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Seeing is believing

Published Sep. 7, 2002|Updated Sep. 3, 2005

Forget about American Idol, Dog Eat Dog, Big Brother 3 or whatever other nonsense you've been watching to while away summer's dog days.

Two of television's freshest, most innovative, most entertaining series will conclude Sunday, with far-too-few viewers aware of the heights they've achieved.

I'm talking about HBO's gritty, complex crime drama The Wire and Comedy Central's uproarious reality TV satire, Contest Searchlight.

One is a serious, unvarnished look at the futilities of America's war on drugs. The other is a cynical send-up of the idea that anyone could walk off the street and pitch a worthy TV sitcom concept.

What they have in common is quality. And far too little of the white-hot pop-culture buzz that has, inexplicably, been bestowed on summer series of far lower caliber.

Actually, it's not that inexplicable. The Wire is the opposite of what many TV experts say people want on the small screen these days.

It's heavily serialized _ meaning that each week's story is closely linked to previous episodes. In Sunday's finale, for example, viewers must remember an episode months earlier to understand the menace in a superior's voice when he asks a cop he's about to transfer, "So, where don't you want to go?"

This means viewers dropping into the series midway, or those who miss a few episodes, will have problems understanding the action. And it's ambiguous: criminals are humanized and police _ especially those in command _ are often shown as venal, petty and so dysfunctional it's a miracle any crime is ever solved.

In Sunday's episode, Baltimore cops are winding up a monthslong investigation into a drug dealer whose organization has killed at least 12 people. Though they've arrested dealer Avon Barksdale and many of his subordinates, they must struggle against their own commanders to build a case against a criminal who has contributed heavily to powerful politicians.

Created by David Simon _ the onetime Baltimore Sun writer whose book became NBC's cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street _ and former Baltimore cop Ed Burns, The Wire moves with a deliberate pace that mimics real life.

It takes weeks to install the wiretaps of the show's name and once they're up, cops realize dealers are using a code that takes more time to decipher. When drug busts happen, they're often showy spectacles that generate positive publicity but set back the case.

The cast is tremendous: Dominic West as bulldog cop James McNulty; Larry Gilliard Jr. as Barksdale's repentant nephew D'Angelo; Sonja Sohn as lesbian cop Shakima Greggs; Wood Harris as the smooth dealer Barksdale. And like Simon's Baltimore drug HBO miniseries, The Corner, The Wire offers what might be the best roles of the year for black actors seeking substantive TV work.

Explaining Contest: Searchlight's low profile is a little more difficult.

Certainly, creator and star Denis Leary has never had great luck with TV projects (his last network series, ABC's hilarious The Job, was canceled in May). It didn't help that some media outlets didn't immediately understand that Searchlight was a joke. Tabloid TV show Access Hollywood, in one of its finer moments, reported Leary's disparaging rants about pal Jon Stewart as if they were genuine.

Ostensibly, Searchlight resulted from a contest Leary developed allowing unknowns to submit ideas for a sitcom, teaming with Stewart in a spoof of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Project: Greenlight. But in the show's hilarious debut, Stewart bails on the concept without appearing once on camera, forcing Leary to recruit his Job co-star Lenny Clarke. The scene in which Leary is rejected over speakerphone by Ray Romano, Gina Gershon and Jim Breuer is priceless.

Eventually, an earnest schlep is chosen, along with his idea for a miniseries about Jesus Christ returned to earth in a East Village apartment, Jesus and the Gang. Leary avoids the proceedings for days, claiming to be in rehab, while the production runs through four different lead actors, including Colin Quinn (Saturday Night Live) and Peter Gallagher (sex, lies, and videotape).

Like The Job, Searchlight unfolds with a searing cynicism that is Leary's trademark. When it all collapses into a crumbled heap, you'll be laughing so hard you may not even notice.

REVIEW: The Wire concludes a 13-episode run at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (Mature Audiences). Contest Searchlight airs all four episodes in a marathon at 8 p.m. Sunday on Comedy Central. Grade: A. Rating: TV-14.

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