets have the ‘fattest ass’ and the ‘best pussy’. It would be easy to set the scene in the shop with a moody silence before Omar makes his entrance, almost bellowing how serious the show should be taken from the screen. Instead we get an insight – and sometimes five seconds is all it takes – that the characters have much more behind them than the game they are a part of. It’s illusionary, sure, but the best programming nearly always is. I particularly like the little exchange because it gives a brief glimpse into Prop Joe and Cheese getting along as members of a family, meaning that Cheese’s betrayal of his uncle in season five has true pathos. It gives neat mirror image of the punning exchange to follow as well, as if every interaction has a kernal of comedy at its core.

What happens next is an absolutely audacious move, anchoring the scene in a very recognisable TV genre, albeit one usually far removed from the streets of Baltimore: sketch comedy. Reducing comedy sketches to a structuralist core would probably leave you with a branch of what could be best described as the ‘man walking into a room’ sketch, the type used as a central conceit in Thank God You’re Here, and perfected by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s safe to say Prop Joe’s reaction means he wasn’t expecting the Spanish-American inquisition.

DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER

DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER

You have to credit Michael K. Williams and Robert Chew for their sense of timing in their first part of this exchange: following the guns being drawn, Omar casually places the clock on Joe’s desk and Robert Chew lets the chime of the clock ring out just long enough before putting on his glasses (another comic prop in the circumstances, with shades of Eric Morecambe and Vic Reeves), then asking what its malfunction is. Omar’s pun ‘ran out of time’ is wonderfully absurd, when we know how thorough he is when planning his robberies; as if as well as scoping the joint, keeping track of Joe’s muscle and their movements, he also put the same amount of thought into a splendid little throwaway gag. The punchline is delivered while he produces a .50 caliber Desert Eagle, mixing the tone somewhat: on one hand it is a comically large gun, becoming an excessive prop in the manner of Joe’s glasses, but on the other it is supremely powerful and Joe’s fear is justified, given that one shot from it would be enough to place most of his innards on the back wall.

One big gun.

One big gun.

Likewise, the clock is a symbol of Joe’s mortality, only giving himself a chance of crawling out of his grave by fixing it, and fixing Marlo. As their dialogue develops, and the situation becomes more intense, the camera flits between Joe and Omar’s faces, zooming in closer and closer each time. This is until Joe urges that Omar ‘take a deep breath’, and then offers him a proposition. Here the writers make great use of Prop Joe’s name, and his established behaviour. He momentarily becomes a recurring character in this twisted sketch show, appeasing the audience with his catchphrase. Omar’s response is mirrored by the reintroduction of zoom into his face, and the stakes are raised again. In a similar vein, Omar’s insistence that ‘we got to have things simple. See Omar likes it simple’ extends a character trait he has used several times before and here has a newly-tapped comic dimension: talking about himself in the third person. Both Joe and Omar issue lines not out of place as part of a recurring comedy sketch, talking about themselves as characters and employing their most distinctive lines. The next section of dialogue is like them laying the foundations for the next sketch in the series, as Omar adopts a camp, faux-despairing tone when he imagines what he would have to do if Joe double-crossed him. With the scene firmly laid, Omar continues the vaudeville style acting, which has a strange anaesthetic effect upon the consequences of his actions; namely, taking out Joe.

The comic structure is brought back to the fore as Omar asks for a ticket for his clock, which, forgoing its symbolism for a moment, is an almost unbelievably banal follow-up to the plan he and Joe have just laid (and the consequences it has). His parting word of ‘Gentlemen’ to Joe, Cheese and Slim Charles is a theatrical flourish upon which to exit.

The clock/ticket episode shows how Omar manages to treat Joe as a civilian and a gangster all at once.

The clock/ticket episode shows how Omar manages to treat Joe as a civilian and a gangster all at once.

It looks forward to Omar’s posthumous reputation as a mythical figure, the accounts of his death exaggerated hugely to superhuman levels, as his propensity for drama adds to his power, by cultivating an aura which makes others fear him, as he tells Renaldo afterwards, “I trust [Joe’s] fear”.

By invoking a paradigm of sketch comedy and mixing it with themes of the Baltimore streets, this particular scene shows The Wire at its most successful as a tragedy, a piece of social commentary, while being capable of raising more than a few laughs. The overlap of the two forms is indicative of the show’s more general concern with (mis)communication, because as a viewer it becomes difficult to find a stable reference. This seems very fitting in a show that examines at length the ins and outs of ‘The Game’, a euphemism for the American city and the sub-euphemisms within that. Furthermore, the name of the show points to one of its central paradoxes: that the Major Crimes Unit needs wiretap surveillance to be able to make the most powerful arrests, but the institutions of the police department and the criminal underworld are separated by a common language. It only makes sense that for the viewer, the message is obfuscated as to whether we’re watching a sketch comedy or something much darker.

