In Season 4 of 'The Wire,' Cable That Can't Be Touched

Keeping up the good fight: Kids on the meanest streets in HBO's
Keeping up the good fight: Kids on the meanest streets in HBO's "The Wire." (Photos By Paul Schiraldi)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

"The Wire," set mainly in the lower depths of Baltimore's inner city, manages to be electrifying and disturbing at the same time -- two qualities that aren't commonly compatible. Returning for a welcome fourth season on HBO, "The Wire" is a gripping saga of struggle, of people trying not just to cope with corruption and hopelessness but to conquer them.

So is "The Wire" as good as ever? Perhaps even better.

In the first four installments previewed, the pervasiveness of everyday violence is imparted in ways that make it shocking and heartbreaking -- whether we witness the casual killing of a young man by drug dealers or the sudden, deranged slashing of one girl's face by another girl in the back of a middle-school classroom. Guns are everywhere, utterly inescapable.

Series creator David Simon is going for a lot more than shock. You don't watch "The Wire" merely to "tsk-tsk" or ask, "How can people live like that?" More than likely, you'll marvel at the dogged persistence -- even the mere existence -- of "the good guys," the people who won't give up on their neighborhood, their neighbors, their city or themselves; people who keep up the good fight even when the system itself seems so corrupted that it can't possibly work for the benefit of any but the most powerful.

Simon and his inspired company of writers and actors, and all those who bring "The Wire" to life each year, obviously have their own kind of dauntless dedication. After all, the series doesn't get the flashy, splashy hype lavished on such HBO megahits as "The Sopranos." It isn't "fun" viewing and, although not humorless, it isn't diluted with escapist comic relief, either.

You go to "The Wire" not to escape but to be immersed in a world where madness and sanity can seem interchangeable. The sense of realism is uncompromised and rigorous. Of fancy trappings, there are none -- zero, zip.

"The Wire" might be the most authentic epic ever on television.

Many of the regular cast members from seasons past return, supplemented by fascinating new faces and some new locations. This season, the series follows two parallel story lines -- the continuing political struggle, with an election for mayor mere weeks away, and life in a very troubled West Baltimore middle school, where anarchy is just a gasp or a shriek away.

The Corner, where the story began, and where drug dealing goes on day and night, remains the film's symbolic epicenter, but we also spend time on the run with a young city councilman seeking to unseat the arrogantly crooked mayor. The second episode, premiering next Sunday night, begins with a jaw-dropping prelude: A naive cop opens a door in City Hall and comes upon His Honor and a young lady engaged in the kind of non-governmental activity of which spectacular scandals are made.

That is, could be made, but not necessarily will be. The mayor has options, and so does the once-honest cop.

Making sense of the new season shouldn't be a problem even for viewers who strayed during previous years or who've never watched. Although there are too many characters to keep track of, Simon and his fellow writers and producers do an admirable job of holding one spellbound even during moments when it's not entirely clear who's doing what with, and to, whom.

Although the cast is huge, nobody gets lost in the crowd because they're virtually all standouts, crazy though that might sound. Especially impressive are Sonja Sohn, returning as detective Shakima Greggs, who watches with dismay when the major case unit to which she was assigned is disbanded for political reasons and she is transferred to homicide. Aidan Gillen is right on the money as Thomas "Tommy" Carcetti, the councilman who has an outside chance of defeating Mayor Clarence Royce, played with sharklike intimidation by veteran Glynn Turman.

Of the many kids on the street, JD Williams is especially strong as a conflicted boy named Bodie. But most fascinating of the young and endangered -- perhaps the series' most quietly haunting character -- is Jermaine Crawford as "Dukie" Weems, in whose bright eyes the cold real world, and a seemingly inevitable woeful future, are affectingly reflected.

The character of Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, a cop who becomes a teacher (played maybe a tad too squeamishly by Jim True-Frost), is based on a real person named Ed Burns, who spent 20 years on the police force before doing what Prez does. Burns joins the series this season as a producer and consultant. On HBO's Web site, Simon says of his friend and associate: "It struck me a while back that Ed Burns is in some remarkable way the living manifestation of lost wars."

"Lost wars." The phrase recalls the "lost causes" spoken of by James Stewart (whom Gillen resembles) as a senator battling the odds in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Lost causes, Stewart says in the film, are the only ones worth fighting for. "The Wire" is rife with them, but also with those willing to do the fighting. They suffer more defeats than they score victories, but just hanging in there is victory in itself.

Taut as a trampoline, straightforward and riveting, "The Wire" draws you into the fight brilliantly -- and with more raw heart than any other crime drama on television.

The Wire's fourth-season premiere episode airs at various times throughout the week on HBO.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company