I have always maintained that if you compare visual story-telling in terms of literary story-telling, films would be short stories whereas a TV series would be a novel. This is probably more true in case of the American TV series ‘The Wire,’ which ran for five seasons from 2002 to 2008. It has been daubed as the greatest TV series ever produced in America, and it’s not difficult to see why — it’s a sprawling saga set in Baltimore, Maryland.
It started as a cop drama, as detective McNulty goes to investigate the case of a shrewed and almost invisible drug lord Avon Barksdale. Soon, it turns out to be something else, as more and more characters apear, all individuals and all with their sets of problems. The success of the show lies in its ability to make its audience care about the characters, even the traditionally bad ones, without resorting to melodrama. The narrrative is firmly rooted in reality, and is told in a crisp, cut-and-dry manner, presented in bold strokes. There’s nothing unnecessary in this long drama.
The Wire achieves its realism, apart from its locale and the character actors, in the language the characters use, full of slang and filled with immediate metaphors, meaning, characters invent their languages; the drug dealers speak in a sort of urban Creole, whereas the police speak in a language peppered with the word fuck.
I remember, a few years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was banned in India, the reason being the excess use of the F-word. It was later released in theatres, albeit with a beep everytime someone says F***. But, compared the soundtrack of The Wire, Plup Fiction sounds like an innocent exercise. Normally, fuck is used to underscore abuse and anger, something unpleasant. In The Wire, the word is used with such frequency and in such varied context, especially by the police characters, that after a while the word loses its power. It stops being vulgar. This is interesting, especially when we are talking about a TV serial.
Too much reliance on a particular ‘thing’ ultimately dilutes its effect; if you eat too many sweets, you develop a bitter test.
Take for example, this scene from an episode from the first season: Homicide detectives Jimmy McNulty and Bunk goes to investigate a crime scene. This is a routine procedure and they are not very excited about it, until they discover that there’s something fishy about how the murder was committed. This is not a revelation for the audience. We already know how the murder took place. In the long scene, as the detectives discover the new evidence, the only word they utter is fuck: “Fuck, fuck, fuck, Fuckety fuck...” In the process, the emphasis that the word lends in a conversation is lost, and acquires a new meaning. Here fuck becomes a shorthand to express surprise and incredulity, and all the sexual connotations neatly drained out.
Whoever leans a new language, not in a classroom, but on the streets, will tell you how the first words you learn in the new language are the abuse words, specifically, slangs about the private parts of man and woman: When I came to Pune from Assam, the first word I learned is the street name of a woman’s vagina.
In Assam, during my growing-up years, we were obsessed with the man’s private part: We called it ‘kela’, the banana; it does not need explanation, and the pubic hair, we called it baal, the word hair in Hindi, but with a stretched accent. In those days, how you used those two words showed the level of friendship. If a friend does not talk to me while peppering his sentences with either kala or baal, I would feel slighted; I would come to think that he is not my real friend. You see the connection. The sexual connotation of the word turns into something else, a code word for camaraderie. This is especially truth when we know that the words we are using are so-called obscene, and banned in society; this gives us a high, doing something that society does not approve. That’s what growing up is all about, doing things that others don’t approve of.
The Wikipedia entry on Fuck