"This here's your grandfather. Does it scare you to see him like this?
It sure as hell scares me. The old man always said "Live by the sword,
die by the sword." All this time, he was the biggest player in Baltimore.
Survived all this shit. Now, he's lying here in this bed.
Fucking natural causes.
Scares the shit out of me.
--Avon Barksdale, "The Wire" (HBO)
Avoid highly subjective writeups, my ass: "The Wire" is the most thought-provoking, entertaining, true-to-life show to be on television in the last ten years.
Prove it? No problem.
To call this a cop show would be a disservice, though it does center on the police. Actually, 'center on' is a bit trite - think of an ensemble drama: you've got the flake, the businessman, the slut, the gay man and/or lesbian, the wise-guy; in essence, the formula for every drama to work its way through the networks in forever.
Got it? Now, take that drama and square it: instead of individuals fulfilling each of these roles, you've got massive groups of people - the police, the drug dealers, the lawyers, the FBI, City Hall, the unions, the citizenry and the renegades. Take these groups and throw 'em together, add rampant corruption and a dash of idealism, and you've got "The Wire."
The cast is massive, talented and (most importantly) immersive - with the exception of Frankie Faison (you know, Barnie from "Silence of the Lambs," a man I know because I went to high school with his daughters) there isn't a single recognizable face in the bunch to distract you from the story. You know the way Julia Roberts has screwed up every movie she'd been in past 1990 because you see her and feel your suspension of disbelief chase the drain? There's none of that. You start to believe in these people to an almost embarrassing extent; you actually forget that none of this ever happened.
The show gets its title from the wiretaps the cops use to keep an eye (ok, an ear) on their targets and all the bullshit they have to go through to get those wires up and running. That bullshit is politics and paperwork, and damned if they don't make paperwork interesting.
On the cop-side you've got a collection of trigger-happy, whiskey-fueled, dysfunctional police who'd much rather be busting heads that walking a beat. Each of them is flawed - one can't get over his ex-wife, another can't stand his current wife, a third is just weird (shot up his own police car and claimed to be under fire) but has a knack for puzzles, another makes dollhouse furniture to sell online, but they're all human - multifaceted, realistically flawed and irresistibly authentic.
As to the robbers, you've got the kingpin that nobody (at least, initially) knows the name of; his right hand who's a ninety-ten split between reputable businessman and stone-cold enforcer; a nephew who, despite having a knack for the drug business is also saddled with a conscience; and a whole crew of kids, aged twelve to seventeen, who do the brunt of the work. And that's all just the first season - the cast grows as the years go on.
The best part of this drama is one basic assumption, an assumption that so little television makes these days - the writers don't assume that I'm stupid. Literary references aren't explained, emotional reactions aren't beat to hell with unnecessary scenery-chewing, the humor is erudite (and yet crude; not sure how that works, really) and characters' deaths (and there are quite a lot of them - don't get too attached to anyone) are treated frankly.
My only complaint is a sincere desire for more than the three available seasons - as far as complaints go, that's about as complimentary a problem as I can think of.