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TV Review: 'The Wire' cuts deep with complex stories

Saturday, May 31, 2003

By Tony Norman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"The Wire" returns for a second season on HBO tomorrow night and not a moment too soon. With the summer hiatus of "Six Feet Under," there are precious few quality dramas to hold a grownup's attention until "24" returns in the fall and "The Shield" and "The Sopranos" return next year.

Pablo Schreiber, left, and Chris Bauer are in the huge cast of "The Wire," which returns to HBO tomorrow night for its second season.

"The Wire"

dot.gif When: 10 p.m. tomorrow on HBO.

dot.gif Starring: Dominic West, Wendell Pierce.

Last year, "The Wire" generated much deserved critical buzz but not a whole lot of water cooler chatter. Perhaps the show's grungy subject matter -- narcotics cops pursuing a cagey crew of Baltimore drug dealers -- wasn't glamorous enough for viewers who prefer escapism to the dramatizations of news briefs they get in the morning paper.

And let's face it, "The Wire" isn't made for channel surfing. Its larger than average cast of cynical cops, drunken cops, fed-up cops and vengeful cops was, and still is, difficult to keep straight. No one with even a scintilla of attention deficit disorder should get within 100 miles of "The Wire."

Differentiating among warring drug dealers on the show is no picnic, either, thanks to the urban patois spoken by its various tribes of junkies, informants, clockers and stickup men. For sure, when it comes to representing Baltimore's mean streets, "The Wire" makes for impressive verisimilitude, but if the characters' names don't stick in your head at the end of the hour, then, Houston, we have a problem.

Season 2 opens with Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who once made a name for himself busting drug kingpins, working the harbor patrol where he's been banished for crossing Maj. William Rawls (John Doman) one time too many. When Jimmy fishes a dead woman from the river, it sparks an immediate turf war between several bureaucracies trying to duck jurisdiction over the matter.

When Officer Beatrice Russell (Amy Ryan) discovers a cargo container with 13 dead women from Eastern Europe intended for the sex trade, there is a stampede by various authorities to evade responsibility for solving those murders, too.

A shipload of likely suspects has already left Baltimore and docked at a port in Philadelphia, guaranteeing a logistical nightmare for whatever investigating authority catches the assignment. It also doesn't help that none of the potential suspects speaks English when the cops are around.

Through a series of faxed communiques to various bureaucrats, a vengeful McNulty makes sure that the murders fall within Rawls' jurisdiction several episodes into the new season. Because misfortune flows downhill in police bureaucracies, it falls on McNulty's best friends in homicide, detectives William "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce) and Lester Freamon (Clark Peters), to solve the suffocation murders of the 13 women. It's the sort of irony they don't appreciate.

In another story line, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), president of a longshoremen's local, has irritated cranky Maj. Stanislaus Valcheck (Al Brown), a fellow Pole whom he beat out for the honor of donating an expensive stained-glass mural to a local Catholic rectory.

Valcheck orders surveillance of Sobotka's movements on the docks, suspecting drugs as the source of the declining local's income. But as it turns out, Sobotka and his nephew (Pablo Schreiber) are deep into everything but drugs. Bunk, Freamon and Russell believe that finding 13 dead women on Sobotka's docks is more than a coincidence. It will be up to McNulty, suffering from Catholic guilt himself, to link the woman he fished from the river to the dead women in the cargo container.

If that weren't complicated enough, Omar (Michael K. Williams), Baltimore's scariest stickup man, is robbing drug dealers in Charm City again. Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) is running the drug trade, while his boss Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) is riding out the first year of a seven-year sentence. Avon's nephew, D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.), is also in the slammer but wants nothing to do with his uncle. Circumstances conspire to make him change his mind, though.

All of these story lines, including one involving the return of the investigative team that put Barksdale behind bars last season, will converge before the season is over.

Until then, "The Wire" will continue to unfurl at its own pace, daring to remain the most novelistic of HBO's Sunday night dramas.

That would be considered faint praise in some circles, but not here. There's something inspiring about series creator David Simon's trusting his audience enough to tell a complex story about the elusive motives of cops, drug dealers and longshoremen without shortchanging his characters' humanity in the process.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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