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Right down to 'The Wire'

Life's been a struggle for the HBO drama, which begins its last season as perhaps the best show that few watch.

January 06, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Sudhir VENKATESH, a Columbia University sociologist, first heard about the HBO drama "The Wire" from street gang leaders in Chicago, where he was researching the effects of urban displacement. "This one guy calls me up and he says, 'These people get it,' " Venkatesh recalled.

Intrigued, the sociologist ended up watching the series' second season with about a dozen of the gang members, who offered running commentary on the program during their weekly viewings, held at a suburban home one of them had purchased for his mother.

Venkatesh plans to join them again to watch the season's fifth and final season, which begins airing the first of its 10 episodes tonight. "It has the courage to say we're not going to tie everything up so neatly because life doesn't tie up so neatly," he said.

A melancholic, densely interwoven tale of policing in Baltimore, "The Wire" has never had the kind of popular following that propelled HBO hits such as "The Sopranos." Nevertheless, the series has managed to penetrate a wide spectrum of American society, resonating with those intimately familiar with urban poverty even as it captivates viewers far removed from that terrain.

"There seem to be two types of people in the world: people who love 'The Wire' and people who've never watched it," said former White House economic advisor Gene Sperling, who was introduced to the program by his wife, Allison Abner, a television writer. "In my policy head, I've always understood the multiple barriers and obstacles young people in these circumstances face. This made you understand it in your heart, in a way that stays with you."

Fans of "The Wire" share a fierce dedication to the drama, which explores the degradation of a community through a broad array of characters -- about 950 throughout the course of the series -- that populate Baltimore's police department and poorest neighborhoods.

In past seasons, the complex story lines have drawn in City Hall, the docks and the school system, portraying the city's institutions as deeply dysfunctional bureaucracies that betray the public they're meant to serve. Those who are not dissuaded by the show's bleak veneer are captivated by the intricate plots and robust characters, such as Bubbles, a softhearted junkie, and Det. Jimmy McNulty, whose incorrigible ways infuriate his superiors.

"Wire" aficionados said they feel buffeted by a mixture of eagerness and trepidation as the show, which examines the inner workings of Baltimore's daily newspaper, heads into its last season.

When the last episode airs, "I'm sure I'll be sobbing my eyes out," said Abner, who's written for "The West Wing" and "Without a Trace" and describes herself as an evangelist for the show. "It really opened up the scope of what TV could accomplish. It's like a book you want to go on and on and on."

"The Wire" has received just one Emmy nomination -- a nod for writing in 2005, which it did not win -- an omission that HBO's president of entertainment, Carolyn Strauss, calls "utterly baffling." But the series has been repeatedly showered with accolades from critics; many call it the best show on television. Despite that, the audience has remained small: an average of just 1.6 million viewers tuned in to watch Sunday premieres of episodes last season, a tiny uptick from the season before. (An average of 4.4 million viewers tuned throughout the week.)

The series was still valuable for HBO, Strauss said: "It associates us with another piece of top-notch programming, a program of the highest caliber. In its depiction of a city under siege, I think it stands alone."

However, HBO granted the show just 10 episodes instead of the usual 12 or 13 for its final run, a financial and scheduling decision that executive producer Nina Kostroff Noble said made production "quite a challenge."

But that didn't limit the show's ambitions in its fifth season, which explores the media's failings in reporting the complexities of urban ills. Creator and executive producer David Simon drew heavily from his 13 years as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun in crafting the story line, which follows the machinations of an ambitious reporter in a newsroom led by a prize-hungry editor.

"If we got anything right in our portrayal of the American city, then why isn't anyone paying attention? Part of that is the economics of journalism," Simon said in September. "What journalism rewards now is the immediate and the gotcha."

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