For several years now, HBO has pretty much owned our eyeballs on Sunday evening. We've been avid followers of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Big Love, Rome, Entourage, and Lucky Louie (which really has gone where no sitcom has gone before).
But my all-time favorite HBO original series is The Wire, about to begin its fourth season this Sunday.
The Wire is ostensibly a Baltimore cop show. (David Simon, who created the series, wrote the book A Year on the Killing Streets that inspired the series Homicide.) The title refers to the electronic surveillance that often plays a part in the criminal investigations. Although many of the plot lines involve the Baltimore drug trade, the series has become progressively more ambitious: The second season of The Wire went into the Baltimore docks, and third season investigated the halls of Baltimore political power. For the fourth season, the series is going into the Baltimore public schools.
What's remarkable about The Wire is the depth and breadth of its characters. Besides the cops, we become familiar with a wide range of Baltimore citizens, from street kids and homeless drug addicts, right up to the Mayor and those who want to dethrone him. Nobody emerges as much of a hero or as a devil. Many of the the cops are seriously flawed human beings, and even the cold-blooded killers are imbued with a humanity rare in film or television.
The writing and ensemble acting would be enough to recommend The Wire, but it is also a raw and uncomprising look at America's underclass, and an indictment of the politics and economics that have led to such widespread poverty and despair. So many "serious" TV series are little more than comic books. (24 readily comes to mind.) The Wire is more real than is often comfortable.
The Wire has the reputation of being hard to follow, and that's a fair criticism. It certainly demands some focus and concentration, but is well worth the effort.