The first episode of "The Wire" - not only the best TV show ever made, but also one of the strongest fictional narratives ever conceived - begins so slow, so careful in the way it presents its story and its characters, that many viewers, including myself, can be easily deceived. When the episode closes, it does with some sort of twist, but it is very much possible that your concluding thoughts might be "So what?". That's what I felt when I saw the episode for the first time, not the least engaged to continue watching a show in which so few things were happening.
When I saw the episode for the second time, though, something got me hooked. Maybe I was more ready to see what was happening, more open-minded to a show that did things in a different way. Most, if not all, TV shows depend on "cheap" thrills, meaning unexpected, fast-paced events that keep the viewer hooked for next week. I don't blame any show that works like that, be it 24, Lost or even ER, because most of the time it works and fulfills its job: it entertains.
But "The Wire" does something so different, you easily misjudge it as boring or uneventful. It uses its pilot not to start with a big bang, ready to introduce characters and subplots later during the season, but instead gives us as much time as possible to simply get a feeling for the world it invites us to. We are supposed to get to know these characters, to learn how they think and act, what they feel, long before they get engaged in major plot details.
Just look at the opening scene, a absolutely brilliant little dialogue between our main character McNulty and a street crook, talking about the murder of a kid named 'Snot'. The scene is not about whodunit or if McNulty is a good detective (though even that becomes clear in a subconscious way), but simply about how these people talk and think. McNulty isn't simply a cop who asks questions to get his case solved, but he's really interested in what is going on the street. And when hears the story of Snot and how he got killed, he shows his distinctive, contagious little smile for the first time, the smile that always says "This world definitely is crazy, but, damnit, I love it."
The rest of the episode takes us on a journey through all the instances of law enforcement and its clientele: a murder scene on the streets, a courtroom, a judge's office, the main division's of the police, homicide and narcotics, the bosses' offices, the main gangsters base camp, the street level gangsters and finally the customers, the addicts who hang out in empty houses and think about getting money for their next shots. The journey even takes some short glimpses into the private lives of these characters, just to close the circle with another murder scene on the streets.
By then, we've met all the major characters, some briefly, some more extensively and even though we maybe don't really understand what is going on, what will happen and what actually did happen, we surely get a feel for how this world and its characters look like and behave. And that's exactly the kind of starting point, from which a true narrative can develop, as it does hear for many years to come. The episode is pure exposition which takes as much time as it needs, deliberately not trying to be hyperactive and overexciting. What we learn and see during the following episodes, is how much this plan works out. Because we got the chance to really dive into this world from the get-go, we can get more engaged in it than we ever could be on a conventional show and the excitement and tension that arises from this concept, by far exceeds the one that stimulates our brain for a few seconds. The stories told in "The Wire" are sure to stay in our minds for a long time, even after the show itself has stopped running on our screens.