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Many critics who write about television for the high end of the market believe The Wire is the best American television program ever made, and even people normally skeptical about the aesthetic judgment of TV critics tend agree. Why is The Wire so extraordinary?

(The Wire is an HBO dramatic series that realistically depicts, among other sorts of people, urban drug dealers, policemen, politicians, schoolteachers and journalists. It concluded its fifth and final season a few months ago in the US. and its final season has just arrived in the UK.)

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, although it was never obvious to me until an insightful writer pointed it out, American network television tends to be made in the series form, with a relatively invariant formula. In contrast, drama made for "premium cable" like HBO can be serial rather than series drama. Serial drama may unfold a plot over a number of episodes or seasons, rather than confining its development of character and situation to forty-five minutes of storytelling, which is all the time the makers of traditional series television for network TV are allowed before the dramatic clock is re-set, and the next episode begins. <--pagebreak->During the most lucrative era of pre-cable network television, any successful formula for a dramatic or comic series was too valuable for anyone to risk tampering with it: the longer the thing ran, the richer everyone got, and some people got very rich indeed by changing nothing at all in a successful series. Serial television, however, is begun with no-one even dreaming that the programme will run forever. It tells its story over the life of the serial, and it has the luxury of developing characters in a much more leisurely fashion (and for that matter, can risk killing some of them off). The Wire, which ran for five seasons, developed its story and characters in more than fifty installments. It is one of the reasons why reviewers, and civilian viewers too, looking for a suitable adjective to describe The Wire, often came up with "Dickensian".

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Michael Burleigh
November 9th, 2008
4:11 PM
Excellent piece. One of its other achievements is to make the viewer ask 'what would you do' if he or she had some responsibility for dealing with such a mess. It also had an almost universal humanity so that someone like Stringer Bell was not simply demonic.

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