When I reviewed Copper, I mentioned how little I care for most episodic cop shows. The formula of catching a different bad guy every week is trite and unrealistic, and becomes painfully difficult to believe. Hell, some of those CSI shows are practically science fiction.
But The Wire is the kind of television that lets us know cop shows can be awesome. There's no formula. There are no neat ribbon-tied endings. There's no needless drama or hair-raising feats of derring-do. There are cops who do their jobs, and there are bad guys who do their jobs, and there are all the people affected by this cycle. And then there's the story.
If I had to pick one word to describe The Wire, it would be 'natural.' Everything about The Wire happens naturally, never forced, never gimmicky. The acting is superb. The story develops organically - there's no pre-determined ending, just the sort of cause-and-effect that actually makes things happen. Dealers sell drugs; cops go after them; people get killed. There are surprises and events that you didn't see coming, but they're not tricks or plot devices. The story can surprise you because life can surprise you.
The people who made The Wire did their research, too. The show feels real because the writers did more than just have a couple police on set. I have a cop friend who is also watching The Wire, and from the stories he tells me, I have absolutely no problem believing that the writers for The Wire have an exceptionally deep understanding of how actual police work.
For one thing, The Wire doesn't pretend that all cops are superheroes. It willingly acknowledges that lots of police are less than stellar human beings. Many cops are ladder-climbing political whores. Many more are just power-tripping bullies. And a bunch, a pretty fair-sized number, are damned serious about protecting and serving, and they're hamstrung by the fact that they are all government employees.
The Wire never shrinks from blatantly indicting what are otherwise sacred cows. Corrupt black politicians who trade on their race to keep them rich and in power. Police commissioners who are more concerned with looking good on paper than with stopping crime. Incompetent detectives who are only riding their desks until retirement. Reporters who will stop at nothing to get a good story - even if it means making it up themselves. I could keep going, but I might end up spoiling something.
However, just because some of the characters are assholes doesn't mean they're villains. The top brass might be fudging crime stats, but if they are, it's because the mayor's office is putting too much pressure on them. They might be decent guys who have to do what it takes to make ends meet. The detectives might have once been gung-ho crimefighters, but now they're jaded and exhausted by a system that lets complete outsiders tell them how to do their jobs (and often prevents them from doing it at all). Even the drug dealers, the guys we assume should be the bad guys, are often quite sympathetic. They're selling heroin because it's the only thing they know how to do.
Now, I've told you how well The Wire reflects real life, but that isn't enough to make a show this amazing. To make a series as powerful and brilliant as The Wire requires more than knowledge of how things really work. To be this good, the characters and the story have to be enthralling. And they are. Which at this point is probably redundant.
The trap into which most TV writers fall is a need to make the show more interesting than real life. The hero doesn't just get in a gun fight; he blasts away at four assassins and then leaps off a pier to save a drowning infant. Cops dive to the ground just as the car bombs fill the screen with brilliant orange explosions. Dramatic last-minute rescues and perfect one-liners are the mainstay of television cops - but they're just as make-believe as Lord of the Rings.
Real life is fascinating. I could tell you about how my grandfather was one of four pilots from an entire carrier who survived an air battle against the Japanese, how he floated in the Pacific for hours after giving his lift vest to a fellow sailor. Or I could tell you stories about how my old man called in artillery on the Viet Cong, or how he was badly wounded months later. Hell, I could tell you my own stories, about being in the middle of a bush war in Uganda or how my first girlfriend and I saw a man die. Real like does not need to be tricked-up to be interesting, and the writers of The Wire know that.
The Wire does more than just show us a believable story in a realistic setting. It goes the extra mile and makes it amazing. It makes you care about the people, the kids whose parents are drug addicts and the cops with the drinking problems. It punches you in the stomach and then holds your hair back while you puke. It shows us people - real, believable, natural people - and it makes you love them, even when you hate them.
And as if that wasn't enough, it makes you think. It makes you wonder what we could do differently. It makes you want to get involved. It makes you want to take up arms against a sea of troubles (although not in a Shakespearean-suicidal-tendencies kind of way). It makes you care, not just about the fictional characters you see on your screen, but about actual junkies and homeless people and embattled cops. It makes you want to find out more, and it makes you want to be more than a spectator in your own story.
I just finished the show last night, and I am equal parts glad to have seen it through to the end, and sad that there is no more to watch. It was moving and powerful and brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and always thoroughly enjoyable. I know I'm enjoying the afterglow right now, so my opinion could be colored by the recency of the experience, but I can't think of any television show I've ever seen than was as good as the Wire. From now on, every show I enjoy will have me saying, 'it was good, but it wasn't The Wire.'
I owe a special 'thank you' to readers who commented on my Copper review for turning me on to this amazing show. Hopefully someone will read this and say, 'man, I really need to watch that,' and then I will have paid it forward.