I am about five years too late on this, but I have just discovered the HBO series "The Wire." And hold on to your hats, because I am going to make a proclamation. Get ready. Are you ready for it?
The first season "The Wire" is better than every season of "The Sopranos" except maybe "The Sopranos"'s first season. And I would say it is as good or better than that. In fact, not since "The Sopranos" have I been more compelled to have a DVD marathon, and done the old "Okay, ONE MORE episode and then I'm going to bed." And then I watch them until it's time to get up for work.
What's so great about it? First of all, the structure is set up like a crime novel, as opposed to the usual crime procedural. Each episode is a chapter, and each episode has a beginning a middle and an end. Now, that sounds very rudimentary, but how many shows -- dramas and comedies -- make their living off cliffhangers? "The Wire" has no such manipulative endings in any episode, and yet it is one of the most compelling shows I've ever seen. It makes me want to kiss the person who invented the "TV on DVD" format. Even if that was a dude.
The show is never slow, but it never hurries a plot point; it takes due time to get to where it's going. (The "wire" of the title, for example, doesn't show up until episode 6.) And unlike that Mafia drama listed above, there is never a wasted episode, or a wasted scene for that matter.
What else? The characters. They are all likeable and unlikeable. All a lot good and a little evil, or vice-versa. Crime Kingpin Avon Barksdale and his nephew D'Angelo both have some likeable qualities, and many in the police bureaucracy are despicable. You root for the cops not because they are the "good guys" but because you like them as people. And you don't hate all the criminals, because many of the criminals are three-dimensional, and have a sort of code of honor of their own. (The entire catalyst for the investigation hinges on an event in which that code was broken.) There are more characters than a Stephen King novel, and much more plot, but it's incredibly easy to follow due to great writing and good direction.
The plot itself (I'm only on the first season but I can already tell how great this show is) is incredibly compelling. It's not so much a mystery: everyone knows what happened. It's more about how the detectives can collect the evidence, prove what happened, and cut through the maddening red-tape that awaits them at every turn from the politicians and law enforcement structure.
The show explores all sides of law enforcement, from the ivory tower offices of the department bigwigs, to the pencil pushers, to the cops in the basement doing the wiretaps, to the undercover guys, to the drug-addicted informers. It also shows the structure of the criminal Barksdale organization, from the top down. It works remarkably like the Mafia, with different levels and a chain of command. We see that there are some incredible similarities between the cops and the criminals, and in some ways, the criminals have more integrity at times.
The dialogue is fast and loose (I do have to turn the captioning on once in a while to catch it), and it not only assumes the viewer has knowledge of cop-speak, but also gives the same realism to the sometimes inpenetrable ghetto dialogue of the drug-dealers. The dialogue is funny, but also meaningful.
It combines all these elements into one, uncontrived masterpiece of television. I am a little embarrassed that it took me this long to get into the show, despite what I had heard about it. I should have been following McNulty and Bunk instead of Tony and Christopher for the last couple seasons.
I would say give it four episodes, but you really only need to give it one. I got hooked immediately. Go out and rent it or put it on your Netflix. You know you can trust me.