Line of Duty and the myth of realism

In March, newspapers and websites alike were already falling over themselves to award Line of Duty with the accolade of TV drama of the year. It is a finely crafted show, of that there is no doubt (even if there was gratuitous and confusing plot dumping in the final episode), but the grounds on which it is praised are somewhat awry. The creator, Jed Mercurio, is somewhat culpable of this, as in an interview with The Guardian he described the genesis of his work:

“I got interested in writing about police corruption, it was a different angle, a police version of Bodies: very grown-up, it had mature themes, an antithesis of the escapist cop show. I am a social realist writer. There were sufficient parallels with the NHS I could write about.”

Mercurio may see himself as a social realist writer, but Line of Duty is at its most powerful when it is consciously fantastical, and I don’t think this is any coincidence.

It must be conceded right off the bat that Mercurio has done an excellent job at translating a previously ignored aspect of police life – anti-corruption and the bureaucratic culture of the police post-New Labour – onto the screen, but that is largely the extent to which his ‘social realism’ delves. There is a curious absence of the social, and that is what I understand in the phrase ‘social realism’ – examining characters based upon their socioeconomic circumstances. To some extent Mercurio’s words work against him, because the show works at its best when it is further from such an ideal of realism.

The leading players on the blue side of the line are generally rendered quite well, and without pandering to types. They are conflicted, and frequently misguided when they pursue what they believe to be true justice. So far, so good. However, the series changes tone when it attempts to address the world outside the police station. The criminal underworld in the series is a shadowy realm whose motivations are never brought forward – it is no coincidence that Gates’ house is broken into by masked intruders in series 1, and that the ambush is perpetrated by all-black wearing motorcyclists in series 2.

 

Jackie Laverty about to be killed by members of the criminal organisation she became a part of. The lurch from her and Tony Gates reminiscing over glasses of wine to this is quite something.

Jackie Laverty about to be killed by members of the criminal organisation she became a part of. The lurch from her and Tony Gates reminiscing over glasses of wine to this is quite something.

 

This does more than perpetuate narrative tension, as it shows the crime originating from the underclass as a strike from the shadows, one which draws power because it is so unexpected and unexplainable, not because the criminal organisations are accountable to any sort of socioeconomic production.  Crime is inevitable, it has no genesis. This is quite unusual, given that Mercurio is so careful to illustrate how the police officers are pressured by factors outside their work to act in the way that they do.

There is, of course, the fact that as a relatively low-budget BBC production, there is only so much time and energy to invest in drawing up the type of finely woven tapestry seen in a series like The Wire. Nevertheless, there are some sinister elements of Line of Duty’s limitations, which suggest there is intent behind the caricaturisation of crime. Namely, crime is seen as one part of a wider umbrella of annoyances in middle-class life, like noisy neighbours, or not being able to afford school fees. The interview with the child Ryan in series 1 does a good job at humanising him, but the impact of his early appearances puts him in close proximity with the demon-child Damien from The Omen, raising the implied question: what if this was your child?

This woman is a bundle of headlines, all neatly wrapped up like a pile of newspapers in twine. At one point Denton extinguishes a chip pan while she is asleep - another aspect of middle-class hysteria, perhaps.

This woman is a bundle of headlines, all neatly wrapped up like a pile of newspapers in twine. At one point Denton extinguishes a chip pan while she is asleep – another aspect of middle-class hysteria, perhaps.

You can see this in the series 2 sub-plot of Lindsay Denton and her noisy neighbour – the woman’s only purpose in the story is, quite literally, to generate noise. She has no side of the story, meaning that her disturbance of Lindsay is put on a level with the corruption the latter is dealing with. Think back to the robber in series 1 as well, who is accompanied by a motif of loud techno music which acts like a huge flashing banner, shouting “HERE! HERE! THE CRIME IS HERE! ISN’T HE A NAUGHTY BOY?”.

Series 1, episode 2, this robber is accompanied by a motif of banging techno choonez, further consolidating an 'us' and 'them' mentality.

