Some words before the book closes on ‘The Wire’
In the fifth and final season of “The Wire,” the series goes into the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun and brings the role of the media into the spotlight. (AP photo)
Note: This posting is safely spoiler-free. If you’ve seen all, some, or none of “The Wire,” read on.
It’s been several years since I wrote more than a paragraph about “The Wire.” Despite my unlimited adoration for the show — which is one of the best shows in the history of the medium — my mention of it has been mostly limited to occasional name-dropping.
This post is to rectify that fact, even though anything I have to say about “The Wire” has already been said over and over again by critics. The show may not have a lot of viewers, but it certainly gets plenty of ink. Critics never tire of lauding it. And nor do I.
There’s a reason for that: “The Wire” is a TV show that transcends television. More specifically, it transcends the typical show’s tendency to assume less of viewers. Most TV shows — even the good ones — are based on the fundamental assumption that the audience has limitations. “The Wire” couldn’t care less about that perception. It assumes the opposite. It assumes you are paying attention, that you remember characters and minor events from years-ago episodes without having them re-explained to you, and that you are patient to wait weeks or even seasons for some events to pay off.
“The Sopranos,” another great HBO series, has a lot in common with “The Wire” in terms of its storytelling rhythms and moral gray areas, but the shows are of course very different. I was rewatching the final season of “Sopranos” on DVD a few weeks ago, and one subtle difference revealed itself: There’s a scene where Tony takes Paulie out on a fishing boat in Miami, and Paulie thinks he is about to be killed. We get a flashback to the scene from season two where Pussy was whacked in a similar situation. “The Sopranos” gives you that flashback. “The Wire” would not have bothered, because it would’ve assumed you had already made the connection and knew what was going through Paulie’s mind. If not, well, too bad.
In the show’s fifth and final season, which ends Sunday, March 8, we’ve seen yet another element added to the show with the addition of the Baltimore Sun newsroom. In its absolute broadest terms, I suppose you could break each of the season themes down like this:
Season 1: The Drug War
Season 2: Unions and the Blue Collar Decline
Season 3: Governmental Politics
Season 4: Education
Season 5: The Media
Every season adds key new characters and a key new institution under scrutiny. The brilliance of “The Wire” is that even though every season has a theme you can point to, the show’s seasons are NOT self-contained. Threads from each season go forward (with perhaps the exception of the union stuff in season two) and continue to grow and develop in future seasons. For example, politics may have ostensibly been the theme of season three, but the season three characters and stories continue on with great consequences in seasons four and five.
“The Wire” may be one of the few shows that I can think of that is completely entertaining while also surprisingly educational about the workings of a big city with drug and money problems. Watching it, you feel like a fly on the wall, privy to seemingly unfiltered information about city law enforcement, race, poverty, drug addiction, gangbangers, drug operations, bureaucratic shuffling, scapegoating, political corruption, spin control, and, of course, the inner workings of forensic investigation and elaborate wiretap operations (hence the title).
Also the apparently unlimited corruptive influence of money, money, money, and what happens when people have too much of it or not enough. One of the lines I will remember most about “The Wire” came in season two when union man Frank Sobotka — who had filtered an obscene amount of dirty money into a political lobby fund just to persuade the legislature to dredge the port canal, which would maybe lure some jobs back to his docks — said: “We used to make shit in this country. Now we just reach into the next guy’s pocket.” The show has a message, but it rarely preaches. “The Wire” is more interested in observing and showing consequences.
Showrunner David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, spent a year on the streets of Baltimore in 1988 following the Baltimore homicide unit. From that experience he wrote the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was adapted to the NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-1999). He also wrote, along with former Baltimore cop and schoolteacher Ed Burns, The Corner, about a year in the lives of Baltimore drug addicts and dealers. The Corner was adapted into a six-part HBO miniseries in 2000. It remains one of the most harrowing dramatizations of addiction I’ve seen.
“The Wire” is most certainly fiction, but its broad strokes are based at least loosely on actual people and attitudes. In some cases, specific events are recycled from fact to fiction. Names of real cops like Jay Landsman (featured in Homicide the book), became characters in “The Wire,” played by actors. But then the real Landsman himself pops up, playing a different cop in Baltimore’s western district. Actors become cops, and cops become actors. Watching all the connections — a woven tapestry of fact and fiction — is fascinating. If you’ve read both of Simon’s books and watched all of “Homicide” and “The Corner,” it all further informs the sense that Baltimore in “The Wire” is a real place: a fictional world based on a real one. This year, they even worked in a Richard Belzer cameo, which is like a crossing of alternate-universe Baltimores. Or take the opening scene of season five involving the copy machine as a lie detector, which is straight out of Homicide the book and was also used early in “Homicide” the TV series.
“The Wire” has built on its themes with every passing season. In a sense, Simon’s and Burns’ past coverage and intimate knowledge of Baltimore became fodder for a scathing commentary on the bureaucracy of city institutions and a failed drug war. What’s amazing is the way they’ve managed to filter this message through subtlety, with few characters who are simply good or evil, but rather placeholders in juggernaut-like societal institutions that overpower individual effort.
This all happens in a rock-solid fictional universe with performances and storytelling that thrive on patience and nuance, with characters whose fates intersect in intirguing ways, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes inevitably, sometimes tragically. The story is always paramount. Simon clearly loves his characters for all their virtues and/or faults (as do we), but what happens to them is based on their role in the story, not what might be just or right. The way stories collide and pile unexpected chain reactions upon one another on “The Wire” is similar to the way stories intersect in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.” Only we are aware of the whole bigger picture, while characters are doled out their destinies in a laboratory of the butterfly effect.
Let’s not forget the show’s humor. “The Wire” is funny, sometimes darkly and savagely so. The humor grows from its characters and its sometimes absurd situations. Whether it’s Bunk’s pricelessly disapproving glances, or McNulty drunkenly crashing his car (and then crashing it again because he wanted a do-over), or the very notion of trying to build a case completely on brilliant bullshit, or having the FBI read a criminal profile that perfectly describes the detective rather than the killer — “The Wire” knows that bucking the system is its own absurd joke. Call it angry humor, and call Simon an angry cynic.
And let’s also not overlook the show’s humanity. “The Wire” is cynical about institutions, but it still believes in individual effort and has a great empathy for people and hardship. Consider, for one, the journey of Bubbles, whose plight becomes especially moving as it moves in a new direction in the fifth season.
The truth is, I could go on and on about “The Wire,” its characters, its stories, and its value as some of the best storytelling ever put on television. But the show is too complex for me to do that. There are dozens of characters, and they exist in a universe that every season has gotten bigger and bigger. Few shows truly create a universe that feels so real, so lived-in, so vast. The thing about “The Wire” is that the longer it goes on, the more you have. Some shows run out of energy and storylines. “The Wire’s” universe builds on itself, becoming a sprawling place where a million things are happening all the time. And yet it maintains a clarity that is second to none; you are surrounded by the story without the risk of becoming lost in it.
Writing or reading about “The Wire” is far less enjoyable or useful than actually experiencing it. For those of you who haven’t seen it, you should. I’ve left spoilers out so you can watch the DVDs fresh. Start at the beginning.