Monday, March 17, 2008

"Let's go home."

In its five seasons on HBO, The Wire managed to (mostly) balance the demands of an hugely entertaining TV show (clever plotting, expertly executed plot twists and cliffhangers, genuinely funny jokes, attractive people having sex, etc) with the rigor of a Brookings Institute report on a major city's fraying social fabric. The show rarely relied on broad characterizations or glib answers to complex questions. It was also, for me, the ideal program to become obsessed with in public policy school. Few shows have found the drama in (or even bothered dramatizing) the excruciating decisions that public workers (whether police, politicians, or teachers) have to make in allocating finite resources to infinite problems.

The fifth season proved that the people who make The Wire (creator David Simon, as well as Ed Burns and an A-team of writers, directors and actors) were fallible. The fifth season premiere was the first time the show's sprawling cast and diverse settings felt crowded. Moreover, two of the season's main storylines disappointed.

I remember reading David Simon discuss (though I do not remember where) the themes for the then-upcoming last season. He said in one interview that some of the characters in the police department would have to secretly take matters into their own hands to get things done. He was referring to how Jimmy McNulty would fabricate a lurid story about a serial killer to pressure city hall and the police hierarchy to provide the financial and material resources for Lester Freamon to find a way to put drug kingpin and mass murderer Marlo Stanfield in handcuffs.

I didn't have the totally adverse reaction to this plot's outlandishness that others did; I actually appreciated it to the extent that it satirized lesser crime dramas that rely on sensational crimes and romanticized police detection. Landsman's jerk-off-motion reaction the first time McNulty brings his his "evidence" of a serial killer was hysterical.

My problem with this story was its redundancy. Season three's Hamsterdam experiment, where Major Bunny Colvin creates free zones in the deadest parts of the city where drug laws are not enforced, covered the same thematic ground. It was also much more challenging. The free zones may well have reduced the violent crime rate and allowed for better community policing, but the human cost was staggering. This season, we were never really asked to condemn what McNulty does. We're shown one cop taking financial advantage of the money the "red ball" brings to the department, but even the characters angry about McNulty's subterfuge tacitly acknowledge that it gets real police work done.

After the show so effectively and thoughtfully expanded its universe to show how dock workers facing re-development and being made obsolete, the city's political structure, and the failing public schools were all entwined in the drug economy, it seemed like the show could top itself with it's fifth season examination of the local media. The end of the fourth season even hints that there's fertile ground there.

Fans of the show all knew that David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, bore a serious grudge against the paper's management. Anyone who feared that his resentment and anger might get the better of his storytelling were right to be concerned. After acknowledging the effect of declining revenues and remote ownership on the local newsroom, the bulk of this storyline was take up with a young reporter's fabrications.

I visited my grandmother in Cleveland during this season's run. Her local paper (The Plain Dealer) devoted its front page to local stories and politics, all with Cleveland-based bylines. Compare this with, say, the Austin American-Statesman, whose front page on any given day is almost exclusively stories picked up from the New York Times and wire services, and you buy The Wire's theory that local journalism is dying, and that this is as genuine a social problem as the drug trade being better financed than the police or the public schools that teach to statewide tests.

Since the end of the show, Simon has defended that storyline (in Salon or The Onion, or maybe both) as being about what stories don't get told by local media. I think he's being a little disingenuous; that's a great theme, but exploring certainly didn't require the young fabulist. If McNulty's storyline felt like the deck was stacked in that character's favor, in this one it's stacked decidedly against the paper: the newspaper's managing editor gets much less sympathy from the show than killers like Chris Partlow and Stringer Bell.

Even with these problems, though, The Wire was still miles ahead of any other show. To wit:
  • That montage of Baltimore at the one hour mark of the series finale. As my friend Hayden said: "Just beautiful, a love letter to a messed-up American city."
  • Clay Davis trying to rally support from anyone who will listen to him after he's indicted, and his pandering, cynical performance on the witness stand. And after all that, and with a awesomely sleazy smile on his face, he declares that Carcetti's enemies are "Playing that race card. Shameful shit."
  • Michael and Dukie and Bug spending the day at Six Flags.
  • Bubbles's climactic speech at his N.A. meeting.
  • Carcetti's first speech on the homeless-killer.
  • Proposition Joe trying to teach Marlo the civilized art of money laundering.
  • Proposition Joe's death scene, and the creepy look on Marlo's face.
  • Kima's Goodnight Moon scene with her son.
  • The look on McNulty's face as he hears the FBI's profile of his serial killer: "They're in the ballpark."
  • Beadie's lecture to McNulty on who will come to his wake when he dies: "...that's all the best of us get."
  • The same scene, when McNulty confesses to her: "You start to tell the story, you think you're the hero, and then when you get done talking..."
  • Nerece Campbell running damage control on Burrell and Davis as each contemplate going down fighting.
  • Herc giving Carver a phone number for Marlo, in doing so paying a debt to each them.
  • Pearlman sparring with Levy.
  • All of Bunk's reaction shots.
  • Michael and Snoop each plotting to ambush the other.
As grim as things looked like they would get, the last episode was surprisingly humanistic. This shouldn't have been a surprise, though; as cynical as the show has always been about institutions, it's always been pretty hopeful for individuals (a delicate balance that has saved it from the misanthropy of The Sopranos); it's always celebrated those who, to paraphrase Bunk Moreland, give a fuck when it ain't their turn to give a fuck.

In the end, McNulty and Freamon are more-or-less off the hook for their crimes, and get second chances at being happy civilians. Prezbo has gotten the hang of public school teaching, and his kids respect him. Greggs has no interest in reconciling with her ex-girlfriend, but wants to be a parent to their son. Bubbles has made some peace with Sharrod's death, and has been invited into his long-suffering sister's family. Poot and Cutty seem to have gotten out of "the game" permanently. Michael proves to be the heir to Omar. Dukie is lost to homelessness and addiction. Carcetti is governor, though at a cost to his soul. Daniels and Pearlman realized that the longer they stay with the police and district attorney, respectively, the more likely they were to have to bend or compromise ethics. When we last see them, they've walked away, consciences intact, and seem much happier.

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