As good as Six Feet Under? Possibly. And that, coming from me, is just about the highest praise there is. The series in question is The Wire, which we're gutted to have finally finished.
Of the many remarkable things about it, perhaps the most remarkable is the way the writers somehow manage to marshall such an amazing range and number of characters and keep multiple plotlines moving forwards. In truth, though, the fact that they're ruthless in killing off some of the main protagonists - and indeed that who the "main protagonists" are shifts from series to series - indicates that the focus isn't on individuals at all. On the contrary, it's actually on the institutions with which they come into contact, which chew them up and spit them out.
What the programme underscores repeatedly is that everyone - from the mayor to the drug baron to the policeman to the homeless addict - is at the mercy of their particular circumstances, subjected to things beyond their control. Good intentions, as laudable as they might be, ultimately count for nothing; everyone is forced into some kind of compromise. There is no black and white, only varying shades of grey. Sure, some people manage to escape their predicaments - but it's largely arbitrary. There are no neat resolutions, and in many cases vicious cycles prove to be perpetuated.
It's hard to pick a favourite series - possibly not the first, as it took us a while to acclimatise ourselves to the speed and cadences of the dialogue, and probably not the fifth, as the central plotline stretches credulity somewhat. Perhaps the fourth, which focuses on the education system - though that also arguably makes it the hardest to watch.