Lance Reddick in The Wire by Paul Schiraldi/HBO Lance Reddick in The Wire by Paul Schiraldi/HBO
The when: Sundays at 9 pm/ET, with the fifth (and final) season premiering Jan. 6.

What's what: A complex and panoramic portrait of American society's waste of human potential and betrayal of its own stated ideals, as demonstrated by the lives of Baltimore drug dealers, the police who attempt to break up their operations, and the regular citizens affected by their activities.

Who's who: Probably the largest cast of any U.S. open-ended television series, with a constantly shifting group of current and former gangsters, the street peddlers who work for them, their neighbors, cops, lawyers, politicians, teachers, social workers, prisoners and dockworkers. What's next: Each season has focused on some segment of Baltimore society affected directly by the drug trade and/or by the attempts to stop it; this fifth and final season will examine how newspaper journalism and related media play their roles. We also see the ongoing turf battles within the illegal drug business and within police and other government agencies, particularly the schools and the rivalry between and within the Baltimore city and Maryland state governments. Why watch?: The breathtaking ambition of the series, and its wit, grit and sophistication. While the show can occasionally offer excessive speechifiying and, rarely, an awkward infodump or strained irony, it's a natural extension of what the creative staff was attempting to do with previous projects Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Corner: an indictment of what is wrong with the way things usually go, never failing to make its case with brilliantly drawn characters in believable and often morally and ethically ambiguous situations that have no quick or easy fix. As with any complex serial, there is a lot of backstory that new viewers might want to catch up on (all previous seasons are available on DVD; shop Amazon.com), but if the past is any indication, jumping in midstream will still make for compelling entertainment. Say what?: Along with the Homicide folks, such noted crime-fiction writers as Richard Price ( Clockers), Dennis Lehane ( Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), and particularly Baltimore/D.C. specialist George Pelecanos have been tapped to write for the series. - Todd Mason Use our Online Video Guide to find clips from Season 4, a Season 5 preview and a cool compilation of cast interviews and character discussion. See Interviews & Features for our fresh Q&A with The Wire's Clarke Peters. More Strike Survival guidance from TVGuide.com: " Do NBC's Gladiators Deserve a Fighting Chance? " Showtime's The L Word: Why You Should Go that Way " What to Watch: Your Guide to January Premieres