The fifth and final season of HBO's The Wire--TV's greatest current work of social criticism, of drama, of, well, TV--is about the failures of the media. In that spirit, let me begin with an apology. The odds are good that you have not yet watched the first four seasons of The Wire, which returns on Jan. 6, and that means that I as TV critic have failed you. Mea culpa.
What are you missing? A bleakly funny critique of struggling postindustrial American cities; a novelistic, street-smart social drama; a passionate, un-p.c. look at race and class dynamics--all wrapped up in a sprawling story of police work and politics that makes CSI look like an Encyclopedia Brown mystery.
But to really know what The Wire is you have to know what the wire, lowercase, is. In the first season of the series, in 2002, the wire was a wiretap, which a team of Baltimore cops used in a season-long probe of a drug gang. At first blush, it sounded too conventional for the home of The Sopranos. A police drama on HBO? What's next? A sitcom about a friendly Martian? "We were the 'gritty cop show,'" David Simon, the former police reporter who created the series, recalls of some dismissive early reviews.
But the gritty cop show revealed itself to be something much bigger. The first season humanized the drug soldiers without condoning them--following them home, speaking their language and showing how they were used as cannon fodder. And it showed how cops who want to do painstaking police work are frustrated by bosses who prefer cheap, fast street busts that boost arrest statistics but simply move the crime around. Each season afterward focused on another dimension of Baltimore life (see chart)--the working class, the politics, the schools--pulling back like a camera on a crane to show a complex ecosystem, with dozens of interlinked characters.
A wire is something that connects. All The Wire's characters face the same forces in a bottom-line, low-margin society, whether they work for a city department, a corporation or a drug cartel. A pusher, a homicide cop, a teacher, a union steward: they're all, in the world of The Wire, middlemen getting squeezed for every drop of value by the systems they work for. "Every day, they matter less as individuals," says Simon.
The next lucky group that gets to matter less is journalists. In the final season, Simon goes inside the fictionalized offices of his former employer, the Baltimore Sun. (He credits the newspaper for being "gracious" enough to let him use the name.) The idea, says Simon, is to ask, while continuing to lay out the problems that manifest themselves in bodies and police cases, "What were [the journalists] doing when Rome was burning? What were they paying attention to?"
At the Sun, as with many other media organizations--and like The Wire's budget-strapped cops--they're paying attention mainly to the bottom line. Out-of-town owners are demanding higher profits, bureaus are closing, layoffs are draining the institutional memory, and the staff barely has the resources to chase fires, much less do investigative work. One top editor repeatedly asks his troops, in impeccable corporatese, to "do more with less."
What this means is doing less with less and cutting corners to make it look like more, sometimes with disastrous results. The lie of "more with less" is, in a way, the heart of the series. "The Wire's basically about the end of an empire," says Simon. "It's about, This is as much of America as we've paid for. No more, no less. We didn't pay for a New Orleans that's protected from floods the way, say, the Netherlands is. The police department gets what it pays for, the city government gets what it pays for, the school system gets what it pays for. And in the last season, the people who are supposed to be holding the entire thing to some form of public standard, they get what they pay for."
Ironically, The Wire might well not exist without the kind of long-form journalism it's hard to pay for today. As a Sun reporter, Simon spent a year on Baltimore's drug corners in 1988 for an assignment that turned into a book and then an NBC series, Homicide. His next project, with former cop and Wire partner Ed Burns, became the book and HBO miniseries The Corner. But then, frustrated at being unable to fit the complexities of street life and the drug war into the news columns, he took a buyout and went into fiction full-time.
On The Wire, Simon and a staff of top-shelf crime writers like Richard Price are free to make things up. But in a way, the show is a variation on old-fashioned populist reportage à la Studs Terkel. It elevates the lowlifes and mocks the highlifes. It's steeped in lived experience, with voices as distinctive and regional as a crab boil. Simon may be angry and intellectual--The Wire differs from most TV drama, he says, because it's based in Greek tragedy about fated individuals, not Shakespearean tragedy about heroic individuals--but his show doesn't play like a tract or a thesis. It's full of memorable characters, like Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams), the principled bandit who robs from drug dealers; Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), the boozy, dogged cop trying to work cases the city won't pay for; and Bubbles (Andre Royo), the recovering junkie fighting his addiction like Sisyphus pushing a boulder of dope up a mountain.
The Wire is also TV's best--and nearly its only--drama about race and class. Because Baltimore is largely a city of black people, The Wire is a show largely about black people, all kinds. Black people are the criminals, and they are the cops and the politicians. What's more, they are the good cops and the lousy cops, the decent pols and the ones on the take, the vicious criminals and the sympathetic ones, and none of them (nor the whites) are wholly, simply good or evil. Season 5 explores how city hall and the media ignore murders of young black men--"wrong ZIP code," deadpans a (black) reporter--but it also shows how a corrupt black state senator shamelessly plays the race card to the very constituents he fleeced. On The Wire, black and white is never black-and-white.
Which may be why The Wire has drawn an African-American and working-class following. The series has rerun on BET, and Simon recalls riding the A train, which runs through Harlem, on a visit to New York City to edit the show: "There were guys on Monday morning hawking bootleg DVDs of the episode that was on HBO Sunday night. The part of me who has a little pirate hat on his head thought that was pretty cool."