After hearing over and over again from many people whose taste I trust, I watched Seasons 1, 3, and 4 of The Wire on DVD recently. (Season 2 was not great, I heard, and Season 5 isn't on DVD.) I'm just going to write a few superficial things off the top of my head. First what I didn't like, then what I liked.
I felt about it the way I feel about The Sopranos, which I didn't start watching until many seasons in after countless people told me I had to do so. I liked but didn't love it. The problem is that James Gandolfini, I think, is not an exceptional actor and doesn't have that much charisma. (I realize most people disagree.) I'd watch every episode of a show where Tony Montana or Don Corleone was the central character, and I'd never hit fast forward. I'd also watch every episode of a show where Phil Leotardo was the central character. (A friend of mine, before the final episode, hoped for a Sopranos spin-off that would be nothing but Phil Leotardo sipping espresso and talking to the camera. I would watch that.) But Tony Soprano is ultimately kind of boring, and his grin looks developmentally disabled, and I found myself tired of his problems. (Also, the therapy scenes were terrible. They should have done away with that and with the therapist character in the first season.) Anyway--I felt similarly about the The Wire and its protagonist McNulty. I knew he was going to be a problem for me when I started watching the first episode--the actor is clearly British. He's a handsome Englishman playing a gritty alcoholic Baltimore cop. Interestingly, another major character, Stringer Bell (pictured) is also played by a British actor, Idris Elba, who is amazing and completely convincing as an American. Here's a scene with the two of them talking to each other:
One actor seems to me completely convincing; the other, not so much. (Other viewers, I have to admit, don't seem to have this problem.)
Another weird--but smaller--issue. The Wire has a problem with dead bodies. They blink. You can clearly see in several episodes, most notably the beginning of the second episode in Season 1, a dead body's eyes moving around. It also happens, I remember, in Season 4 when the find the bodies in the vacant houses.
Anyway, here's my only major problem with the series: the cops are boring. Not always, but usually. There are some exceptions--Rawls and Daniels and Freamon are great, mainly because they're played by great actors. But I fast-forwarded through a lot of the cop stuff.
The drug dealers and their stories, on the other hand, are engrossing. They're played almost without exception by great actors--Idris Elba, Jamie Hector, Method Man (!), and others. The Marlo Stanfield character is particularly sinister--his face looks like a mask of death, or possibly Botox. It fails to move in the creepiest way. I watched the final episode of Season 5 on demand; I was impressed with the show's writers for letting Marlo end up in a fairly unexpected and open-ended situation.
(Speaking of open-ended situations--for all my complaints about Sopranos above, I loved the final scene of the final episode. Truly, loved it.)
They pulled in some excellent writers by the third season--Richard Price, George Pelecanos, etc.--and it shows.
So overall, I thought the show was good to excellent. I don't love it like I love The Shield but I like it more than almost any other show. Every time I read a bunch of crime novels I get back into shows like The Shield and The Wire with particular avidity, so my recent Ellroy binge coincided perfectly with the end of the The Wire and everyone telling me to watch it.