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Not too late to catch TV’s best show, ‘The Wire’

Unlike brussels sprouts, "The Wire" is easy to digest. Oh, and by the way, it's the best show in the history of television. For those just tuning in now, here's a primer to get up to speed.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Nobody likes a nag, that person always haranguing you to eat your vegetables or clean your room.

Well, despite that common truth, I'm telling you to watch "The Wire" when the fifth and, sadly, final season premieres this Sunday on HBO. Yeah, yeah, you've heard it before from countless other TV critics, and everyone knows the last thing anyone wants to do is something that they're told they have to do.

But unlike brussels sprouts, "The Wire" is easy to digest. Oh, and by the way, it's the best show in the history of television. In case you read over that sentence quickly and didn't allow it to sink in, let me write it again to make sure it received your full attention: "The Wire" is the best show that has ever been on TV.

Bold statement? Absolutely. Yet, "The Wire" backs it up.

What makes "The Wire" unique is the ability to take a look at the underbelly of an American city and understand how poverty, crime, police, the drug trade, politics, education and (this season) the media are all intertwined, affecting one another constantly.

In this case, the city is Baltimore, and "The Wire" offers an uncompromising perspective on how the lives of its citizens are no more than a numbers game — whether those numbers are based on a depleted budget at City Hall or a crack-addled corner on the west side where a thug has to eliminate his competition.

Yes, "The Wire" is dense, but so is Shakespeare and "The Godfather" saga, and there's little complaining about those works. And in a perfect world, it would be best to absorb season five after watching the first four to understand the nuance of each scene. In an off-handed moment, a character may offer a throwaway line or expression that doesn't seem to bring context to the present situation, but that refers back to an earlier season.

For those just tuning in now — and trust me, it's better late than never — here's a primer to get up to speed.

The cops Homicide detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) would much rather be chasing women and drinking booze than solving murders, but he's so pissed that his city is spiraling out of control that he'll do whatever it takes to put the drug dealers away.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

McNulty's partner, William "Bunk" Moreland (the criminally underrated Wendell Pierce), has also had it with how dead bodies are piling up, but he's more comfortable solving cases by the book. And the rest of the homicide cops of the Baltimore P.D. are so short staffed, overwhelmed and lazy that they've basically given up in trying to right the city's wrongs.

The crooks
Drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) has taken over the corners from Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), who's now sitting in jail. Marlo's crew is extremely loyal and has recently brought in a new soldier, high-school dropout Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds), who, along with his three friends Randy, Dukie and Namond, formed the crux of the show last season.

Arguably, the most popular character of "The Wire" is Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a gay stick-up artist who robs the drug dealers of their ill-gotten gains. And for a criminal, he has a moral code like no other — he never kills on Sundays.

The politicians
Mayor Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) was a Baltimore councilman until last season, when he was elected on a promise to help lower the crime rate and improve the school system. He's mostly honorable but is facing an uphill battle with no money in the city's coffers to make good. And even though he's new to the mayor's chair, both he and right-hand man Norman Wilson (Reg Cathey) can imagine moving to Annapolis as governor in a few years as a distinct possibility.

The business of news This upcoming season examines the role of media (specifically The Baltimore Sun) and how a newspaper's bottom line can ultimately determine how effective it may be in telling the stories of the city it covers.

It's a fascinating topic, and one in which creator David Simon feels particularly passionate about. As a former Sun reporter, he's made it clear how disgusted he is that his former paper is now a product of the Chicago-based Tribune Co. (which also owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) and that stock prices have become, in his viewpoint, more important than journalistic fundamentals and news judgment.

Clark Johnson (mostly a TV director now, but also of NBC's "Homicide" series) plays a longtime Sun editor who feels the paper slipping away. (MSNBC.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.) He's aghast at losing his staff to cutbacks and quickly realizes that accuracy and truth in reporting is next to fall.

Based on that storyline alone, this upcoming season of "The Wire" is must-see viewing. But there's so much more here to cherish: Cops who keep fighting the good fight while fully understanding their efforts won't make a scrap of difference. Kids who know that their chances of living past 25 are slim at best, and can't fathom a life beyond the corners. Dope-fiend mothers telling their children that they're expected to sell drugs like their fathers and brothers did, or else they're worthless. A broken system that shows no signs of improvement anytime soon.

If that all seems glum and dour, well, Simon and his team aren't in the sugarcoating business. Yet, the writing and acting feel so authentic, so believable, that it's impossible not to feel connected. I've never bought street drugs or seen a man killed at point-blank range, yet I believe — after watching "The Wire" for four seasons and seeing the first seven episodes of season five — that these characters are as real as my next-door neighbor.

So come on board now if you haven't watched before. It's not too late. You'll learn more about the current state of America from "The Wire" than in any speech by a presidential candidate between now and Election Day. And it'll be much more truthful, by far.

Stuart Levine is a managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at .