It is hard to summarise the plot of this show in season one because there is so many threads within the one story that I can't do it justice in one paragraph. I came to The Wire on the back of consistently positive noises from The Guardian in the UK and was pleased to find it more than an antidote to the type of cop show that CSI and Law & Order are examples of. For all their easy entertainment value they (specifically CSI) tend to be enclosed, glossy and superficial affairs that solve each case within 60 minutes (or maybe 120 if it is a special). Personally I've always preferred stuff like The Shield or H:LOTS because they have longer plans and a bit more depth. So with The Wire I was overjoyed that it took it a patient approach of developing a story beyond a quick bang and drafting characters that have reality in them as opposed to being nearer caricatures. This causes a slow built that allows room for the story to breathe we are not rushed to tie everything up in 60 minutes but rather take a season to deliver a case that is often done very quickly. I can understand why some will see this as nothing happening, because it isn't bang-a-minute stuff; in fact the endings are roundly downbeat and restrained, no matter what has happened.
The direction and feel of the series is impressive. It is gritty without being overly styled, resulting in a very real feel, however it is the writing that worked best for me. The dialogue occasionally will wallow in pop-culture references in a last Tarantino fashion but this is the minority. Usually the dialogue is tough, convincing and realistic moving the story forward, telling us things about the characters and never going for the easy cliché that some cop shows settle for as the norm. Although it was an HBO production, the use of swearing and nudity was restrained (well, by comparison with Sopranos and Oz) and it was all the better for it. The plot is simple from a height but get inside it and there are many threads (within the case and the characters) going on that are mostly interesting and engaging. The depth of plot works well and it makes it look easy whereas in reality it is difficult to develop so much with little time for each.
The cast respond well to the intelligent approach by turning in strong performances. The series has "main" characters for sure but nobody hogs the limelight or pushes their performance to the fore. West is strong in the lead and has a driven character without ever thinking he is the main character to a detrimental degree. Reddick is on good form and works well within the dealing story and the political story. Gillard Jr had a role that he could have played like a hip-hop video but he doesn't he is convincing but also brings out a person. Harris and Elba are given less to deal with in terms of character depth but they also turn in good characters. Those that do have to present the "dealing" side do so in a way that recognises the influence of hip-hop culture but doesn't forget the reality of their situation. Sohn was a bit heavy at first and I didn't like her slow delivery but she grew on me and did really well to prevent her character being used or becoming a cliché. Peters was a slow build but a good one, while True-Frost works well with a character that develops well within the unit. Gilliam and Lombardozzi work well together with simple characters that always hint at more. Pierce, Doman, Lovejoy and others demonstrate why it is hard to talk about the cast without talking about all of them.
Overall then, season 1 was just what I had hoped The Wire would be intelligent, patient, respectful to the audience and totally engaging. Some viewers will be frustrated by this and may want the quick pace, simplistic morals and solutions of other cop shows but this is very rewarding in the way it is downbeat and very well delivered. Understandably not showy enough for a mass audience this is nonetheless worthy of everything good you have heard said about it.