Game done changed,'' says a character early in the third season of The Wire. ''Game the same,'' comes the reply. ''Just got more fierce.''
They're talking about running drugs, eluding cops, and staking out gang territory in inner-city Baltimore. But these words also apply to the series itself, an on-going thriller packed with street-smart socioeconomic theories; it's TV's richest, most satisfying experience. The new ''Wire'' is stripped-down: Creator David Simon has done his most adroit handiwork yet, crafting the show with more action and laughs even as the subplots become (depending on your interpretation) more ferociously realistic or profoundly cynical.
The core opposing teams remain nearly intact. On the cop side, there's Dominic West's Det. Jimmy McNulty, still obsessed with taking down drug lords, still a boozing screwup in his private life. His partners in wiretapping the bad guys, cops such as Sonja Sohn's wary Kima Greggs and Clarke Peters' regal creation Lester Freamon, love their comrade but are wiser than this big-jawed flawed hero. The premiere's soundtrack makes witty use of Isaac Hayes' ''Theme From Shaft,'' but to paraphrase a better songwriter, Smokey Robinson, the hunter can get captured by the game -- that's what Kima and Lester, both black law-enforcement officers working black-on-black crime, understand better than Irish white Jimmy. And the prey are really on the prowl. Idris Elba's Stringer Bell, the de facto leader of the drug empire set up by incarcerated leader Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), has now been to college. Bell has taken business classes, and he has a message for his young henchmen: ''We gonna handle this s--- like businessmen, and later for that gangsta bulls---.''
''Wire'' explores race, class, and politics without falling back on the pop-culture pieties and conventions of how blacks should be presented. It's the only show in which the white ''star'' (West) can disappear for most of an episode and not be missed, so caught up are we in, say, Kima's monogamous lesbian relationship (now on the rocks) or the dilemma of the cops' immediate superior, Lieut. Cedric Daniels (the wry, wraithlike Lance Riddick). He's being squeezed by his commanders to lose ''the wire'' (the sting operation that's the basis of the series) in favor of a politically motivated campaign to lower homicide and felony rates.
This story line introduces a terrific new character, venal city councilman Thomas Carcetti, played by Aiden Gillen (star of the British ''Queer as Folk'') with a witty smirk and exuberantly amoral energy. Gillen's goal is to become mayor, and he'll out-power-play anyone to do it, including the present, officeholder, portrayed with bluff enjoyment by Glynn Turman. It's no wonder novelists like Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos (now a producer) have written scripts for this seasons: White tough-guy writers all, they know how to make a pale-skin Iago like Carcetti believably beguiling as he contributes to the tragedy in ''Wire'''s ongoing chronicle of moral rot. In this context, the evolution of Bell is exhilarating, because he's a straightforward criminal who's used the intellect society never properly molded to form his own practice of capitalism. In the polity on gangbangers, Bell would probably vote Republican.
Wire is so thick with nuanced personalities like this, I'm not doing the rest of the cast justice. Fans and newbies alike will delight, for example, in the repartee and ground-level police work of partners Carver (Seth Gilliam) and ''Herc'' Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi). Carver has a great moment in the premiere, standing atop a patrol car, bellowing to the pushers who've scattered into the crannies of their ravaged neighborhood, ''You do not get win...we do!''
No, we do -- watching ''The Wire'' play out.