Lives up to its fame (as long as you watch with subtitles), more than 12 years later. Satisfyingly intricate and intelligent police drama delving into the War on Drugs from a realistic point of view not blinded by idealism or unfounded confidence in police, courts, or governments like so many other shows which are based more on what writers think the audience wants to be true. Better than any other cop show I've watched. The filming on location in Baltimore helps realism for me, since I've wandered around Baltimore more than once. The downside is that the ~60 hours demands to be marathoned, and ate my month.
The first season is perfect in its taut narrative from start to finish and illustrating the theme of The Wire: it's the incentives, stupid.
There's a lot of discussion of The Wire and praise for how it deals with racial themes, but this misses the mark - race is almost entirely irrelevant in the series, except occasionally as something fools are blinded by and can be manipulated with (such as how Clay Davis gulls voters and jurymen with racial rhetoric).
What is important is how, black or white, male or female, everyone faces pressure from the system & reality to maximize pursuit of their assigned objectives, not the underlying latent goals.
Everyone is 'juking the stats' and responding to incentives to the extent that the series is practically a primer on public choice: the police respond to overtime increases and pressure to fake the crime statistics; poorer people respond to demand from junkies to make easy risky money selling drugs; politicians respond to the pressure from myopic voters and their ambition for re-election or election to higher office to do what looks good rather than what is good; newspapers tolerate faked news for the potential awards; and everyone faces coordination problems posed by incentives. Stringer Bell & Avon Barksdale sell each other out, resulting in their death & incarceration respectively; two prisoners remain silent but one is tricked into thinking the other is talking and then defects; a stickup boy is tortured to death, not because anyone really wants to but to maintain deterrence; a young boy talks to police, but an error results in his defection being detected and punished; the mayor frantically argues with his advisers to maintain a successful drug legalization policy but his police chief interprets the delay as indicating the mayor is preparing to pin all the blame on him and defects to the newspapers, contributing to the mayor's electoral defeat; the next mayor asks for FBI help with a cluster of murders but that's outside the FBI's terrorism mission (FBI employees are not rewarded for making Americans safer but fighting 'the War on Terror') and he refuses the political sacrifice which would give them cover to help. Incentives pop up from the grand politics to the low interpersonal relationships: the political consultant won't sleep with the mayor when he's only a lowly councilman but the instant he's elected? Jumps on him the first moment they're alone.
And this is all systemic, so it's not clear how it could ever be fixed. Anyone who claims to be a reformer may well decide to 'sell out' and respond to the incentives, as the season 3-5 mayoral arc illustrates. Real-world events since then have illustrated this: one of the saddest things about The Wire is that there's only one thing in the Wire world which actually seems to be done right and morally: the eponymous wiretaps. They have to show probable cause, they get it for limited times and purposes, barely abuse it at all, and have to fight to have it at all. When they do abuse it, it's in the service of a good cause, the abuse is discovered, and the culprits are punished more than most characters. And now here we are in 2014 with smartphones and Facebook and the endless Snowden revelations, and it all doesn't mean shit any more. All it took was one terrorist attack, and that was that. The politicians responded to the incentives.
One of the things I like most is that almost none of this is spoonfed you: season 3 doesn't ever explicitly point out the parallel plots are Prisoner's Dilemmas in which both groups wind up defecting and reaching the worst outcome for most members, it expects you to infer this; similarly, when the white junkie kid ODs, it doesn't hammer his death in, just does a quick ~10 second bit of his body being found and you barely see his face; or when you see the police major at a gay bar, explaining why he has no family and is such a paranoid careerist, he's just a face in the background; or it establishes characters in bits which are almost invisible, such as in season 4 when the camera pans in on the ex-convict's boxing gym past a poster of Avon's photo up on the wall with the legend 'platinum club' - referencing the original photo in season 1 of Avon, and also requiring us to remember that Avon didn't want his sponsorship known because he was free but that he's back in jail now in this season and this is a comment on the boxer's loyalty. Timing can be established similarly, in the unremarked-upon upgrade of kids playing Halo on Xbox to playing it on Xbox 360.
There are some missteps. I disagree with the pollyanna-ish approach to inner-city school problems; the kids are pretty bad at playing Halo - the SMGs are useless against close-in Elites, they should've been meleeing them; Stringer Bell misuses the concept of elasticity, confusing it with competitiveness/market-power; the Brother Muzon character was a bad idea, coming off like a a shonen or comic book monster-of-the-week character ('the nerd gunfighter!'); in contrast to the others, the gang boss Marlo is too opaque and it's unclear what motivates him besides sheer lust for power and an animalistic taste for conflict; season 2 wastes time on the Ziggy character who winds up contributing nothing; and I'm unsure the mayoral arc of season 3-5 really needed to last that long.