Since debuting in 2002, HBO's police procedural drama "The Wire" has doggedly picked up several honors, including a Peabody Award and an Emmy nomination for writing. Measured against the program's high standards and lofty ambitions, such honors seem almost comically inadequate. Where is "The Wire's" Pulitzer Prize? Where is its Nobel?
"The Wire" braves such enormous scope that it seems worthy of the company of literature more than other TV programs. On the surface, the cop show focuses on a special police wiretapping unit that targets West Baltimore drug dealers. But each 12- or 13-episode season attains a breadth and attention to detail like one of those Dickensian social realist novels championed by Tom Wolfe. Such established novelists as Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) and Richard Price (Clockers) write for the episodes, which become thrilling exposés of civic institutions. Police departments, dockworkers' unions and even drug gangs all emerge as dysfunctional fixtures of city life.
Despite its loyal fan base, "The Wire's" spotty viewership history evokes the proverbial tree falling in the forest; if HBO broadcasts the most important show on television and nobody watches it, is it really significant? In the fall of 2004, "Desperate Housewives" all but gunned down "The Wire's" third season. Fortunately, fan and critic lobbying helped secure a fourth installment, which debuts in its 9 p.m. Sunday time slot Sun., Sept. 10.
Presumably, creator David L. Simon and the rest of "The Wire's" staff considered making the dense but sprawling show "easier" and more viewer-friendly, perhaps by turning boat-rocking detective McNulty (Dominic West) into a more conventional cop-show hero. Instead, "The Wire's" fourth season expands its beat beyond crime and politics. Season Four adds a unifying theme of the educational system, ranging from overcrowded, under-funded classrooms to life-or-death lessons from the street.
I've watched the first three episodes of the new season, which keeps track of the regular cops and crooks while incorporating two new plot threads. The new storylines, in essence, speculate on the future of American cities, one looking from the top down, the other from the bottom up. Partly, "The Wire" follows the uphill mayoral campaign of Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), an ambitious, callow white politician who challenges the black control of Baltimore's city hall. At the other end of the telescope, we find four African-American boys, all rising eighth graders facing dilemmas involving family, school and crime.
Some vignettes with the boys play like an urban Stand by Me, like when the friends use water balloons full of pee to challenge a band of bullies. They also endure encouragement to break the law, which is much harder to withstand than simple peer pressure. Namond (Julito McCullum) gets pushed toward the drug trade by both of his parents, with his father being an imprisoned gangbanger (and a minor character from earlier episodes). Up-and-coming drug lord Marlo (Jamie Hector), who happens to be a primary target of "the wire," hands out cash for school clothes to buy the loyalty of neighborhood kids.
Meanwhile, perceptive desk cop "Prez" (Jim True-Frost) quits the force to become a math teacher. "The Wire," like TNT's recent, fairly decent TV movie The Ron Clark Study, preys on a particular kind of white panic about facing a rambunctious classroom of students of color. Though most educational dramas emphasize the point of view of a saintly teacher, "The Wire" more skeptically regards the school system from all possible sides.
Watching "The Wire" provides an education in police jargon and ghetto slang, and with its dizzyingly huge cast of characters, it can be one of television's most demanding shows. But it's also arguably television's most rewarding show, with its willingness to look at a troubled city and tell it like it is. Any struggle against crime, corruption or institutional sclerosis turns out to be at once a doomed effort and the Good Fight. Pragmatic to the point of pessimism, "The Wire" portrays government and the criminal justice system as fueled by favoritism and petty vendettas more than the drive for public service.
Yet each episode also contains little victories, affectionate gestures and bouts of workplace humor, the kind of real-life epiphanies that get anyone through a bad day. On the first day of school, crafty young Randy (Maestro Harrell) goes "undercover" as an underclassman to sell kids contraband snack food out of his backpack. Whether such moments involve series veterans or walk-on roles you've never seen before, you can always recognize their ingratiating wit or unvarnished honesty.
Some of the series' regulars loom larger than life, like semi-folk hero Omar (Michael K. Williams), a swaggering stick-up man who only preys on criminals (and happens to be gay). Most of the brilliantly acted characters, though, just struggle to get by, no matter what side of the law they're on. Street-corner drug dealer Bodie (JD Williams) comes across less like a sociopathic predator than a harried middle manager, and "The Wire" conveys his humanity without either demonizing or glorifying him.
Previous seasons of "The Wire" began with the police teammates scattered, and followed them as they gradually came together to pursue a single common case. It's hard to imagine Season Four narrowing its focus in such a satisfying way, since the storylines are so spread out. It's probably better to equate the show with the kind of Robert Altman film like Nashville, which unifies a huge, disparate cast by their common citizenship. They're all players in the same game.
Unless "The Wire" turns into a ratings bonanza, the fourth season's 12 episodes should be treasured as if they're the last, because they probably will be. It's a shame but not a surprise; no show should be left behind.
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