In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, HBO
In the UK: Coming to FX later in the year.
Characters re-cast: 0
Major characters gotten rid of: 0 since last season's cull
Major new characters: Dozens. Really.
Format change percentage: 75%
A new season of The Wire is always a disconcerting time for fans. What's it going to be about this year? Who's going to be in it from the regulars? The first season was a relatively simple affair: cops chasing drug dealers, although as always with The Wire, it's never that simple. Season two flipped that round completely and turned it into a cops investigating the demise of working class life in once-industrial cities. Then season three started to look at the politics of policing as well as the politics of the police.
Now season four is dealing with the public education system and local politics. As with all seasons of The Wire, it's is a slow-burn long-term plot with sub-plots that can only pay off episodes later. And it's a cracker.
Even if I wanted to spoil UK readers by revealing what happens in the first couple of episodes, I really don't have the time and space to do it, there are so many plot strands. But as a broad overview, I can tell you that a certain young drug lord is on the rise and he has some innovative “protectors” doing his dirty work; a certain failed detective has decided to become a school teacher and is finding out just how bad life in an inner city US public school can be; Lester is continuing with his scheme to follow the money given by drug dealers to politicians; and Carcetti (Queer as Folk UK's Aidan Gillen) is finding out how hard it can be for a white politician to run for mayor in a black city.
Many of the familiar regulars reappear from last year, including McNulty, still pounding the beat, and Herc, who's joined the Mayor's protection detail. But there's an abundance of new faces, mainly some young boys who are about to go to school. Much of their arc so far looks at how they're resisting - or not - the multitude of temptations to join drug gangs.
Reviewing any more would be hard: it's like reviewing the first few chapters of a book, rather than the book itself. However, I would say that for anyone who's watched The Wire before, you won't be disappointed: the quality is still there and then some. For anyone who hasn't and is worried that they're not going to be able to cope, while there will be some problems in dealing with the large cast and back story at first, I don't think overall you'll have too much of a problem working out what's going on. The Wire does take effort and concentration, but it's always rewarding, and since there are so many new characters and many old characters are in new roles, everyone's starting from scratch to some extent.