I’ve been re-watching the TV series The Wire which originally screened between 2002 and 2008. When I saw it the first time I thought it was one of the best pieces of TV drama ever made, and as I view it for a second time I still hold that opinion. The series has stood the test of time. Why? Because the writing is outstanding. The characters are multi-dimensional, the dialogue is convincing, the social world is drawn in such detail it feels ‘real’ and the plot is gripping and complex. Above all, the moral world is nuanced and never reduced to simple judgements of right and wrong. ‘Good’ characters sometimes do ‘bad’ things and ‘bad’ characters sometimes act with integrity and compassion. Ethical judgements are always held within the world that has been drawn and we are able to see the economic, social and cultural determinates of behaviour. For example, Omar is a killer and yet there is code at work, he never kills outside the drug dealing world (the game). We learn about the social and emotional deprivations that led him into that world and we also watch him act ethically and compassionately within his moral world in relation to injustice and suffering.
The Wire is not the only great TV drama. Writer David Simon also penned the fabulous Treme, and more recently The Bureau held my attention and offered insight into questions of identity, geo politics and the psychology of spies. Ku’damm 59 was visually sumptuous and gripping in both its story development and its psychological insights. Right now I am enjoying The Queens Gambit, (its good but not in the same league as The Wire) and there are many more excellent television drama’s.
My central point here is that much maligned medium of television, and indeed genre drama, is capable of producing some of the very best writing on the planet. I enjoy reading novels and I am writing both short stories and a novel. High on my list of favoured writers are Colm Toibin, John Fowles, Salman Rushdie, and E.L Doctorow. And there are more of course. But the idea that literature and high culture are always superior to popular culture, and television in particular, is mistaken. Judgements made about high / low cultural divisions are simply distinctions that uphold the views of a self-appointed cultural elite aimed at bolstering their own social position and do not accord with any kind of objective criteria. High-low cultural distinctions are philosophically unsustainable in any convincing way. Yes, there is ‘bad’ television, but there are ‘bad’ novels and ‘bad’ films too. Literature is great. But if you are interested in fabulous writing, television can also offer you insights.
McNulty (left) and Omar (right)