By Gillian Flynn
Updated September 08, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
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No child is left behind in inner-city Baltimore. The students of Edward J. Tilghman Middle School are, in fact, being snapped up quite greedily. Teachers tuck a few under their insubstantial wings; sensible mentors claim a couple more. Drug dealers swipe the rest: Merciless kingpin Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) has become very involved in the neighborhood.

Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire — the best series on TV, period — is brutal and brilliant. Politicians and dealers and police still feature — but this year is all about the kids, trailing four middle schoolers trapped in an unworkable system. Drugs, business, prison, politics, public education — on The Wire they’re all venal and often interchangeable. While politicians trumpet a ”new day” in Baltimore, the drug dealers of the city meet under a co-op of the same name.

The series’ centerpiece character — the boozing, rebellious Officer Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) — is barely present; he’s sidelined himself now that he’s a reformed family man. It’s a striking testament to The Wire‘s writers — who include crime novelists George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Richard Price — that McNulty’s absence hardly registers. Hapless former cop Pryzbylewski, a.k.a. Prez (Jim True-Frost), has shot to the forefront instead, landing as a teacher at Tilghman. That Prez is teaching math in a system that massages test scores until the numbers are meaningless is another of The Wire‘s mirthless jokes; that producer Ed Burns is a former Baltimore cop and inner-city teacher explains the veracity of these bumptious scenes. Besides Prez, there are a few dozen others to catch up with after a nearly two-year hiatus, characters who pull you in by your neck scruff. Fans will find themselves yelping at the faces that surface throughout the first four episodes — Omar! Bunk! Bubs! Bunny! — as if it were the most pleasant of reunions. Newcomers, to be honest, should start with season 1 to appreciate this echo-filled series — and to understand The Wire‘s twitchiest character arc, that of mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), as he flits between RFK earnestness and bottom-line pragmatism.

Ultimately, however, it’s the quartet of young friends — particularly scrappy, genial Randy (Maestro Harrell) and spoiled drug scion Namond (Julito McCullum) — who give The Wire a new gravity. Here we see for the first time a glimmer of possibility, the very definition of ”what if.” The outlook is grim: Even the boxing gym where the guys find refuge displays a poster of a local champ — who became a doomed gangster. Watching these kids fall into their fates — through cruelty, complacency, or bursts of kindness — is transfixing. Maybe even transformative.

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The Wire

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