There are two types of people in the world. Those who realize everyone can't be easily split into two categories based on their feelings of one issue, and then there are morons. As we all know, there is no black-and-white, just various shades of gray. Nothing works out into a split of just two categories, even people's feeling of whether opening a post with "there are two types of people in the world..." is cliche. However, there are those few issues where the topic is so absolute, that people's feelings almost come down into two categories, like George W. Bush, Batman vs. Superman and Michigan vs. Ohio State.
With HBO's sprawling masterpiece The Wire, I have only found two categories of people. Those who have seen it and believe it is one of the best (or if you're like me, the best) television show of all time, and then there are those who haven't seen it. The first category of people is quite small, even at the height of its excellence, the premium cable show averaged about 4 million viewers an episode, which is pathetic even compared to other HBO shows like The Sopranos, Big Love and Six Feet Under. Because of this small number, the second category of people is easily subdivided: those who don't know anyone who has seen The Wire, and those who are so sick of us talking about how they MUST watch this show that they no longer want to heed our advice. For you comic book fans out there, keep in mind that the legend himself, Alan Moore, is a member of the first category.
All second category people (I don't care if you are sick of it or not), hear me now: The Wire is a seminal television series, the type of greatness that doesn't even happen every generation (think Citizen Kane, think The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds), that changes your understanding of what TV shows can do, alters your feelings toward other content on television and leaves you with an impression that is forever stamped on your soul. The Wire is so mind-splittingly good that it floors you and leaves you in a trance begging for more.
Season 5 of The Wire, which is the final season, just came out on DVD Aug. 12. For everyone who hasn't seen it, this is your chance to view this show in the way television is meant to be seen, in blistering marathons that leave your eyes sore and your DVD player hot. Go get Wire Season 1. Go get all the seasons. Sit down and just start watching. Trust me, if you have all five seasons -- if you don't have to wait, like me, on the Netflix exchange that takes forever -- this process won't take more than two weeks.
Simply told, The Wire is a show about Baltimore. It's a show about an American city, any city really. Each season introduces a new aspect about the city and how those aspects all interact with each other. Season 1 is about police and drug dealers; Season 2 has the dock workers; 3 brings in city hall, 4 focuses on schools and Season 5 brings in the media. Each season introduces a long list of new characters, each one more intriguing than the next, and everyone brings in something new to the mix. I could write a book about why I love this show, but I've narrowed it down to three reasons.
The first is the characters. You know how on shows like CSI and Law & Order, the cops are all good people, dedicated to a life of fighting crime and all the criminals are evil wretches with no saving grace who all get their deserved comeuppance by the end of the episode? There's none of that crap on The Wire. Much like life, there is no black and white, just all shades of gray. For example, one of the central characters of the show is homicide detective Jimmy McNulty. McNulty cares more about fighting major crime and protecting the city more than almost any other cop on the show, and he goes to great lengths to arrest the people he perceives as doing wrong. However, McNulty is also an alcoholic who drinks on the job and while driving; neglects his children; is hated by his wife; and exploits people for all he can get. McNulty is just the beginning of a long line of interesting characters: Stringer Bell, Michael, Frank Sabotka and Omar.
The second reason is the never-ending story lines. All of the seasons follow some sort of arc (catching the bad guy, mayoral elections, the school year), but the many different subplots is what sucks you into this incredible show. Some subplots are loud and others are subtle, some get lots of face-time and others not so much; but they all contribute significantly to the greater whole that is The Wire. Not to give too much away or anything, but another example here is drug police Kima Greggs. At the start of a show, Kima, a lesbian, has a live-in girlfriend. Her girlfriend then decides to get pregnant so Kima and her can raise a family. Kima grows tired of this new lifestyle and cheats on her. Kima begins to slip behind on her child support payments while the girlfriend and her new son move in with somebody else. This all plays out over the course of maybe 10 scenes in the first four seasons. It is The Wire's ability to throw this information at you in a subtle, seamless and meaningful way that makes the show like a drug that needs to be watched.
The third reason is the show's attitude toward its own story lines that seems to say to its audience: You didn't think we would give you that Hollywood ending, did you? Again, without giving too much away, each season always has some great, altuistic goal for its end, and the creators are more than happy to tease you with that ending. For a few moments, they make all your hopes and dreams come true, but then snatch that heaven away from you. Nothing is perfect in this world, why should TV be? We should all strive for perfection, and we're rarely going to get it; but through striving, we'll at least be better off than when we started.
Now that I've most assuredly convinced you to run out and snatch up all The Wire you can hold, I feel the need to inject a short disclaimer. The show is excellent, you'll fall into its spell; but you have to be commited to watching the entire first season before you render any judgments on it. The Wire is like wave that slowly washes over you. It takes it's time, and you'll have to be patient. Like my friend Kevin Purdy pointed out, in the first season, the arc isn't terribly intriguing and not unlike something you would see on another procedural crime drama. That's not what's going to pull you into the show. Also, a high number of characters are thrown at you in the first few episodes, and it's hard to keep everyone straight, especially since most of the actors are unknowns. As long as you're willing to give it a chance, The Wire will return that faith in spades.