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BET has a line on 'The Wire'

Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times

Lost in all the hubbub being made over "The Sopranos" coming to basic-cable syndication this week is the news that another highly acclaimed HBO drama will become available to a wider audience.

Yes, on the same Wednesday night that Tony and the gang muscle in on A&E, David Simon's brilliant crime series, "The Wire," arrives at BET.

This, of course, is the show that critics have fawned over for years. Many enthusiastically declared the most recent season of "The Wire" to be the top show of 2006. Even so, "The Wire" has forever lived in the shadow of "The Sopranos," as its audience pales in comparison to that of its HBO stablemate.

Pacing and sprawl undoubtedly account for much of that disparity. "The Wire" unfolds in methodical, novelistic leisure as it tells the highly authentic story of drug dealers (and murderers) in Baltimore and the hamstrung cops who pursue them. The story is richly layered, the ensemble incredibly vast.

Please don't let this be a roadblock. Yes, "The Wire" can be challenging, but give it some time and you'll find yourself hopelessly hooked.

"The Wire" is also blessed with television's largest collection of stellar black actors, which naturally made it attractive to BET. And the basic-cable network, on a ratings hot streak as of late, is treating the show with the reverence it deserves - carving out a 90-minute time slot (with commercials), beginning at 9 p.m., so the show won't have to be chopped up to fit an hourlong format.

Yes, some editing, mostly for language, will be required, but BET's programming chief, Reginald Hudlin, recently told "Variety" that "we'll use a scalpel, not an ax."

BET will launch "The Wire" with a three-day run beginning Wednesday, airing the first three episodes of 2002's Season 1. The show then shifts into its regular spot on the schedule - Thursdays at 9 - on Jan. 18. Encore episodes will air Saturdays at 9.

Maybe you've missed "The Wire" because you didn't have the extra cash to fork over to HBO. Or maybe you didn't want to mess with the DVDs. Those excuses are gone now. It's time to discover what all the raves are about.

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"THE SOPRANOS" - LOST IN TRANSLATION?

Don't look now, but Tony Soprano's mouth has been washed out with soap. Well, not quite. But the A&E network, which brings the mob saga to syndication Wednesday night, was compelled to tone down some of the profanity, nudity and violence to make the show more palatable for a wider audience. We compared A&E's sanitized work against a few of HBO's original episodes and this is what we found:

HBO - Potty-mouthed goons toss out f-bombs like so much confetti. We counted 51 in one episode.

A&E - The f-bombs have been defused and replaced with tame words like "freakin"" and "jerk."

WE SAY: Golly gee, the diluted dialogue loses much of its realism and visceral impact - even if A&E has retained some other curse words. Moreover, the overdubbing is painfully jarring in spots.

HBO - Topless dancers at the Bada Bing club flaunt their buxom assets in all their glory.

A&E - Presto-changeo - the dancers magically appear in scanty bikinis and lingerie.

WE SAY: What is this, a Victoria's Secret fashion show? Fortunately, the lack of bare-skinned females has little impact on the viewing experience.

HBO - Christopher and Paulie chase down a victim and pump a couple of dozen bullets into him.

A&E - The bullet count is down to a dozen or so and the camera doesn't linger on the body as long.

WE SAY: Though some of the show's trademark violence is muted, most of it has been preserved, underscoring the fact that shows such as "The Shield" have redefined what's acceptable for basic cable.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Even scrubbed-down episodes of "The Sopranos" retain their impact, mainly because the show has always relied more on quality writing and exemplary acting than pay-cable adornments. In fact, we suspect that the cosmetic changes won't tick off purists as much as the intrusions of commercial breaks. (A&E will air two episodes of "The Sopranos" every Wednesday night at 9).

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