When the late, great Sopranos was still running, I used to merrily patronise those who told me they'd missed the first series, and thus had no idea what was going on, by telling them it was probably 'the best TV series ever' and advising them to embark on the not inconsiderable expense of buying the box sets.
Now though, the tables have been turned and I am on the receiving end of the pitying glances for not having got involved early enough in another HBO show, The Wire. In fairness, though, it wasn't that easy to locate.
The series, which started in 2002 and finished in March of this year, was instantly acclaimed but constantly struggled in the ratings, and faced the threat of cancellation throughout its five-year run. It was only picked up by some of the British satellite channels a few years back and most of the clever dicks here who've seen it all have done so via the box sets. I no doubt will do the same, but the good news in the meantime is that Channel 6 has just started showing the series from the very beginning. They screened the pilot two weeks back and I, for one, was instantly hooked.
Set in the tough streets of Baltimore, The Wire is a gritty, scrupulously realistic and brilliantly realised episodic drama that tells it like it is and makes big demands of its audience's attention span. It's also supremely ambitious. Its writer, ex-crime reporter David Simon, wanted to create a sweeping overview of the American city, and a critique of the effects of laissez faire capitalism on the urban underclass. To that end, each series focused on a particular facet of Baltimore life: the drug problem and the police who tackle it; the port; city bureaucracy; the school system and the news media. Each series works like a visual novel, with 10 to 13 episodes dealing with the same extended plot.
If all of this makes The Wire sound dull or academic, it's anything but. Its visual style has an unsettling documentary feel, and its drama avoids the comforting clichés of most shows. In this series, egotistical cops catch criminals just to prove they're smarter than them, and are more interested in inter-office politics than the misery on the streets. The bad guys, meanwhile, don't seem all that sure what they're doing, let alone why they're doing it, and to add to the confusion a few of them have a conscience.
The show gets its name from the constant preoccupation with surveillance and wire-tapping and their increasing role in modern life. The first series focuses on the gifted but rather arrogant police detective, Jimmy McNulty (played by Dominic West), whose loose words to a prominent judge in the first episode are responsible for a concerted campaign to bring down a projects drug baron called Avon Barksdale. The entire first series follows this story, though writer David Simon's conclusion seems to be that America's war on drugs is going about as well as the one in Iraq.
The Wire screens on Channel 6 every Thursday and I could not recommend it more highly -- it's like nothing else you'll ever see.