But there's one show that towers above all these others. One that has become my favorite show of all time -- HBO's "The Wire."
The series, which begins its fifth, and final, season today, is a realistic look at the war on drugs in Baltimore. For so long I'd heard TV critics hail this drama, which is created by an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter and an ex-Baltimore cop, as the best show on television. They weren't resorting to hyperbole.
It's sorta like "L.A. Confidential" meets "The Untouchables" meets "The Departed." But much more realistic in tone than any of those stories. Without being preachy, the show offers up a multifaceted portrait of Maryland's urban center with unflinching observations about the underclass, the politics of city hall and the police department, and the decay of institutions such as the school system. And all with great humanity and even dour streaks of situation-based humor.
I've never been as deeply invested in characters as I am with the ones on this show. Each one -- there are about 20 major roles -- has his or her own unique voice, and each one of them is so richly developed that other characters in movies and TV shows will strike viewers as utterly one dimensional but comparison. It helps that the actors, who look more like "ordinary people" than Hollywood stars, are all unknown. (Or were. Idris Elba is a star in the making and Amy Ryan is favored to win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars for "Gone Baby Gone. they're all unknown actors and they all look like ordinary people, not Hollywood stars.) The character arcs are unpredictable, messy as real life, and immensely satisfying. It plays like great literature. As such, each season has its own theme. The third one, for instance, is about whether institutions and individuals are capable of reform.
Most of all, it's a damning indictment of the unwinnable war on drugs. "It's a fraud," "Wire" creator David Simon told Reason magazine. "It's all over except for the tragedy and the shouting and the wasted lives. That'll continue. But the outcome has never been in doubt."
The fourth series, new on DVD, is the best yet. As Stephen King opined in Entertainment Weekly, "The Wire keeps getting better,and to my mind it has made the final jump from great TV to classic TV - put it right up there with The Prisoner and the first three seasons of TheSopranos. It's the sort of dramatic cycle people will still be writing and thinking about 25 years from now."
Which is more than can be said of "Airwolf"...