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Country
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We start today with an apology. If you work for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, don't get your hopes up. I'm not taking anything back. If you're expecting the retraction of remarks about skating specials on CBC, you can also forget it. If fact, I'm not apologizing for any negative reviews or retracting smart-aleck remarks. I'm apologizing because I neglected to bring to your attention one of the very best shows airing on TV right now. The Wire (TMN and Movie Central, 10 p.m.) is brilliant stuff. I know that some of you have been watching it, because it runs immediately after The Sopranos on Tuesdays. To tell you the truth, I only got around to it a few weeks ago and, after ordering up some tapes, I have feasted on it. Tonight's episode finds the 13-part drama nearing its end, but you can still catch the rich flavour of it, even if the plot seems a tad convoluted for newly arriving viewers.

The story started with a murder case that collapsed in court. The judge (Peter Gerety from Homicide: Life on the Street) called in his pal McNulty (Dominic West), a detective who knows what's happening on the streets of Baltimore. McNulty told the judge that a drug czar named Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) controls most of West Baltimore, to the extent that he can manipulate the outcome of criminal cases by intimidating or simply killing witnesses.

The outraged judge then pressed for a task force to nail Barksdale and smash his organization. The small task force has been gnawing at the case for the last few episodes. McNulty is the lead cop, but his bosses offer him few resources. Mostly they assign deadbeat, hopeless cops to the case. Slowly but surely, McNulty and his cohorts begin to figure out Barksdale's organization, by using an elaborate series of wiretaps on pay phones and pagers. They discover that Barksdale runs a tight, highly organized group with dozens of foot soldiers and officers.

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The Wire is created and written by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter whose work was the basis for the much-missed Homicide series. Here, he's matured into an exquisite observer of both cops and criminals. The series is beautifully detailed, rich in humour, and filled with full, rounded characters.

Part of its greatness is in the equal detail devoted to both cops and criminals. Around McNulty, the hopeless young cops develop into intriguing individuals. Around the mysterious Barksdale, the dope dealers become full-blooded people with inner lives. One of the most interesting is Omar (Michael K. Williams), a swaggering, openly gay drug dealer who declares his own war on Barksdale after his young lover is shot.

When The Wire is repeated, as it will be in the next few months, or if it turns up on another channel, I'll alert you to it again and write more about it. Of course, part of the problem is the sheer number of new shows that arrive on a multitude of channels every fall. It's impossible to pay attention to every one of them. This theme of TV saturation takes us back to the man who predicted it all, and more: Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan's ABC (TVOntario, 9 p.m. on The View From Here) is part of an excellent series of shows about McLuhan this week on TV Ontario. If you're in Ontario, take note, and if you get TVO on your satellite service, make a point of watching.

McLuhan's ABC declares that it's intended as a "primer" on McLuhan's most fundamental thoughts about media, its audience and other related matters. A primer on McLuhan would be a tough task, and the program can only skim the surface, using various TV interviews that McLuhan gave in the 1970s. But it's still very useful.

The most cogent remarks come from his son, Eric, who puts his father's commentary and prophecies in the context of contemporary popular culture. One of the first things the younger McLuhan says is, "We're taking TV as an aesthetic experience instead of decrying it all the time. TV is now an art form, a programmable art form." That's true and, in the context of The Wire, we're looking at the 13-hour format as the contemporary equivalent of the 19th-century novel, the primary popular vehicle for state-of-society narrative.

There is an enormous amount to be learned from McLuhan about how we live in this media-saturated time. His theory that an increasingly complex, technological society creates the sort of alienation that leads to terrorism is one of the statements that are uncannily relevant decades after he made it. Both McLuhan's Wake (Wednesday, TVOntario, 9 p.m.) and Out of Orbit (Thursday, TVOntario, 10 p.m.) add to our understanding of McLuhan and his relevance to how we live now. Daughters of Freedom (Newsworld, 10 p.m. on Rough Cuts) is a story of a cultural clash, the sort that would fascinate Marshall McLuhan. It's a documentary about two women who met when they were incarcerated as children in British Columbia in the 1950s. The authorities, however, didn't see it as an incarceration: The two children were from families who were Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, who refused to have their children educated in a system that distracted them from the philosophy of "toil and peaceful life."

Children were hidden from the authorities, but eventually found and held in what were prison conditions. It was a solution that seems extraordinary now, and in hindsight we can see that it had its roots in a knee-jerk political reaction to a culture that was misunderstood. Dates and times may vary across the country. Please check local listings or visit http://www.globeandmail.com/tv jdoyle@globeandmail.ca

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