The gangster series "The Sopranos," which recently ended, has been described as the greatest television show ever. But the police procedural "The Wire," also made by HBO, is even better.by Erik Tarloff / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
The Wire (FX Channel; seasons 1-3, Warner Home Video)
I’m not much of a television viewer these days. My wife, on the other hand, is in the habit of switching on the box in the evening. Although her tastes definitely lean towards light entertainment, they also include police procedurals, and so I’ve acquired a glancing familiarity with the genre. My wife herself doesn’t so much watch these shows as let them wash over her while she goes about her nightly business. For me, however, television is just too intrusive to ignore in that way.
Over the past couple of years, I had heard a lot of buzz about the HBO series The Wire, but I resisted checking it out. I wasn’t enthusiastic about attaching myself to an established series in medias res, for one thing. Too much catch-up required. And the investment involved in watching a complex, multi-episode series seemed daunting. But last Christmas, my son, who, after a couple of decades of uncomfortably close observation, has some inkling of my tastes, brought home the first three seasons of The Wire on DVD. Within an hour or two, I was hooked. We spent much of the holiday in front of the television. Plans to watch “just one episode” would quickly expand to hours of viewing.
In essence, The Wire is another police procedural. The show follows a unit within the Baltimore police department that employs electronic monitoring devices to pursue its investigations (hence the title). This aspect of the show is handled superbly—the writing and acting are exemplary—but would not by itself be enough to elevate The Wire to the level it achieves. We’ve seen these sorts of components before: a unit of mismatched misfits who coalesce into a superb team, revealing unsuspected talents along the way; the individual dysfunctions (bad marriages, excessive drinking) that interfere with, and occasionally enable, the various team-members’ ability to do their job.
Where The Wire differs—and where it starts to assume the complexity one is more inclined to associate with 19th-century fiction than with a cop show—is in its treatment of the law-breakers. In series one and three, the police are after drug dealers in the housing projects on Baltimore’s west side; in series two, crooked union executives on the Baltimore docks. In both cases, but especially when dealing with the drug dealers, the…