WHEN "THE WIRE" ENDED ITS third season on HBO in 2004, its fans felt that familiar panic that comes from loving a show with more critical acclaim than viewers. Would the program be back? Or would it vanish while people complain, as they always do, that there is nothing good on TV?
The complaint's not necessarily wrong -- with hundreds of channels, there's always nothing good on somewhere -- but it's not exactly well-informed, either. As the networks roll out their fall season lineups, the TV schedule is more promising at this time of year than at any other.
"The Wire" is one of those programs that delivers on that promise. Its fourth season is scheduled to begin Sept. 10 (or on Monday for those who subscribe to HBO on Demand), and for its fans, relief at its return has given way to evangelism for its excellence. Why proselyting is needed for a show that its more dramatic devotees call "Shakespearean" is a mystery.
Or maybe it's the explanation. "The Wire" is not a veg-out hour. It requires, and rewards, careful attention. At its most basic, the series is about police and drug dealers in Baltimore's inner city. Creator David Simon, a former crime reporter, gave us the late, great TV series "Homicide: Life in the Streets" and the HBO miniseries "The Corner." The first unfolded through the eyes of detectives, the latter through the eyes of addicts and dealers. "The Wire" (the title refers to wiretapping) shows how the two worlds eerily mirror each other.
That's because, as Simon puts it, the series is really about how institutions -- whether police departments, drug rings, a union-run wharf, City Hall or, in this season's story line, schools -- swallow individuals and block reform.
It's a long way from "Dragnet" or even the latest flavor of "CSI." Those shows have their fans too, of course. And "The Wire" is hardly the first program to inspire a fervent following (fans of "Veronica Mars" actually rented a small airplane that towed a "Renew Veronica Mars" banner over the studio in a campaign to save it). But even in what is generally acknowledged to be a something of a golden era for thoughtful and entertaining dramas -- both on cable channels and on network TV -- "The Wire" stands out.