When television history is written, little else will rival “The Wire,” a series of such extraordinary depth and ambition that it is, perhaps inevitably, savored only by an appreciative few. Layering each season upon the previous ones, creator David Simon conveys the decaying infrastructure of his hometown Baltimore in searing and sobering fashion — constructing a show that’s surely as impenetrable to the uninitiated as it is intoxicating to the faithful. In its fourth year, the program adds the school system to cops, drugs, unions, the ailing middle class, and big-city politics. Prepare to be depressed and dazzled.
Like HBO’s “Deadwood,” “The Wire” features a dizzying assortment of characters, almost all of them outstanding. This year’s additions include a quartet of urban middle-school kids caught in the perilous years when they are being tempted to join in a life of crime and drugs — by far the most inviting outlet, if not escape, available to them.
All of this plays out, meanwhile, against a race-based political backdrop, as City Councilman Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) mounts a campaign against the city’s African-American mayor (Glynn Turman), trying to use the hopelessness of crime prevention and the failing drug war as ammunition. Yet even after winning a debate, Carcetti muses, “I still wake up white in a city that isn’t.”
What Simon and his collaborators achieve is breathtaking — creating a dozen parallel plotlines that slowly converge as the season progresses, all rooted in a totally organic world. There is drug kingpin Marlo (Jamie Hector), consolidating his hold on the streets; Det. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), who continues to follow the drug money despite his higher-ups’ reluctance to stir the pot in an election year; and former cop Howard Colvin (the magnificent Robert Wisdom), who, after unilaterally decriminalizing drugs in season three, is recruited to research at-risk teens, intersecting with the aforementioned youths.
Even those descriptions hardly do the show justice, or capture small moments that resonate after each hour ends — from a teen realizing the unwitting role he played in an older boy’s death to the nagging realities of city politics, where diligence is seldom rewarded amid an endless cycle of poverty, drugs and violence. Nothing else on U.S. television — including its myriad news and documentary channels — addresses these matters with such unyielding clarity.
Simon essentially pleaded with HBO for this fourth season, though he didn’t compromise his storytelling, which unfolds like a great novel and concludes this 13-episode flight with relatively little closure. Despite its unique business model, HBO isn’t entirely immune from market forces, which can be as cruel on quality TV, in their own way, as Baltimore’s mean streets.
In interviews, the producer has also chafed at suggestions that his creation is too complex and gritty to generate acceptable ratings even by pay TV’s less-exacting standards, but there’s some truth in the sense that the predominantly black cast and prevailing sense of hopelessness curb its mainstream appeal.
Whatever its commercial fate, however, “The Wire” has secured its place as one of the most demanding and thought-provoking series ever to grace television. For HBO, that is surely worth something. It’s only too bad all the superlatives hurled its way can’t readily be transformed into viewers.