Tapping into new terrain

The Wire returns to HBO tonight for its second season with a new locale and a groundbreaking exploration of life in working-class America.

The critically acclaimed series is still set in Baltimore, but rather than the drug world of inner-city high-rise projects, its primary locale (at least in the first four episodes) shifts to the waterfront and the Port of Baltimore. Instead of an African-American drug organization and the addicts it exploits, the show now focuses on a racially mixed labor union of dock workers and a Polish-American family that lives and dies with the union. The change from underclass to working class is profound.

There is little precedence within television history for the rich portrayal of working class life as depicted by The Wire. There was a promising NBC drama in 1980 called Skag, with Karl Malden as a Serbian-American steelworker named Peter Skagska. But it was canceled after only six weeks. And there have been a few rare sitcoms such as ABC's Roseanne that featured working-class characters, but sitcoms by definition are more about laughs than any kind of in-depth exploration of social class and the ways in which it can shape lives.

To find a comparison, one must go beyond television to feature films - to Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, which won the Oscar for best picture in 1978. The Wire, in its new season, has moments when it resonates with that masterpiece of American cinema about young, working-class men coming of age as they journey from their Pennsylvania steel-mill community to the killing fields of Vietnam and back again. The same frustration, confusion, anger and alienation felt by the Polish-American steelworkers played by Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken and John Cazale suffuse union life on the waterfront in The Wire. Television rarely dares to be this deep or wise, particularly when telling stories about folks who are essentially dispossessed. This is the kind of drama that makes HBO such a unique place on the television landscape (and along these lines, Baltimore should feel honored to be show's home).

From projects to port

The transition from housing projects to waterfront is made gracefully in creator David Simon's screenplay for tonight's episode, titled "Ebb Tide." Viewers pick up where they left off last year - with Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) back in uniform and exiled to working a police boat in the harbor.

The investigation into the Barksdale drug operation - the focus of Season 1 - reached too far into the political life of Baltimore, and McNulty is one of the detectives now paying with their careers for pushing too hard. As for the practical results of the probe, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) is in prison, but continues to call the shots from his cell. Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) remains Barksdale's man on the street, overseeing the drug empire on a day-to-day basis. Besides some problems with supply, they are still very much in business. The more things change ...

McNulty is still the first among equals in this ensemble drama, and the narrative proper begins tonight with the former homicide detective fishing the body of a woman out of the harbor. But, instead of simply doing the paperwork and handing off the corpse to the medical examiner like a marine patrol officer is supposed to do, McNulty gets involved - way involved.

By Episode 3, he's so caught up in the investigation that he's sounding like Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) from Homicide: Life on the Street, talking about how someone has to speak for the dead victim and bring the killer to justice. McNulty's on the case, and stepping on all kinds of toes. And the case may be a big one: The corpse found in the harbor is linked to a shipping container left on a Baltimore dock by an operation involved in smuggling women from foreign countries into the United States for prostitution.

The dock is home to the stevedores union at the heart of this year's story. The union is run by Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), who though a little hardheaded, seems a decent leader compared with the liars and back stabbers in charge at City Hall and police headquarters. But Sobotka is clearly presiding over a dying kingdom - a waterfront with too few ships to unload.

Union members include Sobotka's son, Ziggy (James Ransone), and his nephew, Nick (Pablo Schreiber). All Sobotka can offer to this generation of union workers is one day here, a half day there, sporadic paychecks for work weeks that rarely hit 40 hours.

This is the universe that The Wire so richly explores this season. It is an evocative portrayal of a world gone by in which post-war workers and their children came of age knowing they would work at a union job whether on the docks or in factories. The Wire peers beyond recent news events - such as that of the retirees at Bethlehem Steel who lost their benefits - to show what life is like inside a world that the captains of industry have decided is of little or no use.

Nick and Ziggy

Nick is young, strong, and seems to be smart enough. He's modest, handsome and not given to long speeches. Give him a cowboy hat, and he could be a good guy, if not the hero, in a Western. (Simon has said, after all, that he is working in the Western genre.)

But, if young drug dealers in the city have the street corners and high-rise courtyards as a modern-day frontier on which to test their manhood, what does someone like Nick have? He defines himself as a worker, but most days his uncle sends him home because there is no work on the docks.

Nick is also father to a small child, but he does not have enough money to live with his son's mother, a hair stylist. Instead, he lives with his parents in their basement and when the mother of his child sleeps over, he asks her to leave surreptitiously. The reason: He doesn't want his mother to be reminded of their sexual relationship.

It's not exactly empowerment. The only place left that doesn't emasculate Nick is the saloon near the docks where the men of the union gather at night - and too often during the day when there's no work. The behavior is self-destructive, but chugging boilermakers (a shot of whisky instantly followed by a glass of beer) is one of the few ways available in Nick's world to measure one's manhood.

At one point, Nick's cousin Ziggy jumps up on a table and flashes the crowd. (Yes, full-frontal nudity. This is, after all, premium cable.) Beyond driving his prized Camaro car, Ziggy's primary mode of expressing his masculinity is exposing private parts of his body.

For working-class boys like Nick, this is what the American frontier has become. Maybe that's why the jukebox in the bar always seems to be playing the blues. The scenes depicting Baltimore's union workers tossing back boilermakers as their voices rise and the music blares perfectly echo the sensibilities of The Deer Hunter, particularly when the young steelworkers were downing one after another of the same drink in a joint run by their friend (George Dzundza).

Ziggy seems to be a direct descendant of Stanley, the boastful, foolish narcissistic and cowardly character played by Cazale in The Deer Hunter. (He played similar character named Fredo in The Godfather. Ransone, the actor who plays Ziggy, actually looks like a young Cazale, with his frail build and prematurely receding hairline.

But more important, just as Stanley was a dark reflection of all the nonheroic tendencies toward weakness that De Niro's Michael Vronsky tried to repress in The Deer Hunter, so is Ziggy in comparison with Nick in The Wire. Ziggy is the weak one, the one who gives into impulse and excess, the one who will bring trouble to his tribe.

In The Wire, the trouble starts when Ziggy and Nick steal a cargo container of cameras off the docks and sell them to a shadowy figure known as the Greek. Once they commit the crime and enter the dangerous realm of characters like the Greek, at least they have a frontier on which to travel.

Who's in control?

It is impossible to judge a full season of 12 episodes by the first four shows (the number released by HBO to critics). But in at least one way, The Wire may surpass The Deer Hunter.

In a Film Quarterly essay analyzing The Deer Hunter as a Western and comparing it to James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer, film critic David Axeen writes: "The problem with the Cooper-Cimino western is that it asks us to suspend our knowledge of history, and ignore the realities of social structure. ... Neither Cooper nor Cimino wants to consider the people and forces really in control."

The first season of The Wire, as well as the mini-series The Corner, shows Simon to be as committed as anyone working in television to exploring "the people and forces really in control" over the lives and sometimes deaths of his characters.

Some say such sociology is more than American television can ever truly deliver given corporate and cultural constraints. I say it can be done, and tuning in Sunday nights at 10 this summer to see if The Wire succeeds on the waterfront is going to be one of the great pleasures of summer viewing.