Watch HBO’s “The Wire” This Sunday:

My favorite cop show, The Wire, premiers this Sunday on HBO. The first season of this series was simply the best cop show I had ever seen on television. The second season slipped a tiny bit as it expanded its focus from the Baltimore projects–where real “POL-ice” spend much of their time–to the docks where cops almost never venture. With the exception of a whopper of a plot flaw in the penultimate episode, however, the second season was still terrific.

As a former criminal prosecutor in Chicago, I normally cannot watch either cop or lawyer shows, primarily because the dialogue between characters on such shows rings so false to me. There is a way that people in law enforcement talk, which reflects how they think, and TV writers historically do not get this. For one thing, no one makes speeches. Also what the characters do on these shows often seems either incredibly stupid or uncharacteristically brilliant.

The first cop show to come close to capturing how cops really talk and think was NYPD Blue (now in its final season). I liked NYPD for the interaction it captures among cops and for its emphasis on interrogations–however much I find the standard interrogation technique it depicts of offering suspects a promise of benefits if they give an incriminating version of events that minimizes their involvement not only improper but highly unusual in real life (though I am not claiming it never happens). And far more effort is placed in real life on developing other forms of proof besides interrogations. (ABC’s NYPD 24/7 mini-series documentary this summer showed this side of police work to great effect. For an insightful review of the show by a former cop click here.) Many many defendants get charged and prosecuted successfully without having made an incriminating statement. Also there are not enough false leads and bad theories pursued on the show, making cops look far more omniscient than they really are. (Again NYPD 24/7 was superb on this.) Still, despite these and other shortcomings, because the interpersonal interactions ring true to me, I can enjoy NYPD Blue.

The Wire is even better, both at showing interactions among police and prosecutors and their investigative techniques. In addition, it emphasizes the internal and external political and bureaucratic dimension of police work in a way previously unseen on television. Finally, it runs a parallel plot from the perspectives of the criminals that shows how they think and what they do without generating undue sympathy for their misdeeds. (The fact that the primary plot from the first season concerned enforcement of drug laws does shift some sympathy to the gang members–at least for me–but also realistically depicts the sordid and brutal means used by drug distributors in the government-created world of legal prohibition.)

And did I mention this is all very entertaining and suspenseful? If you missed the first two seasons, don’t let that stop you from watching the third season from the beginning, beginning on Sunday night.

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