Since it's apparently the greatest TV show of all time, and a friend of mine has been steadily telling me I ought to watch it for what seems like years, I moved HBO's The Wire to the top of my TV-show Netflix queue, and I recently finished watching the first season. I'm not yet prepared to proclaim it the greatest show of all time, but it is pretty damn good, an effective antidote to tidy police procedurals for anyone who wants to learn about how real cops do business, and an amazingly bleak look at crime in modern urban America.
What's most impressive is how the show can be so dark and cynical and yet make you root so purely for its characters to succeed, for justice to be done even when it's set up from the very beginning that justice is almost impossible to achieve. Det. McNulty (Dominic West), sometimes seemingly the only good cop in Baltimore, does everything he can to piss off his superiors, ignore the chain of command and neglect to kiss the right asses, and yet we still hold out hope that he'll succeed, that he'll bring down the drug-dealing empire of Avon Barksdale just because he's so damn dedicated and good at what he does.
There's also that thrill that comes from seeing characters like McNulty, Kima and Lester, who are clearly so smart and dedicated and underappreciated, come together and work in harmony to get something done, even when you know that theirs is largely a futile enterprise. Creator David Simon manages to give audiences that satisfaction from even very small victories, because the world he's created is so unforgiving that any success at all seems like a triumph.
I don't want to make it sound like this is a depressing show to watch, though; yes, its depiction of police work and institutional corruption in the big city is a bit of a downer, but, again, it's the people who do good work in spite of these obstacles, and often in spite of themselves, that form the core of the show. The Wire is known for its well-rounded depiction of criminals as well, and people like D'Angelo Barksdale, who begins the show getting acquitted for a murder he definitely did commit, demonstrate decency and genuine moral struggle even in a criminal world where murder is just another part of the business. In his way, D'Angelo is as trapped by the entrenched practices and expectations of drug-dealing as McNulty is by the hierarchy of the police force.
And amid all the failures and deaths and pyrrhic victories, there are some great performances and some genuine warm humor. My favorite scene of the entire season (and a famous one among the show's fans) comes as McNulty and his partner Bunk reconstruct an entire crime scene over several minutes, using only the word "fuck" and slight variations thereof. It's funny, it's insightful, and it tells you all you need to know about the case, these two people and their approach to police work using essentially one obscene word.