On “The Wire,” it’s tradition for Baltimore police to hold a wake for a fallen officer by laying out his body on a barroom pool table, singing the Pogues’ “The Body of an American” and raising their glasses to the dearly departed.
And so it’s time to do the same for the show itself, dead at 60 episodes.
The unparalleled HBO drama, whose final episode airs Sunday, endeavored unlike any previous fictional series to depict a city in full. Its protagonist was Baltimore, framed by thousands of close-ups — from the corner drug dealers to the city hall politicians.
Yes, “The Wire” led a full life. But was its mission accomplished?
An ‘angry show’
When it premiered in 2002, series creator and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon set out with grand ambitions of social commentary and novelistic storytelling. An “angry show,” he’s called it, aimed squarely at the problems in our cities and our inability to solve them.
Now, looking back, Simon doesn’t believe “The Wire” has changed anything. Instead, he says the days are gone where fiction altered the political landscape, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1852 or Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” in 1906.
“I actually have lesser expectations for storytelling, even for journalism in modern times,” says Simon. “The best journalism and the best storytelling used to outrage people. In these times, people are inured to outrage.”
The show takes great pride in its independence from the normal culture centers of Los Angeles or New York. Simon created it with his writing partner Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective and schoolteacher. Their deep knowledge and passion made the show feel like a missive of public outrage, fired from a forgotten corner of America.
“If there’s one small thing that can be pulled out of the last five years, it’s that if everybody begins to contemplate some of the people trapped in that Other America — the Bubbles, the Michaels, the Randys, the Wallaces and Bodies — if they start to contemplate those characters as a little more genuinely human than the current political construct would allow, that would be nice,” Simon deadpans. “That would be of some modest benefit.”
Coming under fire
A word like “nice” sounds almost defeatist from Simon, who’s been called “the angriest man in TV.” Famously cynical (rare is the optimistic “Wire” episode), Simon says: “Everyone has hope. Mine’s just a thinner read than some other people’s, I guess.”
Simon’s cynicism has come under fire in the final season. Though critics have been effusive about “The Wire” (one even called it the greatest TV drama ever), this season’s newsroom storyline has been called one-dimensional and biased.
A focus of the newsroom storyline is a reporter (Thomas McCarthy) who fabricates stories. The city desk editor (Clark Johnson, who directed the final episode) is suspicious, while the managing editor and the executive editor are blinded by their pursuit of journalism prizes.
“I expected it,” says Simon on the media backlash. “The average school superintendent or police commissioner or mayor or union leader, they don’t blog and they don’t publish. When you write about the media, you must expect the critique to be critiqued.”
Simon thinks the media has fittingly missed the real story: “This newspaper depicted goes through the entire year missing every story. What’s not on the screen is my critique.”
The backlash may have soured the wake for “The Wire,” but fans will likely find the final episode exceptionally rewarding. There are also a few touches of symmetry with the pilot episode, which Johnson also directed.
We return to the perspective of surveillance cameras a few times, and we again glimpse the familiar statues outside the McCulloh housing projects. (Look closely and you’ll also spot Simon in the newsroom, making a Hitchcockian cameo.)
The intent is clear: The tragedy of Baltimore is cyclical; we’re back where we began.
“I don’t know how much catharsis there was or wasn’t. The endings just felt right to the characters,” says Simon, who had always planned a five-season run. “There was very little left to say that needed saying.”
Simon and HBO will continue their relationship with a miniseries called “Generation Kill,” about Marines in Iraq. Simon is also putting the last touches on a pilot about musicians in New Orleans that he hopes the network will greenlight.
“Are there things to be angry about post-Katrina in New Orleans?” Simon wonders sarcastically. “I’m going to guess that there are.”
It may be hard to pin down any effect “The Wire” has had outside of television, but few would doubt its artistic merits — except, perhaps, the oblivious Emmys. It has only been nominated once, apparently overlooked because of its low ratings (this season has averaged about 3.5 million viewers).
Ultimately, Simon has simple hopes for the legacy of “The Wire”:
“I hope it’s a good story well told.”