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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008

Down To The Wire

Crime, Corruption and Journalism

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No program highlights the disparity between critical opinion and commercial success better than “The Wire,” HBO’s fervently acclaimed but largely unwatched crime epic. The Chicago Tribuneand Entertainment Weeklyhave crowned it the best show on TV. Slateupped the ante, hailing it as the best American TV show ever. And, most boldly, MSNBC deemed it “the best show in the history of television.” So why haven’t more people seen it?

It could be that the same critics who laud the show do so with coded words that deter casual viewers: Novelistic. Intelligent. Challenging. Complex. Literary. Dickensian. Those aren’t exactly words that send Joe Viewer running to the TV set, but that’s the program’s curse: It’s difficult to praise the show without describing it as a dry, academic endeavor, even though “The Wire” is as genuinely entertaining as anything else on television. Every scene is so piquantly scripted that it leaves the viewer smirking in amusement (at least when they aren’t gasping in shock). Only one other program in recent memory has been so tightly packed with droll wit and novel thrills, “The Sopranos,” and even that masterpiece is out-ambitioned by “The Wire.”

War on Drugs
Set in poverty-stricken Baltimore, “The Wire” began modestly enough as a cops and drug dealers saga, a parable about why the war on drugs doesn’t work, but it soon broadened its scope to further explore urban decay. Each season has centered around a different failing institution: a union, city hall, a public middle school and, in the fifth and final season that premiered this month, a newspaper.

The show never anoints a single protagonist—although it has a prime candidate in Jimmy McNulty, a plucky but self destructive police detective—but instead charts an ever-expanding cast of dozens, all of whom are caught in the city’s downward spiral, unable to effect change. The industrious cop is inevitably stifled by his superiors, the promising kid is inevitably drawn into the drug game and the compassionate politician inevitably sells out the city to advance his own career. Any character with hopes of reform is fated to fail.

“In our heads we’re writing a Greek tragedy,” show creator David Simon explained in a 2006 Slate interview, “but instead of the gods being petulant and jealous Olympians hurling lightning bolts down at our protagonists, it’s the post- modern institutions that are the gods. And they are gods. And no one is bigger.” Simon doesn’t hide his bitterness or his pessimism, but the show is shaped as much by hard journalism as it is his bleak outlook. For 12 years, Simon covered crime and city news for The Baltimore Sun, and much of “The Wire” is based on actual characters and events.

Neutering the Newspapers
Simon’s Sun experience lent the show considerable credibility during its first four seasons, but it’s been the source of minor controversy in its most recent season, part of which, not coincidentally, is set in the fictionalized offices of the Sun.

The season’s state-of-journalism critique will be familiar to anyone who follows the field: Cost-saving layoffs of seasoned reporters and an emphasis on short, colorful articles over substantive investigative reporting have neutered major newspapers. There’s not much debate over this, but some have accused Simon of using the show’s final season to air personal grievances.

Faced with the uncomfortable task of reviewing a program set in his own workplace, Sun critic David Zurawik—hitherto as smitten with “The Wire” as his peers—posits that Simon’s depiction of the newsroom is outdated, and that Simon based villains on staff that has long since left the paper. (Simon has made no secret about holding such grudges—he has boasted of naming one of his program’s few irredeemable characters after a Sun editor with whom he butted heads.)

Zurawik suggests that after seasons of deftly employing its social commentary, “The Wire” succumbs to pedantries once in the newsroom. “Fact and fiction are mashed up in the confusing manner of docudrama,” Zurawik writes. “Almost everyone in the newsroom is a cardboard character— in part because Simon writes it like a morality play.”

But, in a reminder that everyone has their biases, every other major newspaper has been considerably kinder to the new season than the Sun.

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