The Watcher - High 'Wire' act

HBO's "The Wire" isn't just the best police show on the air. It may be the best police show there's ever been. "The Wire" draws attention with intense violence and clever, bawdy dialogue, but the series earns its critical acclaim with its hard, in-depth exposes of American cities. Colorful, crime-ridden Baltimore becomes a microcosm of the entire United States.

The war on drugs provides the show's running theme as "The Wire" tracks the conflicts and tactics of the Barksdale gang of inner-city coke dealers and a special police investigative unit, loosely centered around electronic surveillance (the "wire" of the title). But each episode moves up and down the chain of command of both organizations, from junkies and street-corner pushers to Baltimore's most powerful elected leaders. Dominic West gets top billing as boat-rocking, bridge-burning Detective McNulty, but "The Wire" is a sprawling, superbly acted ensemble piece and not a star vehicle.

The show's ingenious second season expanded to include corruption on the waterfront, while the third season, premiering Sun., Sept. 19, at 9 p.m., puts the drug war back on the front burner and folds politics into the mix. A new plot thread includes a young city councilman who uses Baltimore's high crime statistics to elevate his own profile. Time and again, "The Wire" illustrates how clogged institutions and petty self-interests impede the progress of justice.

"The Wire's" third season boasts an impressive literary pedigree, with scripters including such novelists as Mystic River's Dennis Lehane and Clockers' Richard Price. Scenes crackle with street slang and the details of crime scene procedures, yet David Simon and his writers never dumb down the material. Once you get over the show's steep learning curve, you'll find yourself a "Wire" addict, desperately checking your cable listings for the next fix."The Wire" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.