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The Wire offers an urban civics lesson every week on HBO

Fans of the HBO original series The Wire were certainly aghast at the end of the third season, which found the Machiavellian gangster Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba) shot dead by a pair of cold-blooded players he’d manipulated like pawns. Staring at the body in a tellingly anti-climatic moment, Baltimore Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) could only wonder, “Who the fuck was I chasing?”

For three seasons, McNulty had stalked Bell, breaking rules and the chain of command with a casual, brute force that rendered the unintentional harm no less a violation. Bell was his purpose, his white whale — and now that the coup de grace had been delivered by other, unseen hands, McNulty could only collect the brilliant fragments of this lifeless criminal enigma.

In many ways, hardcore audiences have a similar relationship with The Wire. What the fuck kind of show is this? Is it an edgy crime drama like The Shield or the rising number of television capers that dare to assume everyone is shady in this once black-and-white genre? Is it event or water cooler television like so many of HBO’s other original programs? Is it really “the best show on television” as a number of critics have proclaimed?

During an email exchange promoting his role in the Richard Price adaptation Freedomland, Clarke Peters, who plays Det. Lester Freamon on The Wire, offers up that “how we, in the creative arts of the media, deal with social issues is by telling these stories that invite conversation or debate about the issues presented with hope that it will affect a positive change.” I’d brought up the issue of social justice because the release of Freedomland came a few months before the fifth anniversary of the civil unrest here in Cincinnati and that film covered similar territory.

But there’s something in The Wire, a deep exploration of anger and frustration that differentiates the show from the normal plot-driven episodic fodder on TV. The likely source would be the diverse team of professionals working behind the scenes to create this authentic tapestry of urban America.

David Simon, the show’s creator, used to be a journalist with The Baltimore Sun. After 25 years building a labyrinthine network of relationships throughout the police department, the streets and the halls of justice, Simon started writing books and spinoff projects like Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Corner.

For The Wire, he joined forces with Baltimore Police Department veteran Ed Burns to expose audiences to the dynamic bureaucracies and the individual players caught up in this urban battleground. The expanded crew of professionals includes crime novelists like Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, television vets like Clarke Johnson and a fresh, gritty cast featuring West, Elba and Domenick Lombardozzi (Det. Thomas “Herc” Hauk), who’s made a name for himself alongside Peters in Freedomland as well as for his appearance in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice.

Peters defines The Wire as “a template for urban America,” specifically the ills we turn a blind eye toward. He advises viewers to “follow the money. If you’re interested in your city, you will see certain names, lawyers, businesses allowing things to happen.”

Fans of The Wire will realize this is exactly what detectives Freamon and McNulty have done for three seasons in pursuit of those in the upper levels of the drug trade. They’ve found that the streets can become the lens into the heart of a city in crisis, a crisis that’s political in nature.

“It is a very political show,” creator Simon says in a phone interview. “In fact, I think it’s the only political show. We’re using the model of the television serial to examine the fundamental problems and conflicts of urban America. We’re really trying to be honest about where the pathology is, why we can’t seem to rid ourselves of it or even improve upon the situation.”

He’s quick to add, “We’re also trying to entertain people, which is a very tricky thing.”

So often, television regurgitates events without fully digesting the facts and their implications. Made-for-television movies and other serial crime dramas rush to present the latest lurid pop drama, re-enacting the few known details in glamorized performance pieces completely lacking in reality. It’s somewhat surprising that the 2001 Cincinnati riots or the numerous police incidents that begat the civil unrest didn’t attract this kind of crass turnaround.

The Wire eschews this Crash course approach. During its first three seasons, the show has taken its time to delve into the drug war in West Baltimore by tracing step by step the efforts of a major family operation to control its base in a housing project against a backdrop of a police investigation into their illegal activity. Then there was a second season interlude into the seemingly irrelevant arena of labor relations on the harbor before a return to the inner city streets and the inability of the city to overcome its own bureaucratic nature to affect real change.

Now comes season four, and the focus expands to include education. Political? You bet, as cities around the country make cases for the failure of the No Child Left Behind initiative, much like our earlier war on drugs.

The Wire is not, nor will it ever be, another in the seemingly endless CSI iterations that lay claim to cities yet never come close to embracing their ugly realities. West Baltimore stares back each week, reflecting our nation’s moral vanity and our blatantly shameful responses.

For local viewers, The Wire taps into the heart of Over-the-Rhine and the battling development fronts between Cincinnati and Newport, posting our murder rates and declining population figures (and the reasons for those numbers) every week during its 12-episode run. Maybe if we truly looked at ourselves in this harsh light, we’d be angry enough to get on the trail of those pulling the strings here.

It’s not television. It’s not even HBO. It’s life in the ‘Nati. (tt clinkscales)