Some works of art can be so precious and intimate in their appeal that you just have to own them. That impulse is what fuels the art market and, on a less exalted level, it is what keeps music collectors searching for ever purer forms of recording. Art here becomes a private affair, something special between you and it, and the rest of the world can go hang.
But the opposite effect applies too. Some experiences are so great that you want to tell the whole world about them, so that they can share your joy. In fact you can’t stop talking about them. I feel that way about The Wire, HBO’s devastating police series that has just started its fifth and final season in the US.
I walk up to people at receptions or bus stops and ask them if they know about it. Because, in this case, to know is to love. I have never met anyone who has watched the programme and has anything negative to say about it. But we are a mystifyingly small band. I know that many of you will not know what I am talking about. So I have to try to convert you. I imagine this is what the early Christians felt like.
There are reasons for The Wire’s obscurity. First, it is forbiddingly difficult to watch and follow. It tells the story of the drugs war in Baltimore, and tells it like the complex, infuriating affair that it is. Narratives play out over an entire series, and beyond. There is no dipping into The Wire. It is a serious commitment: you have to start with series one, episode one.
Second, there is its authenticity. The Wire was created by a former journalist and a former police officer who ran their beats for many frustrating years. The salt of the street is all over the series. The writing is dense, hard to pick up, and true. There is no smart-arse film school tricksiness here. This is not The West Wing, with its clipped, slick homilies on the wonder of American values. This is the anti-West Wing.
Finally there is the darkness of the programme. As an early commentator said, this show is about an America that is broken. The shot of redemption that we are used to finding in just about any form of popular culture, to make it more palatable and grant it commercial viability, is lacking here. Its makers compare The Wire to classical Greek tragedy: there are immutable forces sweeping all before them while tiny lives skirmish at their edges.
Terrible things happen in The Wire, and no one is brought to account. The show’s heroes are flawed and selfish; its villains are frighteningly charismatic. This is why things are as they are. Respective series have focused on dockworkers, education and local politics as their principle themes (could anything be less sexy?). This final series is devoted to those fine folk in the media. Expect something between Lou Grant and Dante’s Inferno.
The Wire is such a radical programme that it threatens to disrupt entirely the way we watch TV. This is not appointment, or water-cooler, TV. This is a buy-the-DVD-set-and-indulge-in-three-episodes-at-a-time-on-a-quiet-winter-evening-at-home experience.
It also confounds our expectations of the very medium in which it appears. Critics queue to decry the dumbing-down of television, but that is because they spend their lives watching makeover shows and reality programmes. Here is the real deal, yet they seem strangely averse to engaging with it at all. Could it be that the most popular art form is getting a little too “high” for their comfort?
And all those sanctimonious types who do not possess a TV at all, in the deluded belief that watching some piece of rubbish by Oscar Wilde on stage is in some way a superior cultural experience: who will give you your bearings now? Sorry, it’s time to invest in that flat screen.
Here is the clincher: late last year, in a poll in the US’s TV Guide, The Wire was revealed to be one of Barack Obama’s favourite shows. (Some context: Hillary Clinton responded with, among others, American Idol, while Mitt Romney chose Lost.) This is not the place to discuss the finer points of the American presidency. But that would clinch my vote. The man has taste.