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No accounting for taste

I’m sorry, really I am, but I don’t love The Wire as much as I know I should.

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

I’m sorry, really I am, but I don’t love The Wire as much as I know I should.

I’m sorry, really I am, but I don’t love The Wire as much as I know I should.

It’s not that I can’t see that it has huge amounts going for it. I love McNulty’s cheeky chimp face and that the actor playing him went to Eton; I like the lesbian; I like the way one quickly becomes so well informed on the nuances of drug-dealing in the Baltimore projects that one could easily set up shop there oneself; I sort of like the fact that only about 50 per cent of the dialogue is comprehensible, which must mean it’s edgy and echt and cool.

But here’s my problem: it makes me fall asleep. I sit there, eyelids held open with sharpened matches, saying to myself, ‘Watch, you stupid bastard! This is good! It’s art! You’ll love it! You’re going to become addicted like everyone says you will.’ Then I’ll realise that I’m in the middle of a scene I don’t remotely understand, and that in the 20 or so minutes during which I’ve nodded off I’ve missed some incredibly vital plot point so complicated my wife can’t properly explain it and there’s no point rewinding because that would be boring.


The reason I mention this is because The Wire’s creator, David Simon, has got a new series out called Generation Kill (FX, Sunday), based on the bestselling accounts by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright of his experiences as an ‘embed’ with 1st Recon Battalion of the US Marine Corps during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And I’m not quite decided about this one yet either.

Again it has an awful lot going for it: pumped up, born-to-kill Marines in special Recon-issue black beanie hats; heavy weaponry; sick jokes; the potential for extensive violence. What you couldn’t really work out from episode one, though, is how much one is going to like and care about the so-far fairly undifferentiated men in uniform before they start getting killed. All realistically done military dramas have this problem — even Band of Brothers.

What I can say, for certain, is that it’s going to capture very accurately the stupidity, the cock-ups, random barbarity, weirdness and brutal unfairness of war. Because the Marines haven’t been supplied with sufficient batteries for their night-vision equipment they have to buy them from the army PX. When the invasion starts, the border crossing is delayed by an hour and a half because their CO misses the turn-off. When desperate men of the Republican Guard try surrendering to them, the Marines are ordered to ‘unsurrender’ them and send them back whence they came, despite knowing that they will almost certainly now be murdered by the Fedayeen death squads charged with stiffening the Iraqi resistance. As the Marines are surging forward by night in their convoys, the Apache helicopters rushing overhead, explosions in the distance, everything glowing green because it’s seen through night-vision goggles, the whole thing looks like a gigantic video game. And for a lot of these boys — until they take the first casualties, presumably next week — there really isn’t that much difference.

Jonathan Ross finally returned to TV this week after his enforced sabbatical and proceeded to have his cake and eat it. On the one hand, he delivered a long, gracious apology for his infamous answer messages to Andrew Sachs and with becoming humility expressed his gratitude at the ‘great privilege’ the BBC gave him to ‘communicate openly with people’; on the other hand, he smirked about the ‘several thousand new viewers’ the furore had attracted, and luxuriated in the rapturous whoops of the many in the studio audience who clearly felt his public chastisement had been overdone.

And I’m with that studio audience. However wrong-headed Ross’s original remarks may have been, they weren’t nearly as nauseating as the public outbreak of sanctimoniousness that followed. This had very little to do with those answer messages. It was much more a reflection of the general witch-hunt urge to punish someone — anyone — for the burgeoning horrors of the Depression. A grinning, long-haired, glitzy-suited potty mouth on a £6 million package paid for out of licence-payers’ money fitted the bill perfectly.

Look, I’m not saying that Jonathan Ross isn’t grotesquely overpaid. Nor am I saying that the BBC isn’t a bloated, Stalinesque bureaucracy stuffed with vile pinkos in service to vacuous celebrities, PC values and the lowest common denominator. Nor am I saying that TV viewers aren’t incredibly thick or that the country isn’t going to the dogs. But none of this is Wossie’s fault.

Wossie is our jester, a licensed cheekie-chappy whose job is constantly to teeter on the bounds of good taste. If he didn’t topple over on the wrong side occasionally, he wouldn’t be worth watching (or listening to — he’s much better on radio). Sure on a bad day, his jokes fall flat, he doesn’t get anything interesting out of his celeb guests, or — as with Tom Cruise — he can be a bit smarmy. But when he’s good, he’s very good: likeable, quick-witted, deliciously near-the-knuckle. The mob who came so close to destroying this man’s career just because of a single day’s error of judgment should hang their heads in shame.


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