Why The Wire will always be the best TV drama

The cast of HBO's the Wire

The cast of HBO's the Wire - Credit: Archant

Over the course of five seasons, starting in 2002 and ending in 2008, The Wire plays an incredible trick on the viewer, and pulls it off superbly

The cast of HBO's the Wire - a lesson in chess in the low rises

The cast of HBO's the Wire - a lesson in chess in the low rises - Credit: Archant

Listen to anyone that has even a passing interest in talking television and they'll almost always eventually get round to churning out the now hackneyed phrase: 'Well, this is a golden age for TV drama.'

While this can't really be disputed, what tends to divide people is exactly what they each hold up as their benchmark, their own defining show of this most golden of ages, this period of viewing perfection.

Some will say it's the Sopranos, others will extol the virtues of the West Wing, while you might come across a few who would pin their colours to the Walking Dead mast.

There are other fine (and almost exclusively American) programmes in the mix; some that get neither the viewers or accolades they deserve, while other shows are heavy with awards but (in my humble opinion) are not quite as addictively brilliant as others would have you believe (I'm mainly talking about Breaking Bad here which, although excellent, is not the pinnacle of television drama. Just sayin').

The Wire season 1

The Wire season 1 - Credit: Archant

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Six or seven years ago, in fact after the show had even finished its final series, the US crime drama The Wire had become the show that every TV nerd championed, the Guardian reader's drama of choice, the 'best thing you've never seen'.

And it still stands true, and despite the passing of time and the huge sums and big names attached to recent shows (think True Detective), the Wire set the standard and made stars of the likes of Idris Elba and Dominic West in the process.

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Over the course of five seasons, starting in 2002 and ending in 2008, The Wire plays an incredible trick on the viewer, and pulls it off superbly.

The first season sees the lines between cops and criminals blurred, with crooked drink-driving detectives breaking a multitude of rules as they try to build a case against a bunch of chess-playing, business-savvy drug dealers who happened to have been born on the wrong side of town.

The season reaches a gripping finale, with plenty of loose ends left, before returning with a second series that starts you off in a completely different part of Baltimore, mixing with the understaffed port police and the dubious stevedores union working on the docks, which have seen better days.

Our band of detectives eventually show up, while pursuing the first season's crooks in the background, before we get to season three and the introduction of the city's political scene, showing how even the crusading white night with aspirations of becoming the new mayor has a murky past.

Season four focuses on the city's school system, showing just what the parents, pupils and teachers are up against, while the fifth season examines how all the issues – the war on drugs, the power/loss of power of the unions, the corruption at the heart of politics, the under-funding and target-driven failings of the school system – are reported in the media.

Each layer adds to the drama and puts a fresh perspective on everything you've already seen, making you once again question who the bad guys really are, and, at the end of the day, how bad are they?

The ability of the writers and producers to illustrate how interconnected these issues are (kids are born into a life of crime, have no help at underfunded schools, thus have no aspirations other than to live up to that birthright; police are set targets and are forced to tackle the street level offenders rather than look at the bigger picture, mainly because the corrupt politicians don't want them to dig too deeply; meanwhile said politicians have to deal with financial shortcomings that are the result of a shrinking economy and so on) gives the show a tapestry of storylines, locations and characters that are impossible to beat.

And that's just breaking it down to my own simplistic take on it all, a condensed, basic interpretation of just some of the themes tackled. It's really that good, that complex, but it's all so well told that you never feel lost in the narrative.

The Wire teaches lessons that we all need to learn – that the war on drugs can not be won; how power corrupts; that there are idiots in every organisation – yet never feels preachy.

Some of the most popular, reasonable and honest characters are the drug dealers, addicts and troubled kids – the bad guys, in essence, if not in spirit. You start to understand that through no fault of their own, some people end up leading a life of crime or addiction and exist on the edge of society.

All this social analysis and exploring of issues doesn't get in the way of telling great stories or allowing a fine ensemble cast to show off their talents – the performances, from the core characters right through to the cult cameo appearances, are consistently strong.

If you haven't seen it, then check it out, while if you haven't gone back to Baltimore's West Side in a while, then remind yourself how good it is and dust down that box set, or get streaming.

The Wire Seasons 1-5 are available on DVD and through Sky's Box Set on-demand service.

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