Watch This Show ... Please

If you haven't seen HBO's crime-drama series The Wire yet, you probably aren't feeling the exclusionary shame that greets those who confess they don't watch The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. Frankly, it just isn't as popular or Zeitgeisty or Emmy-loved. Instead, when you come across a Wire fan, you're likely to get a sincere, expansive, even defensive plea to invest your time in the best show on television. Which it is. There. Now, you've encountered that fan.

So start watching season three this week, but here's the problem: Get ready to meet at least 20 characters, from junkies to drug bosses to police officers to council members to the mayor himself. And don't expect creator David Simon, former crime reporter and author of the acclaimed nonfiction books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner, and his writers — which this season includes A-list crime novelists George Pelecanos (Hard Revolution), Richard Price (Clockers) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) — to rehash what's gone on before. The cops, criminals and politicians on The Wire are life, not exposition.

That's because this Baltimore-set series is a rare bird: a novelistic show that isn't melodramatic. It's ambitious, but only in how human details paint a communal picture, not in outsized emotions or tricked-up storytelling. Ostensibly, The Wire is about an investigation: the first season, into a drug ring in the projects; the second, into dockworker corruption; and this season, into the intersection of the drug war and civic reform. Take a step back, though, and the show is about the way the cultures of cops and criminals operate — the ins and outs of their hierarchical structures and bureaucratic boondoggles. But going for an even wider view, you sense that it's about how an entire city works, and maybe how it doesn't work. During two seasons of intricate, brilliant storytelling, smart but flawed cops have made inroads into the hows and whos of a major drug organization only to see their efforts stymied by the petty rivalries of career-obsessed higher-ups back at police headquarters. Meanwhile, smart but flawed drug lords keep adapting to the changing economics of their trade and ever more sophisticated crime-fighting tools, only to be stymied by the petty rivalries of murder-obsessed members in their own ranks.

What ultimately fuels The Wire, then, is the nitty-gritty of two-steps-forward, one-step-back — in institutions and in personal relationships — and the writers, actors and directors get amazing suspense mileage out of the smallest of hard-won gains or hard-lost sacrifices. In this increasingly moralistic age of TV crime shows, hewing to that kind of cold reality about the engine of society is something of a revelation. And the show is consistently funny about it, too. In last Sunday's premiere episode, for example, cagey-but-weary Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick), head of a narcotic wiretap detail, explains to the politically minded acting commissioner Burrell (Frankie R. Faison) their scheme to arrest a certain foot soldier so that his immediate boss will replace him with an idiot relative who gabs so much on their wiretap that he might lead them to the kingpin.

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“What makes you think they'll promote the wrong man?” asks Burrell between golf swings in his office.

Daniels doesn't even raise an eyebrow when he solemnly quips, “We do it all the time.”

Sometimes the fight is so heartbreaking it stings. Later that same episode, a soon-to-retire major (Robert Wisdom) takes a night drive along the streets, which seem an endless parade of buying and selling. At one corner, a kid approaches the major's passenger window to deal. He waits for him to see the badge, hear the radio squawking. The kid just keeps asking what he wants. The major puts his police hat on and stares. The kid backs away, but seems more put out over a lost sale than intimidated. The look of futility on the major's face is one of the most devastating moments I've ever seen on a TV show.

Here's a valiant shot, then, at getting you up to speed in case you're coming to The Wire fresh and can't wait until October when the first season hits stores on DVD. The main story is the ongoing attempt by a dedicated police team to bring down the wide-ranging drug operation of Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), who in the first season was a shadowy West Baltimore figure until an extensive wiretap run by Detectives Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce) and Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) — under the supervision of Daniels and with help from assistant DA Rhonda Pearlman (Dierdre Lovejoy) — came awfully close to nailing him. What ultimately diluted the investigation and eventual busts were superiors like Colonel William Rawls (John Doman), who cared more about quick results that could be trumpeted to the public and make the department look good, superiors with an eye on moving up the chain of command, and — most distressingly — politicians whose campaign contributions have murky origins.

In season two, the detail, most of them penalized with ridiculous demotions, were brought back together to look into dockworker union corruption, spurred by a feud between a Polish police major and a Polish union boss over a contribution to a Catholic parish. The case led to the illegal trafficking of Russian prostitutes and started to encompass drug trafficking, but the detail was hamstrung once more by the narrow-minded brass for reaching too far. Apart from the police work that season, the series shone a sympathetic light on the easily corruptible but desperate laborers at the wharf: a slowly vanishing yet still proud working class.

This year, the Barksdale investigation returns to the forefront, as does political maneuvering. Barksdale has been in prison but on lesser charges, and is now about to be paroled, while his second-in-command Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) is not only running things, he's harder to reach than ever through conventional wiretaps. In the first new episode, the high-rise projects that have been Barksdale's territorial goldmine are destroyed in an effort to renovate and redevelop the city's more crime-ridden areas, putting Stringer in the position of rethinking the importance of turf in moving product. Stringer is a committed capitalist: He takes business courses and confounds his streetwise crew by running meetings according to Robert's Rules of Order. Also, as we start to learn in season three, he has aspirations beyond dealing drugs. But he's no less ruthless when he wants to be: In season two Stringer secretly ordered a prison hit on his own boss's beloved, conscience-stricken nephew D'Angelo to keep him from talking. Barksdale believed his nephew committed suicide and was devastated.

Then there are the characters on the margins, so important to the show's patchwork, like stickup man Omar (Michael K. Williams), who takes joy in robbing drug dealers, and Bubbles (Andre Royo), a junkie informant perpetually unable to go straight.

Foremost among new characters are a weasely councilman (Aidan Gillen), whose ambitions to clean up Baltimore's streets dovetail nicely with his mayoral ambitions; a newly paroled felon (Chad L. Coleman) tempted by the call of his old life; and a steely-eyed young drug dealer (Jamie Hector) entering into a turf war with the Barksdale crew.

It's a lot of story to digest. It may even be a few weeks before your blood starts pumping for each new “chapter,” as Simon and HBO call the episodes. But the pitch-perfect performances help, from West's self-destructive yet job-driven Irishman; to Sohn's lesbian cop, a workaholic having second thoughts about the baby her lover just had; to Pierce's wisecracking, hard-drinking homicide detective, the freshest and funniest version of that cop show staple in years. These are characters whose shrewdness, personality flaws and exchanges are so casually electric they make scenes as brief as three or four sentences — a necessity when so many strands are being juggled — come alive with foul-mouthed, determined wit. They are the bruised but unbowed soul of an excellent, too-long-ignored show about the pinched tragedy of daily compromise.

THE WIRE | HBO | Sundays at 9 p.m. with repeats throughout the week | Episode 1 of Season 3 repeats Thursday, September 23, at 9 p.m. and Saturday, September 25, at 11:40 p.m.

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