On the surface, The Wire plays like a typical police drama, focusing on cops and robbers in grim inner-city Baltimore. Before long, however, the series reveals itself as something more disarming than an ordinary police procedural. The line between good guys and bad guys snakes like a gerrymandered border, often simply blurring into an ambiguous backdrop where all divisions fade to gray.
Picked up by HBO after the success of The Corner, an unsparingly honest miniseries about drugs, The Wire pits a ragtag police unit against a cabal of drug dealers in a Baltimore housing project. When a witness in a drug case gets iced after testifying, ambitious detective Dominic West starts to make noise in a police department that would just as soon stick to simple cases with simple resolutions. After some back-door politicking, West finds an ear sympathetic to his warnings about Wood Harris, a spectral drug kingpin whose clean-hands style leaves him immune to standard street-level policing. From there, the first season of The Wire expands like a fractal, following a core "career case" through 13 episodes that grow more dense and elaborate as a tidy end proves increasingly elusive.
"This is the thing that everyone knows and no one says," a lieutenant fumes halfway through the season. "You follow the drugs, you get a drug case. You start following the money, you don't know where you're going." To that end, The Wire treats the drug trade as a complex milieu filled with rules and protocols not unlike those of the police, who are fated to lag behind. For their part, the cops—a smart but faulty lot who drink and scheme in the name of the job—erect a wiretap network to trace communications between street-level drug pushers and the suppliers up top.
The story's details make for startling drama, but the framework surrounds a rich cast of characters who give The Wire its heart and mind. Mired in bureaucracy and unsure of their devotion to duty, police and criminals alike play on a stage where the stakes are high, but the workaday behavior remains the same. No character appears more righteous than any other, and none seems deluded by his place on the streets or in the world that makes those streets grow rancid. The subject matter is decidedly bleak, but its honesty makes The Wire an urgent series that rewards patience by keeping an open eye on reality.