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HBO Renews The Wire

Balancing small audiences again critical acclaim, HBO has picked up a fifth season of drama The Wire. The network will commission an additional 13 episodes of the amazingly gritty "police versus drug dealers" drama, but the expected air date could not be learned.

The decision came just two days after the debut of the fourth season, which drew only 1.5 million viewers. That was up a bit from the premiere of the previous season, but just a fraction of the four million viewers averaged by a new episode of Deadwood or the 9 million drawn by an episode of The Sopranos. All those numbers increase through repeat viewing on the network and—importantly—through video-on-demand services, but cable operators won't make VOD numbers available for nearly a month.

Created by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, of Homicide fame, The Wire paints an intensely bleak and textured portrait of urban Baltimore, with its internecine battles among cops, politicos and drug dealers. The show takes its largely black cast on a dozen parallel plotlines, demanding a far greater level of commitment and attention from its audience than standard escapist police procedurals, which limits its audience appeal.

The current season dives into the public-school system, putting a harsh spotlight on teachers trying to cope with educating drug-dealing "corner boys." In a recent interview, Simon said he pitched HBO execs about taking the next season into the media, focusing on how local newspapers and TV stations play uncomfortable roles in the twisted politics of big cities.