Season 3 of HBO's acclaimed drama The Wire begins tomorrow night with two young drug dealers, Bodie (JD Williams) and Poot (Tray Chaney), having a spirited conversation as they walk through a trash-strewn alley on a sunny morning in Baltimore.
"I'm trying to say, those towers used to be home to me," Poot says.
"You going to cry over a housing project now?" Bodie answers sarcastically. "Man they should have blown them [things] up a long time ago."
At a nearby playground, Baltimore Mayor Clarence V. Royce (Glynn Turman) stands at a microphone, near a large banner that reads, "Building for the Future: A New Beginning for Baltimore." "A few moments from now, the Franklin Terrace Towers behind me, which sadly came to represent some of this city's most entrenched problems, will be gone," he says proudly to onlookers.
Meanwhile, Bodie is getting more agitated by Poot: "Look, you're talking about steel and concrete, steel and concrete, man."
"No, I'm talking about people, memories and [stuff]," Poot insists. "My whole life has been around those towers, you know? I feel like I ain't got no home no more."
Back and forth the camera goes, until the drug dealers arrive at the playground and join the crowd. Then there's a countdown, and the towers are imploded. The manner in which they pancake inward, the awe in the faces of the crowd and the giant cloud of dust that spews forth immediately invoke images of 9/11 and the World Trade Center towers.
And with that, TV dramatist David Simon does it again: In the space of a perfectly distilled, five-minute overture, he not only sounds the major themes of the new season -- politics, hope, despair and the possibility (or impossibility) of reform in post-industrial urban America -- he brilliantly offers his largely upper-middle-class HBO audience a new way of seeing, and feeling, an unfamiliar part of the world. He humanizes the steel and concrete and makes us care about one of the denizens, figures consistently treated only as symbols of danger and decay in urban America. And he shows us we are all washed in the grime of the great cloud enveloping those onscreen.
Tonight, the Peabody Award-winning series is not only back, it's better than ever. Simon has always been good, but he seems to have truly matured this year as both a writer (he authored tonight's teleplay) and executive producer. No one is making richer television drama than he is right now.
The core characters are all still on the case. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), and Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) are working the same wire under the direction of Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick). They are still trying to listen in on Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), who is running his drug operation with help from Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), still in jail. But with the wire not yielding much useful information, there is pressure from above to shut it down.
As always, the pressure comes from city hall, a realm Simon opens to deeper scrutiny this year. In addition to Turman as Mayor Royce, another newcomer is Aidan Gillen as Councilman Thomas Carcetti, a handsome young politician who appears to be using the police department to advance his career. Is he a genuine force for reform or a hustler who wants more than anything to be mayor? While Simon insists that all characters are composites, there is sure to be some guessing as to how much Carcetti is or isn't based on Mayor Martin O'Malley.
There is also Dennis Wise (Chad L. Coleman), a parolee trying not to return to the drug culture, and Police Maj. Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom), who dares to acknowledge that the war on drugs is a losing effort.
The story lines are compelling, but what elevates this series to a near-poetic level are moments like tonight's opening tableau or an even more powerful moment in the third episode (written by novelist Dennis Lehane), at a barroom wake for Detective Ray Cole (who'd been played by executive producer Robert F. Colesberry before he died in February).
With the detective's remains laid out on a pool table, speeches start getting made. They climax with sweaty Sgt. Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams) delivering a eulogy that brilliantly merges Cole's make-believe history with Colesberry's acclaimed film-making career.
After some profane humor, Landsman tearfully concludes: "But Ray Cole stood with us, all of us, in Baltimore, working, sharing a dark corner of the American experiment. He was called, he served, he was counted."
As they toast, the Irish pipe music in the background rises, and one after another, those in the barroom join in on the song ("The Body of an American" by the Pogues) until the screen feels as if it is about to explode. It is one of the most eloquent and affirmative moments of television I have ever experienced.
The Wire is about a dark corner of the American experiment. Its fearless exploration of race, social class, political betrayal and economic warfare make for a mostly bleak landscape. But moments like Cole's wake also make it one of the most uplifting and ultimately transcendent dramas television has ever offered.
What: The Wire, Season 3 premiere
When: Tomorrow at 9 p.m.
In brief: Urban America seen through a lens darkly, bravely and more wisely than ever.