Sarah and I finally finished watching The Wire, HBO's prestigious drama series about Baltimore's crime-and-police world and its relation to various other institutions in the city. There's unions and working men's lives at the dockyards; and teachers and their battles against the drug culture; politicians and lawyers--and all the dirty money involved there; and then, at the end, there's the newspapers, with their mix of self-interest and public service.
As many people have noted, it's an amazing show, with some very particular elements that would be hard to replicate. To wit: David Simon and Ed Burns had a lot of experience as a reporter and a cop, respectively, so when they wanted this show to be realistic, they had the chops to do that, whether that meant realistic characters (some of them versions of real-life people) or realistic dialogue (full of amazing slang and character-building phraseology). Now, I'm not saying you can't do that for your tv show about teenage assassins running wild and attempting to avoid the government--only it might be a little harder for you to get that boots-on-the-ground version of the story.
(Also, it's amazing to me that the awards shows didn't shower these actors with recognition. So many of them are so good, able to communicate so much with just a look or a little shift of the mouth. I was also glad to see people who didn't look like the standard issue we usually get on tv. I just hope that the ones interested in acting can still find work.)
That said, I don't think The Wire is completely lightning-in-a-bottle; it has at least a few, replicable elements. For instance, working at such a length, the show can dive into almost everyone's character a little, showing (realistically) how many facets people have. There's no unbelievable switches to characters, but there's still some capacity for surprise and nuance, as when cool killer Chris Partlow passionately beats a man to death.
Which brings us to another quality of The Wire: it doesn't suffer fools lightly. Or rather, it demands a certain amount of attention and thought from its audience. It doesn't spell everything out: we may suspect that Chris loses his temper because of something in his past (the man he's beating up may have abused a child, so we suspect that Chris may be a survivor of abuse himself)--but that's all we're given, with no one character reading us Chris's history.
There's other lessons to learn from The Wire, but the one I want to end on--again, good for a novel or a tv series, but maybe not for something shorter--is how we get several individual views on some inter-personal structure. So we don't just see one cop--we see lots of cops. And they're not all the cliche maverick cop or the cliche brass-polisher or the cliche rules-lawyer--though there are a few of all of those and more. (And then, as the episodes go on, we see how these cliches break down.) So we don't just see "maverick cop bucking the system" but also see what that looks like to his supervisor and to his wife and to his supervisor's wife--and to the criminals too. That's what's so interesting about The Wire: you can take one piece of the world--a corner store murder--and see how it plays out in several different worlds and for several different people.