On Sunday night, Jan. 6, HBO will broadcast the first episode of the fifth, and last, season of The Wire. To assure fans: The show continues to offer perhaps the most loving and damning portrait of Baltimore ever put to film, from the cops to the teachers to the drug dealers to the politicians who make that city the charming disaster that it is. And as a bonus, a parade of favorites from past seasons (hey, was that Nicky Sobotka?) will be trotted past, like perps on a walk, before the final goodbye. (The Observer previewed 7 of the 10 episodes of season five, but don’t worry: no spoiling.) If you haven’t been watching, you should know that The Wire isn’t kind to those who show up late.
For five years this writer ignored The Wire. There were, frankly, a few too many sermons, especially from typically non-TV-watching folks, about how important, how moral, how real the show is. But when the fall of 2007 brought a mostly useless crop of new shows, and the writer’s strike burned what was left over from before, The Wire beckoned. Through 50 episodes, as the show shifted its focus each season from drug corners to the shipyard to city hall to the schools, I was dragged to parts of Baltimore that, despite having grown up just 30 miles away, I’d never seen, and never will. I was swept out to the docks past Fell’s Point and Canton, the haunts of my teens and 20’s. I was drowned in the state and local politics that have bedeviled my mother for her nearly 20 years as an aide to a Maryland state senator. And I was pushed through the doors of a middle school, to see the boys and girls of the inner city who are forced to grow up way too fast, not to mention the crass effects of No Child Left Behind. (The Wire actually manages to turn standardized-test-taking into a dramatic event.) I was impressed, of course. The show was as good as everyone said. It’s indisputable.
The Wire was created by a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun named David Simon, who works closely with a former Baltimore police officer and school teacher named Ed Burns. And it inspires a journalist with all kinds of ideas about the kind of work she should be doing instead of, well, writing about television. She could be, should be, reporting the stories of the cracks in New York City’s streets and whoever falls into them; or the stories of the other, ungentrified, Brooklyn; or of failing schools and the bureaucratic nightmares of social service. She could even be a police detective! Pow!
For inspiration there are plenty of “good police”—or uncorrupted cops—on The Wire from which to choose your career model: Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), the immoral, reckless, brilliant (lady-killing) detective with a predictable Irish-civil-servant-on-television weakness for Jameson’s (or Jamie, as it’s affectionately called); the Bunk (Wendell Pierce), the droll, flashy, often sloppily drunk police poet who might also be the straightest one on the squad; or Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), the fearless lesbian cop who can work any angle of a case perfectly.
And surely a DVD marathon of the show has spurred not a few corporate lawyers to contemplate migrating to Legal Aid, and private school teachers to consider braving East New York and the South Bronx. The show opens up a window on inner city life that before now has been mostly closed, or shattered, so that the only view comes in refracted angles and slivers. The Wire lets us in and seduces us into thinking that we can all be better than we are. The problem is that too often a viewer can think that she is making a difference by merely watching the show. When critics proclaim its greatness, we are also congratulating ourselves for watching and not flinching—when, in our actual lives, we continue to look the other way.
DAVID SIMON HAS described The Wire as a “novel for television” with each episode “like a chapter in a book,” and the metaphor has come in handy whenever a critic is in search of high praise. “Broadcast literature,” ventures the Baltimore City Paper. “Echoes of the Victorian social panorama of Charles Dickens,” proclaims Slate. “Television’s most novelistic experience,” announces The San Francisco Chronicle.
This is all right, of course. The show sprawls. An episode can follow perhaps seven or eight subplots at a time, some of which continue and others of which last only a few minutes; over an entire season, that’s a hell of a lot to follow. But with The Wire, as with a big old book, you know not to worry so much about the minor characters. Half the time they show up only to die, to give their lives over to the richness of the whole.
But forget the novel for a second. Season five fronts another print model for David Simon: the newspaper. Sure, it might be Bleak House, with characters named Slim Charles and Proposition Joe instead of Skimpole and Tulkinghorn; but the show is also a kind of broadsheet, laid open, jumbled and urgent and loud with the city’s many stories. Threads from previous seasons get woven into the show’s new focus, the Baltimore Sun, where we spend a considerable amount of time watching editors and reporters fail their city. What becomes clear is that The Wire has become the map of Baltimore that its daily newspaper once was, and Mr. Simon believes it isn’t anymore. The show allows him to continue reporting on all the stories he followed as a writer, but couldn’t finish. At one point, a reporter complains that her piece about a triple homicide gets hacked in half and buried in the B section of the Sun; but in The Wire those killings and their aftermath make up the horrible, bloody center of the episode. Now that he’s running a television show instead of toiling at the city desk, Mr. Simon won’t allow ledes to be buried.
The Wire has always been personal, but it’s almost ridiculously so in season five. Unfortunately, the producers’ didacticism is upfront more than ever, thanks to the focus on the Sun. Where the show used to assume very much of its viewers, leaving them on their own to decipher “Bawlmorese” or master dozens of characters’ nicknames to unpack the chain of police command, now it can’t help but indulge in mini-sermons on the demise of America’s newspapers, more appropriate to Romenesko than The Wire. If earlier seasons dared a budding journalist to dream of telling the stories of our cities that go untold, this season would advise that time’s better spent on, well, writing television.