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Associated Press/Photo by Nicole Rivelli/HBO

Wire cuts

Video | HBO series offers a bleak portrait of a decaying Baltimore

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

The cruelest villain in The Wire is human nature. Drugs are certainly part of the problem, political corruption is certainly another part, but one of the show's biggest surprises is how often the good guys and bad guys pop up in places we don't expect them. The Wire is a cop show, by the way-possibly the only cop show in history that feels like watching the news.

HBO's five-season TV series (which is no longer running but is available on DVD) is in a class by itself. Former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns (a former cop) fill the photorealistic show with colorful characters-Omar (an excellent Michael K. Williams), for example, the thug-turned-thief who exclusively preys on drug dealers, stealing their paper bags of heroin and cash and redistributing the money. And Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters, equally good), the quiet detective who sits in a dark corner of the precinct making doll furniture and occasionally deigning to solve a case with astonishing rapidity. But these guys live against a larger backdrop: a dying newspaper, a struggling police department, and an insurgent drug culture.

The Wire presents some problems for Christians-much of the show's cursing is simply an accurate approximation of the way cops and drug dealers talk to each other, but there's just too much sex in the third season and the fast-forward button comes in very handy.

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Simon does not make excuses for the show's drug dealers (one recurring character, a homeless police informant named Bubbles, is a constant reminder of how badly heroin ruins lives), but he does offer explanations, notably in the show's heartrending fourth season, set in part in the Baltimore school system.

During that season, a former cop tries to reform the school system to stem the tide of young dealers and users. It's a mirror of some of his less successful experiments in policing, but he comes back with a higher success rate-approximately one child. With its vast portrait of a decaying Baltimore, the moral of The Wire can be summed up in Robert Penn Warren's axiom that "history, like nature, knows no leaps-except the leap backward, maybe."

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