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The Best Show on TV

The Wire, perhaps the only police drama that truly deserves to be called “gritty,” begins its fourth season on HBO next Sunday. Let me be the first to begin the campaign for a fifth. A nuanced portrait of urban Baltimore, with its internecine battles among cops, politicos and drug dealers, The Wire demands a far greater level of commitment and attention from its audience than your standard escapist police procedural.

After screening all 13 episodes of the coming season, I'm left with the kind of melancholy that sets in when you finish a great novel. This is muckraking TV, in so many ways more powerful than anything a network news division can produce.

When The Wire's creator, David Simon, told me a couple of years back that if the show was renewed for a fourth season he was going to focus on Baltimore's inner-city schools, I wasn't sure he could pull it off.

Well, he has, with wisdom and authenticity that will resonate with anyone who has done time as either teacher or student in those environs. No doubt producer Ed Burns drew on his tours of duty as a Baltimore Police detective and, later, a middle school teacher.

“Our model has always been Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Simon told me when I spoke with him again last week.

Like that classic 1939 book by James Agee and Walker Evans, which chronicled the lives of Southern sharecroppers in stark words and pictures, “The Wire is designed to be a political provocation,” he said. “TV is normally not designed to provoke people.”

True that, as one of the corner boys on The Wire would say. Still, such statements make The Wire sound a little too much like work. It does cover tough turf, but the show manages to find grand entertainment in all the pathos.

All of which hasn't meant carte blanche for Simon and crew. From the beginning, the series has been a touch-and-go proposition.

In spite of—or perhaps, because of—an Emmy-winning body of work that includes NBC's Homicide and the HBO miniseries The Corner, Simon has had to push hard to make it happen, from getting the initial pilot pick-up to each successive season's renewal.

Forget that he's got such titans of gritty fiction as Richard Price (Clockers), George Pelecanos (The Night Gardner) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) writing for him. Simon likely will be begging the HBO brass to give him the go-ahead to keep the dream team together for season five.

The sad truth is that The Wire has always been ratings-challenged—3 million cumulative might tune in for an episode's various runs during a week whereas several times that routinely tune into HBO's The Sopranos.

Perhaps television audiences prefer the glamorous Southern California locales of HBO's Entourage—“where network executives live,” as Simon puts it—to the mean streets of Baltimore.

Maybe they're put off by the racial composition of the cast, which is one of the finest ensembles on television.

“I knew the risks when I made the cast almost all black,” says Simon.

So here's hoping HBO continues to believe that The Wire is worth those risks.

I promised Simon that I wouldn't include any spoilers in this column, but I will say that season four's finale opens up all sorts of possibilities for a fifth season.

More than even The Sopranos or Deadwood, two other personal favorites, The Wire delivers on HBO's “It's not TV” slogan. It's everything that TV should—and can—be.

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