Isn’t it also something to do with the audience at whom violent gangster stories are directed? There is a voyeuristic or vicarious observance for the male viewer, too. It’s not like most men watching operate in violent code-of-the-warrior mode themselves.
Even ogged—of "there's no such thing as an anti-war war movie" fame—concedes there may be something to the notion that The Wire defies this (extensive) logic, that it may be an anti-gangster gangster serial. Not that ac and ogged have no point: who sympathizes with law enforcement while watching The Godfather? (That Fredo's execution has become an object of cultural parody indicates the extent to which viewers sympathetically identify with Michael Corleone.) The Wire escapes that voyeuristic pull for two reasons, one simple, the other so complex I've auditioned it before many, many, many people without working up the gall put in writing.
The Simple Reason
The Wire combines the narrative perspective of three previous David Simon-related projects: Homicide, Oz, and The Corner. As if to underscore this, at one point we see Omar Little and his boyfriend curled up watching Oz. (If that ain't irony enough for you, they're watching Chris Keller threaten to rape Toby Beecher, and Keller's played by Christopher Merloni, a.k.a. Elliot Stabler from Law & Order: SVU. So you have two gay men watching one gay man who plays a sex crimes officer rape a straight man and haven't we been down this road with these same folk before?) The multiple perspectives force the viewer to adopt an almost sociological attitude toward the characters in each group. We adore detectives McNulty and Bunk one moment, D'Angelo and Bodie the next. The narratives splinter our sympathies, forcing us to confront the limitations films like The Godfather would have us embrace:
We root for D'Angelo while hoping CID destroys his cousin (and employer) Avon's organization. Simon and company disseminate our allegiances so wide and thin that when conflict arises we feel genuine confusion. The algebra of identification grows to calculus so quickly that we stare, dumbfounded, unable to understand the ramifications of what we witnessed. This confusion is essential to the show's appeal. Knowing what happened is less important than understanding the potential consequences. (As is dramatized, via nail-gun, on numerous occasions in Season Four.)
The More Complicated Reason
I crib from sources sage and wise:
The Wire isn’t simply the best show on television, in many ways, it’s not a television show at all, generically speaking. To judge it by the standards you’d apply to other shows denies it its uniqueness, denudes of it what makes it it. I know that sounds abstract, but let me explain the experience of watching it:
The age of television on DVD has created a Culture of Marathon. We purchase entire seasons, then watch them in one or two consecutive evenings. At least, the desire to do so is there, as if the serial nature of the Victorian novel were abetted by having a Perpetual Dickens Machine in the closet crunching out the next chapter on demand. We might not always do so—not always prudent to be watching season finales at 3 a.m.—but that’s how we want to watch it. This mode of watching (and reading) creates some retention problems: we get so caught up in the big arcs that we miss a lot of the nuance. Instead of brooding over details for the weeks/months between serials, we ride the wave of plot from start-to-finish, and leave the little pleasures for repeated viewings. (If the show merits any, that is, which creates of host of other problems, but that’s another comment.)
Unlike any other show, The Wire demands you watch the next episode, but leaves you so drained that it’s almost impossible to do so. You take in so much in any given episode that, though you desperately desire to continue, you know you won’t enjoy it as much, since you’ll be so cognizant of all you’ve missed. They pushed this dynamic hard through the first season; the second reversed course for the first few episodes, then slammed you with almost overwhelming complexity. The thing of it is, you always feel there’s a perfect balance somewhere: two hours and fifteen minutes, maybe? But you can’t stop in the middle of an episode, or you’ll lose its arc, &c. That’s what I mean when I say that as a televisual experience, The Wire’s utterly unique, comparable only to something that doesn’t exist, like a page-turning modernist novel.
I can't best that tonight. Consider it the germ of something larger and to come ... but by all means critique it mercilessly. I may be blinded by The Wire's brilliance or embracing a pernicious televisual presentism.