Thursday, Nov 30, 2006
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Ellen Gray | It's time to get 'Wire'-d - after all, it's the best show on TV

THE WIRE. 10 p.m. Sunday, HBO.

BECAUSE HE writes for HBO, David Simon doesn't have to worry how many times his characters drop the F-bomb.

But he still winces when people describing Simon's series "The Wire" use the G- and C-words.

As in "gritty" and "complex."

"Whenever I read those two words in every review of the show, when it says, 'the gritty and complex crime drama,' I just think, right, were we gritless and simple, we'd be fine," Simon told TV critics this summer.

I can see that.

While gritty and complex is usually critic shorthand for smart and daring television that doesn't talk down to its audience, it too often translates to readers as "Eat your vegetables."

"The Wire," though, isn't vegetables or fiber or any other part of a balanced diet.

If it were, I wouldn't have gobbled down all 13 of this season's episodes in a few short days.

What "The Wire" is, is the best show on television, and perhaps surprisingly for a series whose focus is often on casual corruption and its not-so-casual consequences, one of the most entertaining.

Or it will be, when it returns Sunday, after an unusually long break, for a fourth season that moves Simon's exploration of the, OK, gritty and complex organism known as the city of Baltimore into its schools.

And if you haven't been watching up until now, perhaps because a drama about the war on drugs that sprinkles its heroes and villains on both sides - sometimes allowing both to occupy the same bodies - didn't seem appealing, then Season 4 could represent a second chance.

This fall, "The Wire" follows Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) into the belly of the beast, as he moves from the Police Department to the classroom, much as Simon's writing and producing partner, Ed Burns, once did.

A former homicide detective, Burns taught social studies for seven years in the Baltimore schools.

"When you step into that classroom after being 20 years in the street, you think you are pretty tough. You find out real quickly that you are not," Burns said, adding that teaching "tests things that nothing else in my life tested."

Prez's journey, and the addition of four splendid young actors whose characters' paths cross his - Tristan Wilds, Maestro Harrell, Julito McCullum and Jermaine Crawford - might have been enough for a three-handkerchief Johnson & Johnson film on TNT.

But Simon and Burns - whose earlier partnership, a book called "The Corner," focused on the day-to-day lives of drug addicts in West Baltimore - don't exactly do inspirational or uplifting or any of those adjectives that win the easy Emmys (though "The Corner" miniseries still won three).

They do real, honest-to-God human beings, with flaws and failings and plenty of plain old bad luck, traits shared by the city that remains the central character of "The Wire."

They also find the funny where it wouldn't seem to belong. If you don't believe me, just watch the first few minutes of Sunday's episode, in which the enigmatically matter-of-fact Snoop (Felicia Pearson) visits a home center to purchase a nail gun.

You'll want to keep an eye on that nail gun, too.

Because like so much that happens on "The Wire," it's the small things that turn out to matter most.


Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.