Idris Elba plays an HBO drug lord Sometimes in this country, the only way to see the best in television is to head to the video store. In the case of HBO’s cop series The Wire, it’s definitely worth the money. Canadian broadcast rights do not always play fair. While most HBO series end up on Canadian TV one way or another, some are available only on premium channels. As for The Wire, as far as I know it is available here only on DVD. The Shield, on the other hand, airs free of charge Monday nights on Global. Originating on the US cable channel FX, The Shield has provided actor Michael Chiklis with an Emmy-winning career breakthrough as Detective Vic Mackey. Chiklis’ portrayal is a compelling one, and the show features enough of the extra sex and violence that lend an added kick to transplanted pay channel shows like The Sopranos or Sex and the City. The Shield, however, should not be watched alongside The Wire. It doesn’t belong on the same box. Dirty Harry redux The Shield started with a bang. Season one, episode one depicted Chiklis’ Vic Mackey leading a cabal of crooked cops—so crooked that they kill one of their own to protect themselves. It was a startling declaration that The Shield intended to take a no-holds-barred approach to police corruption. Darkness and justice and moral complexity—the ingredients of good cop drama. Promise unfulfilled. Subsequent episodes of The Shield quickly showed that Vic Mackey was really just a re-invention of the Dirty Harry character, the unorthodox cop who gets results. Detective Mackey is corrupt, and he breaks rules. But he is consistently effective—week after week, his approach is always vindicated. By contrast, geeky do-gooder Detective “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) is a boob, guaranteed to look foolish almost every episode. Moral complexity? Generally at about the level of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Then there’s The Wire, the show The Shield wants to be. Season one is available at some local video stores, and slowly but surely it demonstrates why the series has drawn raves from US critics. The Wire follows a narcotics squad that has succeeded in getting wiretaps on a drug dealer’s pagers and favourite pay phones. While the detectives battle to collect evidence, they must constantly watch their backs as superior officers seek to shut the operation down. The internal police politics portrayed here are both breathtakingly cynical and utterly believable. Murderous and moral Real moral complexity can be hard to pull off, especially on TV. The viewer’s urge to see conventional justice must be bravely resisted. The Wire features some of the most complex villains/heroes you’ll ever see. One of the best is D’Angelo Barksdale, a young drug dealer who has committed a heinous murder and yet emerges as one of The Wire’s moral centers. The Wire plays off the beat like good jazz. In fact the show is so determined to undermine dramatic TV convention that occasionally it can be infuriating. Key developments other shows would milk for obvious thrills sometimes occur off-screen, referred to only in passing. Other scenes are never explicitly resolved—the viewer must draw the appropriate conclusions. And pay attention. The Wire can be maddeningly complex, and merciless for those who lose track of the plot. The storylines cannot be followed while you search the fridge. But with DVD you can always back it up if necessary. And despite a couple of early hiccups with overly-cute dialogue (a scene where two detectives communicate only through variations on the f-word is a bit much), The Wire just grows more and more engrossing with each installment. Highly recommended. Steve Burgess reviews television and other facets of life for The Tyee.