This season is another humdinger, no doubt. Far and away the most sophisticated thing on TV (not to mention film, radio and the print media), The Wire epitomises that journalistic adage: "Show me, don't tell me". We've all heard about inner city squalor, the ghettos, the drug lords. But can we actually picture what these words mean? The Wire unlocks that world, and may unlock your mind.
If season 4 starts rather slowly, it is no doubt because season 3 ended with such a bang that it tied up most of the loose ends and cauterised the rest. So we get some new characters, new plotlines and a new theme: education, or the lack of it. The political story rings louder as Councilman Tommy Carcetti fights for the party's mayoral nomination, a battle that is waged in an arena of corruption and where attacking the incumbent's record on crime is a potent weapon. So Carcetti (much more likeable here than in season 3) and his mayoral ambitions become a solid part of the story, cementing the political dimension of The Wire.
Interlaced with the politics and the drugs world, which remains centre stage in season 4, is the educational storyline. Hamsterdam veteran Bunny Colvin gets involved in a programme that aims to improve schooling by socialising the 13-year-old "corner kids" - the problem children who are likely to be dead or jailed by 20. Prez, Carver and Cutty also get involved. The school story is rich with junior acting talent. Needless to say, drugs and crime are never far away, and not everyone has a happy time in the classroom.
With so much else going on, the drugs war, which was everything to season 1, is now merely first among equals in a panoply of plotlines. It is still the backbone of The Wire because it is the central issue in the lives of most of the characters, but the writers have had fun breaking new ground and exploring fresh ideas. Since they assume you've already watched the first three seasons (and it would be quite perverse to watch them out of order), they have an increasingly rich and three dimensional Baltimore world to draw on. This saves a huge amount of scene-setting and characterisation and it adds to the realism, and there are in-jokes and references to events and people from back in the old days, the kind of thing you never see on a normal TV show. In fact, I'm getting so at home in Baltimore, I am almost getting to the stage where I can understand the gang talk without the subtitles on. But not quite.
The downside of broadening the canvas, depending on your own personal taste, may be the fact that some characters we know and love are now rarely in the picture. McNulty and, ahem, Stringer, for example, were mainstays of earlier seasons. In this one, McNulty gets a few walk-ons but is essentially a minor character. On the other hand, Bunk, Bunny and Bubbles (why do these guys all have the same kind of name?) are all to the fore. Omar, Lester, Keema, Landsman, Herc and Carver all loom large too.
The complex characters are one of the many strengths of the Wire and the writers have kept up the standard in this season. The killers aren't softies, but even they can tell a joke or show a little heart. Just when you thought you had someone pegged as a loser, they grow balls. That corrupt politician is suddenly likeable. Your favourite character looks a little smug all of a sudden, as if he is his own favourite too.
This richness of roles is key to another of its great virtues: the Wire has dozens of well-rounded characters, and most of them are black. It has set a standard for racial realism which Hollywood will never match if it cannot offer more black roles than "second mugger", "mouthy comedian" and "shouty black police captain".
In fact one of the lesser new characters in this season is a shouty white police captain, Lt. Marimow, a wonderful addition, an officious and headstrong martinet who has been inexplicably promoted and who reminded me strongly of a loathed former boss. It's a testament to the writers that a supposed "goodie" can cause such revulsion while one definite "baddie" who did not make it past the end of season 3 is much missed. The series' writer David Simon explains in the bonus material why he had to kill him off - it is just not realistic for drug dealers to go on living forever.
One small quibble with this season is that it does not end with the same kind of satisfying plot wrap-up as the first three did. But that complaint fizzles out when I start thinking about season 5 - the last. Yes, there are still loose ends to be tied up at the end of 4, but I would rather the writers take the whole of season 5 to keep those plots boiling away than try to squeeze all the various storylines into one great reckoning at the end of this fourth 13-episode season.
The bonus material includes an hour-long two-part documentary about the series and the season's education theme. For my money, it is not as enjoyable as the cast's candid Q&A on the season 3 DVD, but still well worth watching. In one insight, Simon sums up the ethos of the series: "The Wire is not about good and evil. The Wire is about economics, it's about sociology." There's also some good input from former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke (who caused a furore by pushing for liberalisation of drug laws) and education experts who laud the season's take on the subject.
The bonus material also gives us a glimpse of the actors out of character - see Bubbles looking clean and chic!! Hear McNulty's English accent! It's quite a fright to realise that it's just a show.
The Guardian called The Wire the best TV show since the invention of radio and the Financial Times said it is such a radical programme that it threatens to disrupt entirely the way we watch TV. As ever, The Wire is not for those who are faint of heart or feeble of mind. For the rest, don't miss it.