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The Wire: Season 1 Review

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Hard and cold police drama, with plenty of rough edges left unpolished

★★★★★

History shows that TV viewers, Americans particularly, don’t like to be fed their legal dramas slowly. They are, typically, greedy little devils, liking their crime served fast, hot and with a hefty side of comeuppance before the hour is out. Sure, 24 gathers sizeable audiences with a single case told in real-time action, but it has the benefit of warped logic (why do deaths almost always occur on the hour?) and a huge pyrotechnics budget. The last show to try and tell one story over a full season, dissecting every aspect of the judicial system and twisting in elegant pirouettes rather than whiplashing spins, was Murder One, Steven Bochco’s mature 1995 legal drama which dealt with a single murder trial. It was summarily ignored, other than by UK viewers.

The Wire, therefore, is something of an anomaly, having made it to a third season without anybody noticing that it veers from the accepted formula. David Simon’s slow-burner offers none of the accessible episodic nature of many other hit TV shows. If you miss one episode you’re screwed, as if someone had ripped a chapter from the middle of your book. Everything about The Wire is hard and cold, with plenty of rough edges left unpolished.

Starting with the acquittal of clearly guilty murder suspect D’Angelo Barksdale, it branches into the lives of both the murderer’s drug-dealing family and the group of police officers put together to bring the crime dynasty to their knees. The lines between good and bad guys are fuzzy, with both the Barksdales (like the Corleones, with baggier trousers) and the police equally ambiguous. Home lives are glimpsed only enough to make characters whole people, rather than sudsing up the drama.

The writing is impeccably sharp and measured, letting its secrets slowly unfold without sensation or histrionics, and is delivered with worn-down chagrin by a cast of largely unfamiliar faces, save dishevelled Brit Dominic West. Scenes that start off with no seeming intent build into volleys of banter that speak volumes about the characters without glaring exposition. And while humour is rarely at the forefront, the genius moments when it is brought into play hit all the harder for their economy. Police drama is rarely so believable and unignorable. Watch it — just don’t tell anyone you’re watching it, because it’ll only get cancelled.

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