Local figures, riveting drama put 'Wire' in a class by itself


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has a bit part as a security guard at the State House in Annapolis. The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, senior pastor of Bethel AME Church, has a bigger part as an influential minister delivering a powerful sermon on the eve of a hotly contested Baltimore mayoral primary. And Edward T. Norris, the former police commissioner and convicted felon, is back in his recurring role as a hard-working homicide detective named Ed Norris who is just trying to do good ole police work.

It seems as if the only prominent civic figure not given a role in the coming season of HBO's The Wire, the critically acclaimed crime drama set and filmed in Baltimore, is Martin O'Malley, Democratic mayor and gubernatorial candidate.

But fear not, Thomas Carcetti, the boyishly handsome, fictional councilman who's running for mayor, returns in all his ambition and fury - and was there any Baltimorean last season who didn't think Carcetti bore an undeniable resemblance to O'Malley? That is, except series creator David Simon.

Though the fourth season of The Wire isn't scheduled to begin until Sept. 10, the Peabody Award-winning drama already is generating buzz. And while this was expected to be a one-season reprieve for the ratings-challenged series, Simon is in Los Angeles this week meeting with journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour - campaigning for Season 5.

"Truth is, the critical reception to the show is the predicate by which we will be renewed for a fifth season or not, so I'm gonna chat up every critic who will have me," Simon wrote in an e-mail.

"How it flies and whether critics react to what we built - since we sent out the entire season - I have no idea. But we believe it is our best and most resonant season to date."

Drawing from his experience as a Sun police reporter and best-selling nonfiction author, Simon envisions the series as an exploration of urban America focusing on the institutions that shape life in major cities. Each season of The Wire has featured a different slice of that pie.

Season 1 looked at the ways in which drug organizations and the police mirrored each other in their daily warfare. Season 2 focused on unions and the port of Baltimore. In 2004, the focus was on City Hall.

"The entire theme of the show is how institutions treat individuals - and this year we are going into the schools," Simon said in an interview last week.

Serious and gripping drama, to be sure. But for local viewers and political observers much fun can be had in scanning the screen for local politicians who pop up in unlikely roles - or watching for certain fictional characters, Simon's protestations aside, who bear a slightly wicked resemblance to real-life community leaders. One of the new season's finest comic moments, for example, features Carcetti, the fictional City Council member who brings to mind Baltimore's real-life mayor, coming face to face in the State House building with the security guard played by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (The mayor and Ehrlich, of course, are in a heated gubernatorial race in real life.)

The result of all this: beyond the sly humor, some of the most powerful and resonant drama on television. No network or cable series explores race, class and the mounting modern-day challenge of working within institutions that seem to have lost their sense of mission as eloquently as The Wire does - and it has never done so more movingly than in Season 4.

Highlights include:

Former Detective Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, played by Jim True-Frost, begins a new career as a middle-school math teacher. Called "Prezbo" by students who have a hard time pronouncing his name, the newbie educator has his own harsh learning curve to navigate. He is smart and has a caring heart, but it is going to take more than the good intentions and keen intellect of one man to overcome the damage done to some of these kids in their own homes.

Episode 3 includes one of Pryzbylewski's female pupils leaping from her seat and suddenly slashing the face of another girl with what looks to be a box cutter. The moment is unforgettable.

As fine a performance as True-Frost delivers, the real stars are four young actors: Maestro Harrell, Tristan Wilds, Julito McCullum and Jermaine Crawford.

Each character gets a different kind of education - one by being betrayed by the police and social services systems, another in learning how to be a successful enforcer for a drug kingpin, a third through the concern and care of a teacher. A fourth, meanwhile, finds his way thanks to a mentor who steps up after the school system lets the young man down. Each of the actors makes one care deeply about the character he plays.

Andre Royo delivers another stunning performance as Bubbles, the heroin addict and informant who is doing his own kind of teaching - trying to school a homeless teen protege, Sherrod (Rashad Orange), in how to survive the streets of Baltimore. Bubbles is as rich and unsettling a character as anything created by Samuel Beckett. Book an Emmy for Royo.

As always, Simon's storylines echo real life in Baltimore. Much of the power of Season 4 lies in how the school system is ground zero for many of the urban ills chronicled in previous seasons by Simon and co-executive producer Ed Burns. City Hall provides (or doesn't provide) resources to citizens. The police encounter daily the failures of the educational system on the street. Criminal entrepreneurs recruit and teach alternative lessons to those who are not getting help at school.

There is an exciting mayoral election in the sixth episode of the series. But before the winner can savor victory, he finds out that the Baltimore City schools have a $50 million deficit.

Sound familiar?

"How in [expletive] do you lose $50 million?" the mayor demands from a conference table full of department heads and aides.

"One million at a time," his chief of staff says ruefully.

It would be funny, if it weren't so maddening to watch the politicking and buck-passing among City Council, State House and school administration officials while the kids suffer and in some cases die.

In telling such stories, Season 4 of The Wire reaches as high as any drama in the history of the medium. Here's hoping it is only a prelude to Season 5.


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