If you're a media-savvy type, there's a good chance you've heard of The Wire, probably even read a bunch of rave reviews from hardened TV critics, but never actually seen it. And it's understandable, seeing as its BBFC 18 rating means that broadcasters, such as BBC Two, only show it very late in the evening, if they show it at all.
This is a crying shame, because The Wire is written and produced in a way that makes most other police and crime dramas look like children's television. People flock to watch the various flavours of CSI, despite the fact this wildly popular show looks like Murder She Wrote alongside the careful, detailed investigations portrayed in The Wire.
The Wire: The Complete Series is a DVD boxset containing all five series (or seasons as they prefer in the US). Season 1 introduces us to the police department of the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Parts of the city are blighted by drug addiction and drug-related murders, and when a judge demands action on a set of linked homicides a detail of officers is assembled to bring down the crime hierarchy suspected. But we are also shown the world through the eyes of the drug dealers, the drug addicts and the police bosses, all of them pulling in different directions. The world of narcotics is examined thoughtfully, though that's not to say there's ever a dull moment.
Season 2 adds to the mix the dying port industry in Baltimore, the dockers' unions, the theft of freight, and the smuggling of the drugs which supply the street dealers. Once again we learn about this part of the world a bit at a time, watching the police build up information and evidence gradually, but we also see the world from the point of view of a desperate union boss and those around him.
Season 3 feels at first like a continuation of season 1. While there's still a lot going on, it's not until later in the series that it becomes clear that a lot of threads are being tied off. Also added to the growing picture is the mayor's office, responsible for overseeing and directing the police department and its budget.
Season 4 introduces a group of boys who are becoming young men in a neighbourhood where drug dealers call to them a lot louder than the local schools, and follows them into class, and back out onto the street. At the same time we follow a mayoral election campaign, and the effects of crime stats and political interference on the police investigations into the drug gangs.
Season 5 takes us into a newsroom to examine modern journalism. It also covers the effects of news reporting and city budgets on policing. This on top of following the young men from season 4, the politicians, the teachers, the drug dealers, the drug addicts, the homeless, the police bosses, and the police, some of whom are desperately trying to build a case against the drug kings.
These summaries do not do the show justice, but hopefully they scratch the surface of how big, deep and complex is the world crafted by The Wire. The exploration of the city is careful and unbiased, the cast of characters large, with none painted as flawless hero or pantomime villain. Even the bad guys (be they drug dealers, lawyers or politicians) are human, the reasons for their nature examined without judgement.
It's possible that The Wire may never be shown on TV in a reliable slot, not while there are so many convenient slot-in crime dramas that are neatly wrapped up at the end of each episode. So if you want to learn what quality television looks like, do yourself a favour and buy The Wire: The Complete Series.