The fourth season of HBO's urban crime series ''The Wire'' will focus on the wrong lessons kids learn in the schools and on the streets

By Michael Endelman
Updated September 11, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”The Wire”: Lessons in corruption

Along with the changing of the leaves and the shortening of the days, the fall season brings Hollywood’s Oscar bait, blockbuster albums, and the return of weighty, complex TV series. And of those weekly TiVo appointments, there is no series more heavy or labyrinthine or emotionally wrenching or engrossing or, dare I say, educational, than The Wire. But I won’t spend too much time being a cheerleader in this weekly TV Watch — EW’s tube gurus Ken Tucker and Gillian Flynn have already done plenty of that. And if you’ve clicked through to this page, you probably already know that The Wire is the best frickin’ show on any network right now. Maybe even ever.

As often happens with first episodes, the opener for season 4 — titled ”Boys of Summer” — didn’t advance the plot too much, though it established many of the various threads that will surely be followed over the next 12 episodes. Here’s a quickie rundown. McNulty seems to have settled into his routine as a neighborhood beat cop and seems determined to stay one — despite Daniels’ pleas for him to come back to the crime unit. Prez is starting his new career as a middle school math teacher, and he’s quickly learning that Baltimore’s school system is as rough-and-tumble as its streets. With Avon Barksdale back in prison and Stringer Bell dead (it’s taking some time to get used to that death), Marlo’s crew is spreading its operation, leaving Bodie and the old Barksdale gang scrambling for scraps. And the three-way fight for the mayor’s office between Tommy Carcetti, Tony Gray, and the incumbent, Clarence Royce, is gonna be a bare-knuckle brawl. And of course, Lester, Bunk, and Kima are doing their best to take down dealers and investigate homicides.

The Wire is just too dense for me to discuss every element adequately in these short entries, so instead I’ll focus on a couple scenes that really stand out each week. There were a few specific moments that really hit me during ”Boys of Summer.” Ken Tucker already described one of the creepiest in the column I mentioned above; the baby-faced but coldly vicious enforcer Snoop gives me the chills too. Then there was Prez’s all-school meeting: While a lecturer goes over an inane PowerPoint presentation about how to deal with difficult students — just say the mantra ”I am loveable and capable” over and over — the battle-scarred teachers begin to snicker, scoff, and then flat-out revolt against the speaker. It was a pointed lesson in how futile academic educational theory is in the face of real-world kids with scary emotional problems. Point taken. But The Wire took it deeper, cutting between scenes of the teachers’ meeting and another out-of-touch PowerPoint lesson, this one given by some sort of antiterrorism figure to a bunch of cops who are just trying to keep Baltimore’s murder rate down. ”If those terrorists do f— up the Western, could anyone even tell?” quips one of the cops.

Back to back, these scenes are a depressing reminder of how distant bureaucratic policies are from the day-to-day conditions of most of our lives. What works on paper won’t always work on the streets, or in the classroom. Education might seem like a very unsexy theme for season 4, but as they did for ports and stevedores in season 2, I think David Simon & Co. are going to turn the wonky, dogmatic subject into a thrilling hour of TV.

A few questions for next time: Is Randy going to become the latest Wallace — meaning, is he going to be one of the few kids who are repulsed by the violence and savagery of the dealers? Will Carcetti be able to raise enough money to keep his campaign going? And has McNulty given up drinking for good?