When The Wire started it was easy to see it as just another cop show, until its overwhelmingly high quality lifted it onto another level. After all, the narrative of Season 1 was simply that of cops versus drug dealers, with some murky political dealings on the side but these were left relatively unexplored. Season 2, however, shows creator David Simon's real plan: he is trying to craft the definitive portrayal of the turn-of-the-century American city. Like a Grand Theft Auto game, progressing onto Season 2 'unlocks' another chunk of the city, this time the docks and a new cast of characters, including Eastern European criminals, the unions and their families, and introduces an important new thread to the tapestry of the show.
At the end of Season 1, Lt. Daniels' unit successfully cracked the Barksdale case, but political infighting between different police departments saw arrests made prematurely. Whilst Avon and D'Angelo were sent down, the evidence against Avon was flimsy and his time inside was limited, whilst back on the street the formidable Stringer Bell has been put in charge. Meanwhile, Daniels has been booted down to work in the evidence lock-up and McNulty has been sent over to the harbour patrol, to his extreme annoyance, whilst Freamon and Bunt are working in homicide. When McNulty fishes a body out of the harbour and port authority police officer Beadie Russell uncovers thirteen corpses in a freight container, the police's attention is turned to the harbour. This garners the interest of Commander Valchek, who is anxious to bring down the head of the stevedores' union, Frank Sobotka, after his union raises more cash for the local church's new stained-glass windows than Valchek's.
Season 2 of The Wire sprawls slightly more than the first season, a result of the story having to incorporate a large number of new characters and locations whilst at the same time keeping tabs on the characters from Season 1. The project gangs, Stringer Bell, Omar and so forth are firmly on the back-burner for the season, with their story forming a subplot that clears up some loose ends from the first season and sets up the events of Season 3, where they return to prominence. Whilst characters such as Omar and Bubs get limited screen time as a result compared to the first year, at least they don't vanish altogether. Luckily, the new characters are a good match for the originals. Union politics and the gradual loss of American industry and hands-on labour are covered in a fascinating manner. Frank Sobotka (played by Chris Bauer) is the character whom the season's themes centre on, showing how an essentially decent man who values loyalty and fair play is gradually morally eroded, ground down by the city institutions and effectively destroyed, whilst the start of the same process is shown happening to his nephew Nicky (Pablo Schreiber). On the law-enforcement side, Amy Ryan makes a good impression as Beadie Russell, the working beat officer who is pulled into the detective unit formed to investigate the port situation and finds herself out of her depth, until she steps up. On the street side of things, the fascinating character of Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) is introduced very late in the season, as more pieces are set up for the third year.
The Wire remains dramatically intense, with several deaths (one in particular) and shocking plot developments meaning you don't know who is safe, or who can be trusted. The show's black sense of humour is retained (the entire investigation starts due to a personal feud between Valchek and Sobotka over whose union gives more money to their local church), the fascinating investigative tactics used by the police are expanded upon and the increasingly bleak portrayal of the modern American city is balanced by a few decent characters and moments of hope.
The Wire: Season 2 (*****) takes slightly longer to get going than Season 1, but remains gripping, intelligent and adult television and the climax is much harsher. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).