Series 1, episode 2, this robber is accompanied by a motif of banging techno choonez, further consolidating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

Crime and loud noises are combined as part of a general background buzz with other annoyances like paperwork. Sometimes moving away from realism really fits the show, as with the absence of geographical specificity which I’ll refer to later, but at other times it makes the show look refracted through a prism. Namely, that society, its constituents and their motivations are not drawn in an inquisitive manner but according to a ‘worst case scenario’ program, simply rehashing what someone may think or worry that the world outside their immediate view is like, instead of depicting it with a sense of investigation. There is less of a feeling that Mercurio has uncovered hidden elements in our society that we need to have brought to our attention, but that our insecurities are, in effect, being pandered to. Sometimes this is a useful narrative tactic, when Line of Duty takes on a decidedly Gothic flavour, drawing on several tropes of that particular genre.

There’s no peace in your own home. Jackie Laverty thought she had it in the first series, before her home was broken into and she was brutally murdered. The two police officers who supervise Denton during her incarceration in series 2 are Gothic fantasies in two ways: one, in their Kafkaesque rigour to a completely banal and emotionless bureaucracy, and two, because they are effectively doubles of one another. They are not designed to be realistic portrayals of police who were tempted on the wrong side of the thin blue line; their distinguishing feature is that they are always presented as a pair, like the eerie twins from The Shining, constantly intimidating the protagonist by outnumbering them.

twinsshining twins via horrorpedia

Such a trope also promotes another Gothic idea: disrupting humanist belief that each human being is fundamentally different by giving two figures that look and behave exactly the same. Likewise, Tommy Hunter is an angry Scotsman – his only defining characteristic is his Scottishness, which makes him louder and brasher, furthering the portrayal of crime as a noise, something which constantly stampedes upon people’s attempts to get on with their lives, instead of something that is accountable to social conditions. A real student of theory could delve here into the effect of having this Scottishness make him part of the general ‘othering’ of the criminal world within the show, but I don’t think it needs pushing that far – simply recognising the stereotypical traits of the character is sufficient.

Another great Gothic trope: cross-dressing, with concomitant doubt over gender identities.

Another great Gothic trope: cross-dressing, with concomitant doubt over gender identities.

The whole estate sub-plot of series 1 is a sequence of ever-descending negatives, where humanity is completely absent: Sarah Hughes in The Guardian describes the overall feel as ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ and she’s certainly on to something. The estate is much more fictionalised than the police station. The estate is a place where crime and evil deeds obviously ensue, whereas the police station at least has the benefit of having each and every motivation and deed interrogated ruthlessly by the programme.  Although Fleming’s undercover work in series 1 was delicately done (and brilliantly subverted in series 2 when Denton called her out on it straight away), Dot Cottan has no such delicacies in his undercover role in AC-12. I understand that Line of Duty has been commissioned for two further series and thus it is perhaps inevitable that it will be explored further, but at the moment Cottan is a ‘Keyser Soze’ figure, a mythical menace within the police’s grasp, one who looks low on the pecking order both in the underworld and the police service but one whose hands remain remarkably clean.

The comparison with Cottan and Soze is admittedly a bit contrived, but I put this picture in just so I could say KEYSER SH-OZE!

The comparison with Cottan and Soze is admittedly a bit contrived, but I put this picture in just so I could say KEYSER SH-OZE!

Indeed, given the gaps series 2 left, I hope it will be the intertwining of police and criminals which forms the backbone of the next series at least. Taking the first series on their own terms, however, there was very little reference as to why Cottan, the two women in the prison, and the police behind the ambush acted in the way that they did. The fact that they show no remorse is telling; these are not conscience-driven characters in the way that the main characters are, they are devils, who commit evil deeds because that is what they are built for. It’s a circular logic; they’re evil because they’re evil. Again, this is odd when the main characters wrestle with a more 3-dimensional picture of what exactly good and evil mean in modern policing.

Sometimes this fluctuation between realism and Gothic benefits the show: they have been unable to specify where the show is set due to changing filming locations, but this has quite a neat effect of murkying the show’s palette even further – the city in which the show is set does not have a history of particular socioeconomic policy directed to it – it’s a city woven out of nightmares, where each character is trapped resolutely within their unhappiness and surrounded by demons. Line of Duty is weaker when it perpetuates extremely negative reports of society without delving enough beneath to surface to justify the label of ‘social realism’.

I have to ask for feedback on this one; Line of Duty is the only Jed Mercurio series I’ve watched. Anyone who’s watched his other stuff like Bodies and Cardiac Arrest, please leave a comment, I’d like to know how the two compare – does he seem more comfortable writing about the NHS, which he used to work in? Is there the same sense of suspended investigation? Do get in touch.