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Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher: What scandal lurks behind 'The Wire'?

Everyone agrees that The Wire is a great classic; it has been called the best series ever made by television, anywhere. It looks to me very much like a work of the highest literary art. As British viewers watch it heading into the later stretches of its fifth and last series, it maintains the power and range that have left everyone who has ever seen it struggling for superlatives. But – let's admit it – you haven't seen it; it's quite likely you haven't even heard of it. The first episode of this last series, broadcast on the FX cable channel, gathered only 38,000 viewers. It's a complete scandal.

The Wire is an HBO series. Set in Baltimore, it initially looked rather like an unusual police procedural: a small unit is mounting an elaborate case against a powerful drugs gang with the aid of surveillance – the wire of the title. As series succeeded series, however, it spread outwards into the corrupt political establishment, into trade unionism, into the desperate state of public education, and finally into the operations of the press.

With its colossal range and huge cast, it delivers a tremendous account of a society in terminal decline. The terrible effects of the vast drug trade on a city are explored at leisure, and its implications unswervingly set out. You have the feeling that nothing has been skimped, nothing smoothed over, and the final effect of these intricate connections is very much the same as a great Dickens.

It takes its time. People rise to power in the course of dozens of episodes, whether in a cynical mayoral campaign, through the ranks of the police, or in the stratified organisation of the gangs. (One of the pleasures of the series is its elegant parallels between the structure of corrupt public organisations and the drugs trade.) An act committed in the first series may not bear full consequences until the third or fourth. This immense scale is unique in American television, and it gives the series an unmatched weight.

It is the best, most moving, often funniest and most constantly surprising show ever made, and you know something unusual has been achieved when your sympathies are entirely engaged with a heroin-addicted police informant or a violent murderer who makes his living robbing and killing drug dealers. There is nothing like it in the world.

So why hasn't it been allowed to make more of an impact here? Most of its fans, like me, wait and buy the DVD sets and indulge in its full novelistic range. But it should from the start have been snapped up by a major terrestrial channel. I wonder why that didn't happen. Could it be the dense and demanding dialogue? The gritty setting? Or could it, just possibly, be that four-fifths of its remarkable cast are black? No, surely not that last one.