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Photograph by Paul Schiraldi
GAMING THE SYSTEM: Councilman Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) runs for mayor while a wary Lt. Daniels (Lance Reddick) wonders what a victory might mean for his career.

Wire Transfer

David Simon's HBO series 'The Wire' brilliantly charts the messy life of one big city, from dealers to cops to pols

By Michael S. Gant

I'VE ONLY been to Baltimore once. We got lost leaving the airport and ended up at the wrong motel. And then the D.C. sniper started picking off strangers at long range. We gassed up the rental car as fast as we could and split for Pennsylvania.

Luckily, someone loves Baltimore. In his magnificent HBO series The Wire, creator David Simon lavishes on Baltimore the attention to details of character, place and language that Joyce bequeathed to Dublin or Dickens to London. In The Wire, the city has at last found a muse and an unforgettable voice. Let out of police custody, Omar (Michael K. Williams), the scar-marked freelance take-down artist, tries to explain why he won't seek safety by leaving the city: "Baltimore all I know. Man gotta live what he know."

The fifth and final season begins Sunday (Jan. 6); the fourth season has just been released in a four-disc, 13-episode package from HBO Home Video that is essential viewing.

The Wire began in 2002 with the long-running standoff between the Baltimore police and the drug dealers on the West Side "corners." With the help of a wiretap, the police, egged on by hard-drinking troublemaker Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), try to bring down the criminal empire of Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).

The second season concentrated on the blue-collar dock workers and a smuggling operation. In the third season, the city's politicians came to the fore, especially the idealistic but smarmy City Councilman Tommy Carcetti, played by Aiden Gillen (who looks disturbingly like a shorter Gavin Newsom).

Part of the show's success lies in Simon's ability to maintain his ongoing characters while introducing new players at all levels of society. Without preaching, the show also pinpoints social issues —union shrinkage, drug legalization —within the highly particularized lives of his characters, all of whom, even the least admirable, are given a full measure of existential autonomy.

Season 4 traces a complex skein of events connecting an overstressed inner-city school, Carcetti's race to become the white mayor of a black city and the rise of deadly drug dealer Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector).

A new generation of black kids is caught between Edward J. Tilghman Middle School and the lure of the corners. We meet some memorable youngsters: Randy (Maestro Harrell) is a quick-witted budding entrepreneur; quiet, awkward Duquan (Jermaine Crawford) can't find a safe niche to inhabit; brash, mouthy Namond (Julito McCullum) is being pushed into the drug trade by his mother but harbors misgivings; and Michael (Tristan Wilds) endures a dire home life.

They find themselves in the classroom of new teacher Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), a police officer who left the wire-tap unit after a shooting incident. (Simon's main writing partner, Ed Burns, was a cop turned teacher.) Simon's depiction of the often chaotic school allows him to score some zingers against No Child Left Behind. Just as Prez starts to interest his students in math, he is informed that every class must concentrate on the statewide standards test; the drills prove to be deadly boring. Duquan is promoted midyear to high school, a step that he is clearly not ready for. The school is as guilty of "juking" its graduation statistics as the police are guilty of inflating arrest numbers.

In City Hall, Mayor-elect Carcetti begins to realize how much shit even a reform mayor has to eat —from the unions, the police, the black ministers and the Republican governor in Annapolis. A shortfall in the school budget puts his principles to the test, with consequences he may never understand that trickle all the way down to Tilghman Middle School.

In Season 5, Simon, who worked at the Baltimore Sun, brings his media experience to a story line about reporters at a newspaper hemorrhaging staff and resources. As always, the city itself remains the true central character, a complex hive where pain, redemption and absurdity seek an uneasy balance. As one detective says when he learns that the scandalous death of a witness was just an accident: "Our guy's dead from a stray [bullet]? And this fuck Carcetti gets to be the mayor behind this stupidity. I fucking love this town."

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