Notes following The Wire Season 5 Premiere

Few things have the power to draw me out of the hermitage on winter weekends, but when Lizzie invited me down to Baltimore for The Wire‘s Season Five Premiere, I packed my bags and hopped on a train.

Of course the party was fun (more photos here). But watching the show on the big screen was magic — until the episode ended and we couldn’t just pull up the next one on DVD.

The new season focuses on the media, and particularly on the local newspaper — which shares a name with The Baltimore Sun — where cutbacks and an obsession with shaping the news to win Pulitzers have led to a dearth of meaningful local reporting.

City editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) is determined to put out a decent paper despite higher-ups who keep ordering him to “do more with less.” In this episode, rookie Alma Gutierrez (Michelle Paress) may not have the finer points of usage down just yet, but she’s good at getting people to talk. She’s happy at the Sun, unlike Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy, The Station Agent), a hungry young reporter who’s angling for a big story so he can leap to a better paper.

In a brief speech before the screening, Wire creator and head writer David Simon called the series “a diagnostic exercise in storytelling.” Simon started his career at the Sun, as a crime reporter. Talk to him for two minutes and you’ll see how passionate he is about the integrity of journalism and necessity of local news, and how the decline of the city newsroom — not just in Baltimore, but country-wide — sickens him. In his speech he acknowledged that writers steal from life, and he sympathized with the difficulty for an institution like the Sun of having to “deal with a fictional facsimile and having to stand next to that facsimile.”

For its part, the Sun, which used to praise the show, has soured considerably on The Wire now that Simon has trained his lens on (a fictional version of) the paper. And apparently the defensiveness extends far beyond the Baltimore city line. Mark Bowden, who worked for two of Simon’s former Sun bosses, has penned a hit piece for (surprise) The Atlantic entitled The Angriest Man on Television.

Given the reception so far, I’m guessing Season 5 is a swift kick to the anthill of media complacency. I can’t wait to watch the rest of it.

If you’ve missed The Wire until now, give Season 1 a try. Comparisons to Dickens might sound overblown, but they’re not. The critical rhapsodies are deserved.

No, The Wire is not a novel. Watching it is not the same as reading. But I can’t join in pulling out the violins over the (supposed) death of fiction when TV as a form is revealing itself to have this kind of narrative potential. The Wire is a new kind of storytelling.

Fans: if you haven’t seen them yet, check out The Chronicles, featuring a young Prop Joe, Omar circa 1985, and McNulty on his first night in Homicide.


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