Return Of The Un-Sopranos

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Unlike its much-buzzed-about HBO brethren, the cop drama The Wire was not dubbed an instant cultural phenomenon when it debuted last summer. Not as operatic as The Sopranos, as sleek as Six Feet Under or as trendy as Sex and the City, it was not the kind of show that becomes an automatic pop-cult reference for op-ed columnists or lands articles about its stars' footwear in IN STYLE. Like its underfunded, workaday cops, it just plugged away until it outshone anything else on TV.

The Wire is that rare specimen, a work about social issues that is not boring. Last season detailed a single investigation of a drug gang, which — just as rare for TV — got as much screen time and character depth as the cops. And as the police tangled with bureaucratic politics and the gang unfolded its secrets like a black Sopranos family, it became a story about the collapse of faith in institutions and the death of inner cities.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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In its second season, The Wire (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.) moves its action to Baltimore's port, where Detective James McNulty (Dominic West) has been exiled to the harbor patrol for ticking off his bosses. The waterfront is an ideal setting for The Wire's murky morality — a place that is neither here nor there, the porous membrane between America and the Other, the teeming intake for legal and illegal markets. Its shipping containers, stacked for acres like so many Pez, feed a ravenous economy with cameras and vodka and hookers — this season's case starts when a group of young women shipped from Eastern Europe turns up dead in one of the metal "cans."

In TV-speak, shows like CSI are called procedurals because they focus on the technique of police work. But The Wire shows what a misnomer that term is for a sprint in which DNA analysis puts a baddie behind bars in an hour. Here the cops use index cards and manual typewriters instead of electron microscopes and bite into paper trails like a dog attacking a steak. This attention to detail, plus a vast canvas of characters, makes for a dense boulder of a story that moves creakily for the first couple of hours. But once it gets rolling, it's irresistible because of the humanity creator-writer David Simon finds in his characters, from cops who risk their careers if they seek out tough cases (because those cases raise the unsolved-murder rate) to down-and-out union workers taking payoffs to let contraband (or worse) slip by customs.

More than a crime writer or social dramatist, Simon is a poet of beautiful losers. He has an unfailing ear for dialogue (getting a hard-to-solve case is "catching a stone whodunit"), and he's abetted by the subtle performances of regulars like Sonja Sohn and Wendell Pierce. Even crooked union boss Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) is more pitiable than loathsome — he's a dinosaur and knows it — and his underlings are the blue-collar counterpart to last season's no-hope drug soldiers, who are on the scene this year too. If The Wire depicts a war on crime, it is World War I, its weary sides facing off in the trenches, with little hope of victory or reward. The cops soldier on anyway, driven less by idealism than stubbornness. They deserve recognition. And so does TV's hardest-working drama.