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It’s the Canada Day long weekend, so beyond BBQs, daytrips, and marvelling at the fact that my Mexican friends are about 100 times more patriotic than any of us born and bred Canadians, I’ve been watching season one of The Wire.

I’d heard it was great – one of those best shows you’re not watching – but figured it wasn’t my thing. I was into St. Elsewhere over Hill Street Blues, ER over Homicide: Life on the Street, House over CSI. Plus we don’t get HBO up here, and I don’t get Movie Central, so it wasn’t on my radar.

I’d heard the complaint that it isn’t on anyone’s radar, much, even the media that salivated over the underworld of The Sopranos. Creator David Simon threw out the theory that white people don’t want to watch a show full of black faces. It would be naive to say that isn’t a factor at all, but having seen some of the show now, it seems like a flimsy explanation on its own. It’s disingenuous to create a show so defiantly non-mainstream and then complain that it didn’t hit the mainstream.

It’s a dense narrative with complex characters that requires empathy for both flawed cops and drug dealers, that requires an acceptance of hopelessness. It also requires getting used to dialogue with slang and accents and phrasing unfamiliar to my ear. Plus, if I hadn’t been following from episode one, I can’t imagine expending the effort to figure out who’s who and what’s what. This isn’t the show to kick back with after a hard day. This is a show that demands attention.

It’s also a show that rewards that attention. It really is brilliant. It’s been largely ignored by the Emmys, but listen to the Peabody Award:

Probing the full range of human behavior, The Wire has the depth and intensity of a complex novel. Both cops and criminals face dilemmas where boundaries of right and wrong, honesty and dishonesty are continually blurred.

I’m watching it five years after it aired, but it’s an interesting post-9/11 narrative. The cops here are fighting the war on drugs – except “wars end” – at a time when the war on terror has made that particular battle unfashionable. They’re lucky to get computers or surveillance equipment from this century, because the people they’re after aren’t named Osama.

The Wire vividly evokes a place I’ve never been, but feel like I’ve touched and smelled, now. I know Anne Tyler‘s genteel Baltimore, which is a very different city from creator David Simon’s Baltimore. In his, the drug dealers aren’t heroes, but they’re not demonized, either. They’re kids from the projects gaining power from an underground economy built on quicksand. The worse their product, the more they sell; the customer is always despised; violence is the first resort; their money doesn’t buy their way into “respectable” society.

There’s a beautiful scene of D’Angelo, the nephew of the kingpin, teaching two of this subordinates how to play chess. As he goes on, they all get the metaphor. They get that they are the pawns in this game they’re playing. One clings to the possibility, however unlikely, that he’ll make it through to the other side to achieve a position of power.

That’s one of two scenes that by themselves would make watching The Wire worthwhile. The other is a scene where two of the cops examine an old crime scene and discover new evidence. It’s about five minutes long, and the only dialogue is about 40 variations on the word “fuck,” each conveying nuance and meaning as they piece together a murder. It’s Simon and writing partner Ed Burns (no, not that Ed Burns) revelling in the freedom of cable, obviously, but it’s also character appropriate, dramatic, and funny as hell.

There’s a lot more surrounding those two scenes to recommend the show. The beauty of DVD is that those of us who missed out when it aired get a second chance now to catch up, and to watch it at a pace that lets us appreciate instead of be intimidated by the complexity.