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The Returned 'Wire' Retains Its Jolt

'The Wire" was last year's best dramatic series, hands

down, but I cringed when HBO announced there would be a sequel. The original

was near perfect, a video novel that came to an honest conclusion. It felt

complete. I feared creator David Simon would throw his back and a hip out

trying to work most of the regular characters into a new story arc and still

end up with something less fresh and impressive. Then, after seeing what a mess

the creators of "24" made in similar circumstances, I half-shut my eyes and

braced for the crash.

Oh me of little faith. Simon and co-plotter Ed Burns did reuse everybody

who was anybody in the first arc, even Bubbles (Andre Royo), the junkie snitch.

But if the manipulation is transparent at times, it's just as often ingenious.

It helps that they take the better part of four episodes to reset the table,

so we don't just get the first series' Baltimore police task force reassembling

as if they were the Justice League of America answering an alarm. It helps

even more that the staggered regrouping occurs in the context of an

increasingly complicated story that involves longshoremen, international

smugglers, in-prison power brokers and rival Polish- American factions vying to

put a commemorative stained-glass window in a Catholic church.

The original series was as much about bureaucratic indifference and

infighting as it was about crime fighting, more "Dilbert" than "Dragnet." The

"wire" of the title referred to the phone taps that a motley collection of

Baltimore police detectives got authority to employ in an effort to bust up a

housing-project drug ring. Ultimately they got enough evidence to put the

kingpin, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), and a couple of his underlings in

prison, but the crackdown fell far short of its potential because of

departmental politics and the fact that some important toes got stepped on.

Some of the most aggressive investigators got humiliating reassignments for

their noble efforts.

Which is why Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) is now pushing papers in

the department's basement evidence warehouse and Det. James McNulty (Dominic

West) is freezing his tail off working harbor patrol. Midway through Sunday's

episode, McNulty fishes a pretty young woman's body out of the water. His

cheeky effort to stick his old boss with a hard-to-solve homicide, a little

something to mess up his "clearance" percentage, opens a big can of worms.

Be forewarned that opener is dense, quick- moving and largely absent the

sort of explanatory dialogue that dramatic series typically use to ensure that

we have our bearings. Even viewers who savored each installment of the original

series may feel disoriented. Newcomers may feel as though they're watching a

foreign-language film without subtitles. My advice is to videotape it, re-watch

and have faith. The coherence quotient goes up by the hour, and patience will

be rewarded.

Once again, gritty atmosphere is as much the attraction as story line.

Among the more extraordinary aspects of the original was the way it revealed

complexity, gray areas, in all its characters, even the drug dealers.

Especially the drug dealers, from bottom-line-focused higher-ups who attended

community-college business classes to kid dealers who lovingly supported

still-younger siblings. The new arc doesn't have quite the same emotional

resonance, the same undercurrent of tragedy, but it does vividly depict the

lives of dockworkers who've been hit hard by the economic slump and, without

being didactic about it, the vulnerability of our seaports to all sorts of


It's also funnier than the first series - in a vulgar, realistic way that

arises from circumstance and character, not forced jokes or malapropisms. And

no one is more amusing than McNulty's former partner, Det."Bunk" Moreland

(Wendell Pierce), who comes on like a bad-news version of Andy Brown, the great

Spencer Williams' "Amos 'n' Andy" character. He and his tweedy partner Lester

Freamon (Clarke Peters) would be spin-off material if this were on a broadcast

network. It's not, though; it's on HBO. And thanks be to the channel for

another show that expands the boundaries of series drama.


THE WIRE. Last year's most richly textured dramatic serial resumes with a

new, 12-episode arc that continues the original's chess match between Baltimore

cops and drug dealers, but moves the primary front from the projects to the

waterfront. Premieres Sunday night at 10 on HBO.

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