I keep telling people to watch the HBO series The Wire, and it occurs to me that I should have my pitch somewhere handy. Here's the short form:
The Wire is so good that it will make you embarrassed to have ever liked any other television shows. Really.
To expand on that:
The Wire is a TV show about police wiretaps like Moby Dick is a novel about whaling, like uranium-235 is an explosive material, like Elvis was a guitarist. The show's intelligence, ambition, and craftsmanship make almost everything else on TV look shabby ... and at the same time it delivers livelier entertainment than most programs that try for nothing else.
On top of all that, I submit that as an American citizen one has a responsibility to watch The Wire because it delivers such a vital examination of American institutional failure, using the devices of fiction and television to tell the story in the way that a serious book on the subject could not.
So watch it.
That said, I have some recommendations about how one should go about doing that. Though released as five seasons of a weekly series, one shouldn't think of it like series television. Each season does not just have an overall story arc; each season constitutes a thirteen hour film with arbitrary hourly breaks. Thus the story and characters don't coalesce until three or four episodes in. This means a kind of commitment much like reading a novel; one cannot read most novels in a single sitting, and since it requires a certain momentum to keep the book in your head, typically one reads a novel in a mix of long and short sittings over the course of a week or three. Similarly, I strongly recommend planning for a long viewing session to get started with The Wire, three or four hours. After that you will want to set aside time for 2-4 hour viewing sessions two or three times a week ... and by “you will want”, I mean that once the show gets its hooks into you, it will become hard to devote that little time to watching it.
I envy anyone getting to watch The Wire for the first time. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that I can watch it again, which I can attest is every bit as gratifying.
If I cannot convince you, here's Charlie Brooker: