Behind The Wire: cult classic reaches final season

As the final season of the US crime drama begins, DVD sales prove Britain has embraced a TV cult classic

There is nothing like it on television. Critics, including those at the British Film Institute, regard it as the "finest television programme in TV history". HBO's The Wire attracts some of the world's top crime writers, and its fans include Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith and Stephen King, who described it as a "staggering achievement".

It has made stars out of street hustlers, drunken ex-cops and bit-part actors, and it's changing the way people watch television. "You either love The Wire, or you haven't seen it," said one TV critic. And that is the conundrum. As it begins its fifth and final season in the UK tomorrow, it will be viewed by a fanatical but relatively small band of viewers.

DVD sales tell a different story. Sales of the series quadrupled in 2007, and sales this year have already topped last year's total. Season one, now six years old, topped Amazon's DVD chart yesterday, with the other three seasons in the top 20. When the BFI previewed tomorrow night's episode last month, Dick Fiddy, the television consultant at the institute, received phone calls from friends he hadn't seen for 30 years asking for tickets. "It was one of the most successful screenings we've ever had," he said.

The Wire follows a group of dysfunctional police as they battle with their superiors, politicians and inner demons to crack a drug ring through wire-tapping. There are no good or bad guys. The dealers are as central as the police, and just as charismatic.

"The street-corner dealers are shown more empathy and compassion than anyone has mustered before," Nick Hornby said.

Stephen King described the show's female assassin Snoop, played by a former dealer, as "the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series".

It is ruthless, violent and profane, and as it unfolds it exposes the corruption and cynicism in all the major institutions of Baltimore.

"It is an extraordinary show," Mr Fiddy added. "It is beautifully done, so layered. It also has a sense of failure. There are no happy endings. The wrong people get sent to prison. Characters you're engaged with die. The Wire is out of its time."

David Simon, the show's co-creator, says the influences hark back to Greek tragedy. "It isn't really structured as episodic television," he told Hornby last year. "Instead it pursues the form of the multi-point-of-view novel. We're lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists."

While this is setting a new standard, it is also the reason the show has taken several years to be noticed. New viewers cannot dip in halfway through, which means it is overlooked for major awards such as the Emmys, and was not picked up by a major broadcaster here. It was left to the tiny cable channel FX to screen it in the UK. "It's the kind of thing that's better to watch in three-hour chunks," said Mr Fiddy. "People's attitudes to watching television are changing. Viewers think nothing of watching an entire series in one sitting."

Dominic West, the British actor who stars as the obnoxious detective Jimmy McNulty, agreed. "It is one of the first generation of television shows that people watch on DVD," he said. "With the writing and the people around you, we always knew we were doing something good. Inevitably it bothers you a bit that people aren't more enthusiastic. The upside of that is that you have devoted fans who feel they are part of a secret club."

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