The problem with praising the new season of "The Wire" is twofold: First, dozens of critics (this one included) went on and on last year, pointing out how it's one of the best, if not the best, drama ever brought to life on television. Not much more to add there.
Second, we live in a time when "best [insert object of affection] ever" is shorthand for "I like it all right," so it's hard to get people to realize you actually mean it when you call "The Wire" the best television drama you've ever seen.
Neither of those problems makes the statement any less true, though: "The Wire" is the finest series I've ever watched, and it lives up to the hyperbole as it enters its fifth and final season, which debuts at 10 p.m. ET Sunday (unless you have HBO on Demand, in which case you've been able to see the premiere since Monday).
Which is not to say that there will be many, if any, happy endings to this story. The show has for four years has been an angry, despairing cry against the decay of urban life, and the new season adds another crumbling institution atop the Baltimore police, city government and schools: the press, represented mostly by a fictionalized version of the city's newspaper, the Sun (creator David Simon's one-time employer and a corporate relative of Zap2it).
Buyouts and cost-cutting have gutted the paper's staff -- "do more with less" is the oft-repeated mantra -- which means that the Sun has a weaker institutional memory and fewer resources. The tough, sardonic city editor (Clark Johnson, who's also directed several episodes of the show) fights the good fight, but he can only do so much -- which means that the paper doesn't see how the other supposed pillars of society are falling down on the job too.
Mayor Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) has raided the police budget to shore up Baltimore's failing schools, which means police overtime is going unpaid, lab work undone and patrol cars unserviced (Dominic West's McNulty has a bleakly funny scene in episode two involving his search for a working unmarked car). The cuts force the disbanding of the Major Crimes squad, which has been tailing drug dealer Marlo (Jamie Hector) for the better part of a year since discovering the 22 bodies he and his crew had disposed of in the city's abandoned houses.
About the only thing that seems to be running as well as it ever has, in fact, is the drug trade. Marlo has a firm hold on his territory, although he's chafing against the structure of Prop Joe's (Robert F. Chew) co-op and looking to expand his holdings (with some possible help from a former rival). And with the surveillance team dismantled, he's also free to indulge his taste for blood once again.
The circumstances lead McNulty, who's hitting the bottle again, hard, to a desperate act as a way to get some attention and funding for the Marlo investigation. It's a bit of a reach for both him and the show -- a little more TV-issue dramatic than we're used to seeing from "The Wire." On the other hand, it's hard to blame the guy for trying anything to shock the system into working ("Marlo's an a**hole. He doesn't get to win," McNulty rails at one point).
Marlo is, indeed, just what McNulty calls him. But if there's any point "The Wire" has made over the course of its five seasons, it's that the real bad guys of the piece are the institutions that, via a mix of laziness, corruption and bureaucracy, have more or less ground to a halt.
Edmund Burke's famous quote about evil triumphing when good men do nothing doesn't really apply here. Time and time again on "The Wire," we've seen good people try to do something, and time and time again, they're thwarted by the institutions that should be there to help them.
It's not the stuff of uplifting television -- but neither is "The Wire" a sermon. Simon and his all-star writing team consistently find the mordant humor in their characters' situations, and it's a joy to hear the show's uniformly fine cast speak the profane/profound dialogue written for them.
Specific plot points and spoilers are almost beside the point -- like a novel, "The Wire" makes the most sense after you've seen it all. Watch it, and you get it.