The detail, texture and nuance that made the first season of "The Wire" so demanding on viewers and such a hit with critics haven't changed, though many of the settings in the second season have.
Instead of following the action of gang leaders and drug dealers in the decrepit public housing projects of Baltimore, often with the help of informants with wires, episodes this season look at crime and corruption at the city's ports.
Invariably, several of last summer's engrossing characters will get less camera time this year. Meanwhile, a whole new chorus line of Baltimore corruption takes a bow. By shifting scenes to the harbor, creator and teleplay writer David Simon gets to explore new and fascinating patterns of cozy and criminal relationships between the bureaucrats and the outlaws, keeping the show as fresh as it is challenging.
As in the past, a key perspective will be that of Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), a character as charismatic as any on TV today. As the second season gets under way, McNulty has been reassigned to tugboat patrol. And though it might initially appear that his new assignment won't have him do anything more than keep the city police from sloughing off a homicide investigation on the county, rest assured there's a lot more in store for this straight-shooting cop.
Also rest assured that Simon will continue his arresting style of developing bad-guy characters who are every bit as intriguing as the good guys and sometimes even more sympathetic. And while many other TV dramatists are busy exploring angles on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, Simon is finding new and creative ways to scandalize the church in other arenas.
In some ways, "The Wire" may be one of the most frustrating series ever to land on HBO. Despite its obvious high quality and critical praise, the show has yet to create the water-cooler buzz or the peer recognition garnered by other series on the network.
Early episodes for the new season from Simon and company indicate there will be no letdown in the exquisite storytelling and fine character development. If anything, there will be even deeper pleasure in watching these characters evolve into a chorus of strangely harmonious and cacophonous voices.
At the same time, selling this intricately woven and dramatically dense show to a broader audience will not get one bit easier.