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Ironically, it was a network cop show, Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues, that introduced serial "story arcs" into genre drama. But networks have retreated to the pre-Bochco era of "procedural" cop shows, in which character comes second to plot. The cops may have perfunctory personal stories, but you can easily ignore them and still enjoy the mysteries--that's why L&O has lost every original cast member yet enjoys its highest ratings ever. Cop procedurals are the new sitcoms: easily digestible, with stories wrapped up in one episode, they demand little commitment (and sell well in syndication). "Self-contained dramas are performing much better than serial dramas and perform better than repeats," says Nancy Tellem, president of entertainment for CBS (which has four new cop shows on its schedule). With CSI now the No. 1 drama on TV--and serial dramas like 24 and Alias showing middling ratings--no big network has incentive to do much else.
That's part of the reason that HBO, which bills itself as the network that makes shows the others can't, picked up The Wire (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), a sprawling octopus of a story that follows a single drug investigation over 13 episodes. (Later this month Showtime adds Street Time, an earnest but somewhat tone-deaf series about parolees and parole officers.) Creator David Simon says The Wire is "not a cop show" but a series about how the drug trade and the war against it have become institutions that chew up and spit out the people who work in them.
That said, it is a cop show--though one that, unlike those on network TV, suggests that not only cops but their objectives as well can be flawed. When Detective James McNulty (Dominic West) pursues a drug kingpin in the Baltimore projects, he's undermined by higher-ups who want quick, low-level "buy and bust" stings to generate p.r., not the painstaking investigation required to ensnare the bosses. The series also plumbs the Byzantine world of the criminals, focusing on D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), a midlevel captain who wants to rise in his organization but questions its pointless violence. The two men are enemies, yet both, says Simon, are "middle managers ... in a world where everybody's working for Enron. Whatever you commit to as an institution bigger than yourself, in the modern world, it will f___ you."
The Wire sometimes oversells this point, as when D'Angelo teaches his crew members chess to show that they're pawns in a game (chess metaphors are always a reliable DIDACTICISM ahead sign). But it slowly develops into an engrossing look at the methodical nature of police work and the limits of individualism. Cop dramas are dispatches on America's relationship to authority, and like The Shield, The Wire is a daring and timely one. We responded to 9/11 with a national narrative of teamwork: unite behind our institutions, and let's roll. (Waco? Diallo? Old news.) The rhetoric of good and evil was ascendant; anything in between smacked of moral equivalence. And yet the news since then has been Enron, the FBI, the church: institutions failing their charges.