'Wire' has its ear to the real world

Television's most undersung series in 2002 was "The Wire," a deluxe cops-and-crooks hour that opens its second season on HBO Sunday night as brainy and irresistible as ever.

Anyone who doesn't watch should be arrested.

HBO has its occasional clunkers. Yet "The Wire" affirms how the channel has reconfigured the architecture of prime-time drama for the better and created a revolving door where its highbrow elite wave to each other while going in opposite directions. So out on hiatus Sunday goes HBO's stratospheric "Six Feet Under." And whoosh, in come a dozen new episodes of "The Wire," a genius series the equal of ABC's "NYPD Blue" at its best, and one that delivers more boom for the buck than either NBC's admired crime tome "Boomtown" or the irritating coppers of FX's "The Shield."

Series creator David Simon is not the only maestro here. But he is heavily involved in the writing, as he was as a producer for NBC's late, great "Homicide: Life on the Streets," and as executive producer (with David Mills) of "The Corner," a world-class HBO miniseries about a Baltimore neighborhood's seedy drug subculture.

Simon's background as a Baltimore crime reporter surely exposed him to moral ambiguity, good and evil merging not only on mean streets but also in corridors of presumed respectability. It's called the real world.

That epitomizes "The Wire," along with complex, densely written characters, first-class acting and measured storytelling so seductive that one critic (blush) pops in videocassettes of one episode after the other without a break. What? HBO sent only a few? Bummer.

Crime is the entertainment industry's everlasting light. One reason for its prominence on movie and TV screens through the years was the comforting perception that bad guys were entirely bad, good guys good to the bone, presenting a clear scenario for comeuppance and closure. It's soothing to believe that goodness will always trump evil, however incompatible that is with life.

Those delineations fall away increasingly, though, as the public becomes aware of lawbreakers as a rainbow, from traditional thugs to corporate cheaters who are toasted by Wall Street one moment, indicted the next. How perplexing to locate flickers of virtue in heavies and learn that cops, public officials and others anointed as icons in some cases may be so deeply flawed that they approach criminality.

When it comes to "The Wire," though, how interesting.

Lines separating good and evil blur in its almost parallel universes that have both Baltimore police and criminals bloodying themselves in bitter turf wars, and both operating by distinct chains of command.

The duality of these perspectives from both sides of the law is matched on TV only by Showtime's "Street Time," another superior crime series that straddles competing cultures and also deserves much more attention as it travels through its second season.

Dark and uncompromising, "The Wire" and "Street Time" -- which crisscrosses the lives of a troubled parole officer and a drug-trafficker ex-con -- are their own golden age of TV drama.

"The Wire" spent its first season observing America's urban drug war through the eyes of dealers operating in a Baltimore housing project and police detectives whose campaign made corrupt cop bureaucrats and politicians squirm. Their investigation, driven by an ambitious wiretap effort, was curtailed by these higher-ups at a critical point. As a result, the drug lords were merely inconvenienced instead of shut down.

That's where "The Wire" stands as season No. 2 begins and the focus shifts to the Baltimore waterfront and its unions.

There's an intricate tangle here, and unknotting many strands of plot and sorting out numerous characters may challenge viewers who missed last season's batch of shows that HBO repeated in the weeks preceding this new summer season.

Some of the good cops are paying a high price now for the integrity they displayed last season.

Former homicide Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) has been exiled to a police boat in the Baltimore harbor, and his former boss, Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), to a basement evidence-control unit, his dreams of making major dashed. "If they buried you any deeper," his wife complains, "you'd be under the damn building."

Det. Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) is deskbound in the forfeiture unit after recovering from serious gunshot wounds. Back also are Dets. "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce) and Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), as is assistant D.A. Rhonda Pearlman (Deidre Lovejoy) for a quickie under the sheets with McNulty.

Promoted to colonel, McNulty's self-serving nemesis William Rawls (John Doman) is less interested in solving cases than in clearing his books of them. And Rawls' own ambitious boss, Deputy Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie R. Faison), remains less sensitive to public need than to public relations as he pursues the department's top job.

On the underworld front, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) is now running his drug empire from a prison cell with the outside help of Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). And still a candidate for redemption is his enigmatic nephew, D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.), serving time too, but bitter about eating a rap for the "family." Deadly Omar (Michael K. Williams) and his shotgun also resurface, as does perpetually strung out Bubbles the police snitch (Andre Royo).

Meanwhile, a body is pulled from the harbor, Maj. Stanislaus Valcheck (Al Brown) tangles with longshoreman boss Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) over a gift to St. Caspar's Church in a feud that turns ominous, and earnest wharf cop Beatrice Russell (Amy Ryan) makes a shocking discovery.

McNulty works his way into the case, and in a few weeks he and his colleagues from last season will reunite for this new investigation.

Which won't please Greggs' female companion, who wants her to pursue a legal career and stay out of harm's way, or Daniels' social-climbing spouse, who wants him to retire and profit from the law degree he already has. Greggs to Daniels: "I'll tell your wife, if you tell mine."

What provocative, achingly good, high-achieving television. Pay attention this time, Emmy voters.

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Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes. Com

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'The Wire'

Where: HBO

When: Second season premieres 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: The network has rated the series TVMALV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

Production credits: Created by David Simon; written by Simon, Edward Burns, George Pelecanos, Rafael Alvarez, Joy Lusco Kecken; executive produced by Simon, Robert Colesberry

Dominic West...Jimmy McNulty

Lance Reddick...Cedric Daniels

Sonja Sohn...Shakima Greggs

Wendell Pierce..."Bunk" Moreland

Wood Harris...Avon Barksdale

Idris Elba...Stringer Bell

Larry Gilliard Jr....D'Angelo Barksdale

Andre Royo...Bubbles

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