In the opening episode of the new season of "The Wire," a middle school administrative aide can't get a dysfunctional buzzer to admit a frustrated visitor through the school's main entrance.
"Not a (expletive) thing up in here works like it should," the aide says matter of factly, to no one in particular.
This brutally subtle bit of dialogue is the show's succinct, continuing comment on the destructive forces at work in the forgotten pockets of the world's richest nation.
For the uninitiated, "The Wire" (season four begins Sunday on HBO at 10 p.m. EDT) is a cop show that isn't a cop show at all. Over its first three seasons, the intelligent writing and superb cast have woven a troubling, riveting quilt, making the notion of good versus evil as empty as Baltimore's once-teeming ports.
Now public education is being placed under the microscope, and the result is more explosive, disturbing and complex than ever.
"The complexity is what makes it fun," says creator, writer and executive producer David Simon. "The opposite of complex is simple and too much of television is simple."
Season four introduces us to Namond (played by Julito McCullum), Michael (Tristan Wilds), DuQuan (Jermaine Crawford) and Randy (Maestro Harrell), adolescent friends navigating the drug-dealing minefields of West Baltimore. Bouncing between video games, puberty and felonious role play, they ply their trade before a backdrop of dilapidated and abandoned houses plastered with mayoral campaign posters.
As the election year political machine (and a police force malleable to its whims) rages on, the word "PANDEMIC!" — the latest brand-name narcotic for sale — is constantly touted on corners, bouncing off the squat, toothless tracts of once-proud homes.
Ed Burns, co-creator and writer of "The Wire," worked for 20 years as a Baltimore homicide detective specializing in drug-related violence, then spent seven years teaching in the city's public schools. His police work informed much of the show's previous story line, which revolved around fictitious drug lord Avon Barksdale, and his teaching experiences are the backbone of the upcoming season.
"It's stunning how bad the school system is," says Burns. "It takes your breath away. The distance from middle school to the courtroom is five years."
Casualties in the classroomIn Burns' first class, 13 of his students had been shot, some twice, before reaching high school. Since leaving the school system, Burns has read newspaper accounts of the murders of at least eight of his former students.
If public schools are not educating their students, "The Wire" argues, then someone else is. Bubbles, the entrepreneurial and lovable heroin addict played brilliantly by Andre Royo, teaches a nephew. Drug lord Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector), street dealer Bodie (JD Williams) and even stickup artist extraordinaire Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) teach in their own unique classrooms.
"The kids are going to learn something," says Burns. "There's going to be a place for them somewhere and, invariably, you can make the argument that they're being trained for the corner."
In the show's middle school, test scores and attendance rates are massaged, much like the police crime statistics, where serious felonies are downgraded to give the appearance of crime reduction. An unexplainable $58 million deficit sucker punches the school system. Violence and sex are intertwined with the educational experience. Glossy new textbooks sit locked in a basement. Teachers are mandated to plan lessons around questions from state tests, instead of the critical thinking skills needed to master the exam.
"These kids are not being taught to think," says Burns. "If anything, they're being taught not to think."
Baltimore's high school graduation rate is 38.5 percent, one of the worst in the nation, according to June research data sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"There are some communities where only 18 percent of young people who are eligible actually enroll in high school. The flip side is that 82 percent are someplace else and they're not even factored into the graduation rate," says Steve Vassor, executive director of Baltimore's Hampden Family Center. "We're hemorrhaging black boys out of schools and into a facility known as 'baby booking,' preparing them to graduate to central booking."
As a former program director with the Boys and Girls Club in West Baltimore, Vassor worked out of a converted nightclub once owned by drug kingpin "Little Melvin" Williams. In an ironic twist, Williams has a recurring role on "The Wire" as a compassionate church deacon.
In its fourth season, "The Wire" has evolved into a figurative intervention by friends and loved ones, urging Baltimore and its urban kin to admit there's a problem and seek treatment.
"In all of the institutions we've depicted," says Simon, "the first sin, the first institutional crime, is an unwillingness to acknowledge how profound the problems are."