I've already reviewed the excellent first season of this series, hoping to turn more people on to this criminally overlooked show. Since then, I've given it as a gift on two occasions and lent it out on another two in the hopes of spreading the message, but I think I only managed to convert two people to the show as a result.
I declined to review subsequent seasons under the assumption that people who have never seen the show wouldn't be particularly interested in reading a review on later seasons, but now that the show has finished its fifth and final season, I figured I'd take one more crack at convincing people to give the show a chance with this spoiler-free overview of the entire series, starting with this statement: At five seasons and 60 episodes long, The Wire is the absolute greatest televised drama I have ever seen.
That's not to say that The Wire is a show for everyone, because it simply isn't. I've never watched a show that demanded as much from the viewer as does this one. There are no wasted scenes, every detail matters, but very few are highlighted in a fashion that tells you of their importance.
Every season starts off slowly, drawing you in with atmosphere like the opening chapters of a book, without dramatic chapter breaks to grab your attention (partially due to the fact that there are no commercial breaks). It is a show that requires your full attention, without obviously demanding it, meaning that it is not a show you can watch with your attention divided between it and a book or the Internet, even if its less exaggerated pace suggests that it is.
If you're not paying attention, following the densely plotted world presented by former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon and former Baltimore police officer and teacher Ed Burns is all but impossible. Simply keeping track of all the characters requires more thought and involvement than almost any other TV show I can think of. By the fourth season, I'd guess that around 50 or so characters play a significant recurring role, which should give you an idea of the sheer ambition of the show. Juggling all these personalities and stories, with all of their complex ambiguities and interconnectivity, challenged me as no show has ever challenged me, and luckily, rewarded me for that effort like no other.
Which isn't to say that the show is a grind, or merely an intellectual exercise. It exhibits a gallows humour that provides a lot of laughs, and a genuine humanism that drew me into the lives of the characters, even if they are as far from my own experience as any I've ever watched on TV. That said, it is anything but escapism, which is what a lot of people are looking for from their television shows. Instead, the show strives for an unmatched level of verisimilitude that shines a light on the black underclass that most people would rather ignore than invite into their homes for an hour a week.
So no, it isn't a show for everyone. If it were, it wouldn't be half the show that it is. Instead, it is a show that redefined what television could accomplish, presenting the struggles of Baltimore with an uncompromising vision; bringing the viewer from the police department to city hall, down to the level of the streets, with a grit that disguises the traditions of Greek tragedy that inform the show. Characters are continually struggling against forces beyond their control, unable to overcome the obstacles the "gods" put before them or escape the whims of fate (only in this case, the gods and fate are the forces of bureaucracy and capitalism).
The first season of the show plays like a superior version of a familiar television staple — the police procedural. The season follows a small Baltimore police unit's pursuit of a drug kingpin via the use of a wiretap (hence the name of the show), following the investigation from both sides of the law, from the top to the bottom of each organization. The season set itself apart with obsessive attention to detail, patient storytelling, and unique setting. Season two then changes the script, radically changing the scope of the series by moving from the streets of West Baltimore to the shipping docks of Baltimore Harbor, introducing a whole new set of characters while slowly reintegrating established characters into the main narrative. A lesser show would have gotten the gang back together by the end of the season premiere, wiping away the consequences of the first season in order to give fans what they want. But on The Wire, consequences matter and everything is connected.
By shifting the focus so radically in its second season, the show reveals it has greater ambitions than merely being HBO's idea of a cop show. By expanding the cast and spreading its original characters apart, the show reveals that its true star is not Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), or criminal Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Instead, the true star of The Wire is the city of Baltimore itself, with each season expanding its view of the city and offering up another piece of crumbling infrastructure, be it the police department, unionized labor (season two), city hall (season three), the public school system (season four), or the fifth estate (season five), as explanations for Baltimore's ills.
The show is uniquely Baltimorean, filmed on location and written by natives Simon and Burns, culled from real life experiences. That said, it could just as easily be about any second-tier American city, be it Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, etc. The show is concerned with institutional decay, and how it has contributed to the decline of America as a whole, and the diminishing role of the individual in modern life. This makes the "wire" of the title less about surveillance equipment, and more about a common thread that connects all elements of a modern city, with the show successfully integrating all the connecting elements of its five seasons. It's this ambition that combines with superior writing and the best cast on television to make the show so vital.
Over the course of five seasons, The Wire offers scathing social criticism using narrative techniques so sophisticated that it practically reinvents the possibilities of serial fiction storytelling. It delivers this scathing indictment through the voice and eyes of characters usually undermined and ignored by popular culture, bringing us into the lives of unique characters to craft some of the most affecting moments I've ever experienced on TV. I consider it a privilege to have experienced this show, and highly recommend it to anyone, provided you are willing to challenge the way you look at television and the world.