HBO’s “The Wire” opened its fourth season by narrowing its scope to a group of four inner-city Baltimore youths. The cusp of manhood, family and friends, burgeoning personalities – at first it seems like so many other nearly maudlin, barely entertaining documents of ending boyhood. Except all the boys are learning how to traffic crack.

It’s a deliberately calculated swerve; seasons one, two and three were gradually punctuated, almost claustrophobic deconstructions of the Baltimore drug trade. “The Wire” was distinctly adult – slow, light-and-shadow character studies of snitches, vice officers and Nino Brown-like drug demi-gods (Wood Harris). A largely woman-less landscape – save for Sonja Sonn’s caustic, world-weary Detective Greggs – “The Wire” and Baltimore become more than a brutal, abstract landscape. The series thrives in its specific moments revealing how to install a wiretap, why exactly Baltimore’s churning, lewd “gutter music” (a mash-up of the 2Live crew aesthetic and Brazil’s baile funk) fits its cyclical, post-industrial strife (B-more is an easy analog to Detroit) and what the working life for a low-level crack dealer really is like.

While they’ll never get that last one right, it’s the presumption of effort, the aspiration to the documentary that makes “The Wire” the finest contemporary American TV series. In fact, it’s the only TV series since the first three seasons of “The Sopranos” to feel like it was exclusively designed for television. “The Wire” explicates and analyzes better than “The Sopranos,” though – its scope is much larger that just one “family.”

The show’s ultimate loyalty is to its subject: drug trafficking and the humans who make it possible. But instead of bird’s-eye pastiches that push morality and “meaning,” it’s exquisitely episodic. Even “small” episodes tick along like the object-focused, singular chapters in “Moby Dick.” A movie could never take single things – a wiretap, a housing project – unpack each and simply string them casually together. There’s not enough time in 120 minutes for such explication. In fact, because “The Wire” so fearlessly takes its time – the camera lingers in Section 8 courtyards, the cramped interior of a stake-out car – the series has become the TV show most committed to form.

Cinema attempts to compress and edit – a world war in three hours or an entire romance for 90 minutes. American television is failing because, well, since the death of “Seinfeld,” no network show has been able to reconcile the twin tools of selection and explication. There’s too much information forced into network blocks.

“Scrubs” crams Zach Braff’s hastily assembled one-liners and voice-overs (weepy diary entries that reek of Hallmark wisdom) into 22-minute boxes already filled with static characters and scene changes. The show fails (especially in its later seasons) because it can’t use the repetitive nature of the character’s path habits (read: medical interns have a tight schedule) to give us anything new. It’s the same montages and it’s edited with the same pace in every episode, every season. We don’t get any new angle into the characters’ lives. They compressed their characters, once round and almost subtle, into one-note, one-line, one-trait pegs. And the same thing happened to “The O.C.” And “Entourage.” And “Desperate Housewives.”

“The Wire” (and maybe the stunningly soon-to-be canceled “Deadwood”) succeeds because it expands and diffuses across its subject, honing the camera on everything-street lights, coffee cups, the dismal, barely functional lights in a courtroom, a chalkboard – and feeding the audience images and objects. We fill in the tropes, we visually forage its wide-angle shots and we’ve got so much visual information to process that “The Wire” simply never just strips one narrative vein.

With this – essentially a re-launch of the most respected and ambitious show on television – “The Wire” proves not only that it’s the most versatile and committed show in recent memory, but that it’s also the swaggering, self-assured, straight-up beast of television.

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