IT has never won any major awards, it attracted measly audience numbers over six years on US television and was consigned to a little-known cable channel when it finally transferred to Britain – but The Wire has been hailed as the greatest TV show ever made.
Set in the drug-infested American city of Baltimore, Maryland, the show – created by ex-journalist David Simon and ex-homicide detective Ed Burns – comes to DVD in full this month, with all five series of the gripping drama ready to be discovered.
First broadcast in 2002, the show follows the residents and authorities of Baltimore as they deal with the social and political problems of the downtrodden city.
Each season focuses on a different aspect of the city – the drug trade, the port, the city bureaucracy, the school system and the media – introducing an endless line of characters, from homeless junkies and drug dealing gangsters to school teachers, police officers and newspaper reporters.
It’s not for the faint hearted – no detail is spared as the city’s underworld go head to head, bodies litter the streets and the authorities struggle hopelessly against a sea of bureaucracy, corruption and extreme violence.
The initial premise of the plot centres on the police department’s use of sophisticated wire tap recording equipment to gain information about the drug trade.
But as the show casts its net across the entire city, the audience itself is given direct access to the corrupt, desperate and often horrific society of Baltimore, which in turn acts as a mirror for the larger issues affecting modern America.
Despite the bleak subject matter, The Wire is not all doom and gloom. The characters have such freedom to grow and develop their relationships that there are often very funny, touching moments between them.
The acting is, almost without exception, startlingly good. The cast is made up of a combination of little-known actors and people drawn from the very world the show inhabits, lending the show a unique authenticity which has simply never been witnessed in this way before.
As the multiple stories unfold and the problems of the city go deeper and wider than would ever seem possible, an endless line of characters is caught up in the mess, each with their own complex neuroses and hidden agendas.
It is almost impossible to pick anybody out for individual recognition, but there are three figures who are central to The Wire’s appeal.
Cynical detective Jimmy McNulty, played by English actor Dominic West, embodies one of The Wire’s central themes – flawed morality.
McNulty is an alcoholic, womanising cop who antagonises his bosses and exasperates his colleagues, but inside he is a lonely guy fighting a losing battle against the city and his own demons.
In one already famous moment from season 1, McNulty and another homicide detective conduct an entire three-minute scene using only one word – as a result of which they end up solving one of the show’s very first murder cases.
Another British talent, Idris Elba, is at the heart of some of the most captivating moments of the first three seasons.
Elba plays Stringer Bell, one of the head honchos in Baltimore’s never ending drug war, running his expanding empire like a genuine business and keeping his hands clean while all hell breaks loose on the streets.
Elba is a hypnotic presence on screen, saying more with just a raised eyebrow or a well-placed sigh than most manage with a torrent of dialogue. The concluding scenes of season three are sure to stay long in the mind of even the most hardened viewer.
Omar Little, played by Michael K. Williams, has been hailed as one of the greatest dramatic characters ever created.
Omar is the ultimate enigma: a homosexual gangster who strikes fear into the inhabitants of Baltimore’s underworld before robbing them with little more than a sawn-off shotgun and a knowing quip – and god forbid anyone who gets in his way.
Unlike most others on the streets, Omar is not part of any gang. He lives by a strict moral code, never threatening anyone not involved in the drug trade, stalking the streets speaking like a 19th century dandy and whistling a children’s nursery rhyme tune. It makes him all the more menacing.
So much TV is about a quick fix, feeding us implausible plots and beautiful people to distract us from our own mundane lives or the real problems of the real world. The Wire simply flips this notion on its head.
The very fact that The Wire remains a largely undiscovered treasure makes it essential viewing, but snap it up while you can, because this will surely be remembered as the show that changed television forever.