Last night the third season of the best show on television, HBO’s The Wire, began. The Wire is a show about Baltimore’s drug dealers, dock workers, cops and corrupt city employees. It’s a portrait of urban America in decay and the undiscriminating hopelessness that infects everyone, from drug-dealing foot soldiers to the show’s semi-protagonist, Jimmy McNulty, a Don Quixote with a badge.

The show’s title refers to the surveillance equipment used by the Baltimore PD to track the flow of drugs throughout the city’s projects (the Towers, as they are referred to in the series). The city, ravaged by crime and the steady exodus of its residents to the suburbs, can hardly afford the equipment, so crime fighting is done on the cheap, and rarely do the results satisfy the lowly detectives and street cops, who instead take solace in beating 14-year-olds senseless. It’s the only way they can get enough satisfaction to return to their shift the next day.

As the most important police (pronounced PO-leece) work is done via eavesdropping, patience is rewarded above all else. The same is true of The Wire’s narrative. This is easily HBO’s most patient show (kudos to them for being patient with the first season’s lackluster ratings), as storylines unfold in a trickle through a Rashomon-like litany of sources. The drug dealers, led by the Solomon-smart Stringer Bell, and cops are portrayed as equals in intelligence and righteousness; their relationship is strangely symbiotic: without the cops, slinging bags would be just another job; without the drugs, policing would be far less rewarding for the sort of cop who wants to unravel spider webs while erecting one of his or her own.

Many viewers probably caught their first glimpse of The Wire last night, and I’m certain that many flipped away before its end wondering just what the hell was going on, and how all of these black people ended up on their television sets. Should they return — based on the national near-ritual of church Sunday morning, HBO Sunday night — they will be duly rewarded. Lessons on municipal government, public housing and the war on drugs seem more PBS’ speed, but much like The Sopranos, The Wire directs a flashlight toward a subculture with laws, mores and ethics all its own.

The new season doesn’t look to be all that different from the previous two — Sunday’s excellent episode added more strings to Baltimore’s holy police-politician-drug dealer triumvirate — but as the Barksdale drug soldier Bodie said last night, “Don’t matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doin’ the same.”