Sunday, September 24, 2006


Let us now praise THE WIRE.

Many have done it before me, I know, especially in the three weeks since Season Four premiered. But now that I’ve seen the entire fourth season - courtesy of the folks at HBO - I feel the need to weigh in as well.

It is, quite simply, the best crime drama in the history of television.

That’s a bold statement, I know, and last season I may not have made it, exceptional as most of that season was. But this one is even better - deeper, darker and richer than those that came before.

Why is it so great? There are a lot of reasons - the sharp writing, the uniformly terrific performances, the broad scope of narrative that takes a microcosm (West Baltimore drug neighborhoods) and makes it a metaphor for society as a whole. But mainly I think it’s the planning. Unlike recent seasons of THE SOPRANOS - and this season of DEADWOOD - in THE WIRE, everything pays off. It strikes that perfect balance between the surprising and the inevitable.

As anyone who’s been watching knows, this season focuses on four eighth-graders at the fictional Edward J. Tilghman Middle School - (above, from left) Duquan (Jermaine Crawford), Randy (Maestro Harrell), Michael (Tristan Wilds) and Namond (Julito McCullum). They’re corner kids, already immersed in the street life they see around them, with few if any support systems to guide them. How they cope with their environment - and the unreasonable demands it makes upon them - is what forms the heart of the story.

Based on co-creator (and former Baltimore detective) Ed Burns’ seven years teaching in the Baltimore school system, this season is full of the kind of details only an insider could provide – like boxes of brand-new math textbooks left to gather dust in basements. His alter ego here is former Major Crimes Unit member Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), who’s become a teacher after leaving the force following the accidental shooting of a fellow cop.

His unit carries on without him, but out on the street, things have changed as well. Drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), who dominated Seasons One and Three, is nowhere in sight. He’s back in prison and losing what little influence he has left in the outside world. His ambitious lieutenant Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), who envisioned a brave new – and lucrative – world of semi-legality, ended up shot to death in Season Three’s penultimate episode. At the start of Season Four, the Barksdale organization is a shambles, with advisor Slim Charles (Anwan Glover) now working for uber-dealer Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), and loyal soldier Bodie Broadus (the great JD Williams) the last man standing.

In this vacuum, some of the characters introduced last season come to the fore, especially the ruthless boy king Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector) and his genuinely frightening henchman Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe), whose killer’s glare is only made creepier by the intelligence in his eyes.

The writers - including Burns, co-creator David Simon, Richard Price, George Pelecanos and others - have expertly kept all the surviving main characters from Season Three in play, without making any of their appearances seem gratuitous, although a newly clean and sober Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) does keep an inordinately low profile. Even more, they’ve effortlessly blended them into the new storyline, with maverick cop Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) now co-running a pilot program in the schools. Prez and Colvin’s attempts to reach out to their charges are just as compelling as the underworld drama being played out on the city’s streets.

Make no mistake, it isn’t all doom and gloom in the world of THE WIRE. This is also the funniest season yet, with most of the best lines going to the Bunk (Wendell Pierce) and his own peculiar brand of homo-erotic cop humor. It’s also the most accessible season so far. You don’t need a lot of backstory to follow what’s going on, and the complexities of the plot are relatively easy to absorb. There’s a little more soapboxing this season - not surprising, given the topic - but it never interferes with the story.

Where most crime dramas skate away from the consequences of violent acts, THE WIRE is all about the consequences. And there are consequences aplenty before the final heartbreaking episode. Ultimately, it’s about how adults fail children, and how systems fail people - whether those systems are police departments, school districts or drug gangs. But although THE WIRE may be tough, real and occasionally brutal, it’s never cynical. It’s full of hope, even if it sometimes watches unblinkingly as individual hopes flutter out. Crime drama – and crime writing – doesn’t get any better than this.