Notes on The Wire

Overall, I incline toward the Slate dialoguers’ take (and Matt's) on this season of The Wire, rather than the more favorable view that you’ll find at the House Next Door. Not that the season isn’t riveting television; not that I’m not desperately anticipating for the finale; not that David Simon and Co. are guilty of anything except failing to live up to the ridiculously high standard that they’ve set for themselves. But it remains the case that they just haven’t quite lived up to it. The newspaper plot would be an entertaining morality play in a different, lesser show, but compared to what The Wire has done with other institutions and their inhabitants it’s weak stuff indeed: A succession of one-note characters acting out a story that’s at best tangential to the state of newspapers, circa 2008. (If only Pulitzer-hungry editors and scumbag fabulists were the biggest problems facing papers like the Sun!) The season as a whole has been at once more melodramatic and more didactic than the ones that have come before, and while I’ve come to terms with the lurch toward soap opera – fake serial killers! kidnapped homeless men! – in the police-procedural plotline, there have been too many moments when Simon's declinist worldview (and his view of himself as Jeremiah crying unheeded in the wilderness) has felt like an artistic weakness rather than the strength it's always been.

I wrote a post a while back arguing that it can be a good thing when great television shows either set early end-dates on their own or get saddled with them, and that many of the high points of recent television from The X-Files to The Sopranos would have benefited artistically if their creators had wound them up earlier than they actually did. I certainly wouldn't go so far as to suggest that The Wire has overstayed its welcome; even with all its weaknesses, this season is still vastly stronger than the some of the more middling stretches of The Sopranos. But having just re-watched the whole of Simon's creation, for start to (almost) finish, I do think that if you compare the show to literature, as so many of its admirers do, the first three seasons feel like an organic whole, a single masterpiece - whereas seasons four and (especially) five are interesting and imperfect sequels to the original Great American Novel.

I know this is a minority opinion, and many people think the fourth season, with its child's-eye view of the inner city, is easily The Wire's best. But while I agree that the depiction of the four kids is one of the finest stand-alone sections in the show's entire run, it's embedded in a larger narrative that feels more inconsistent, and less compelling, than the long duel between the Bell-Barksdale gang and the special crimes unit that dominated seasons one through three. I don't regret any of the extra time we've spent watching Marlo and Carcetti, Bubbles and the Bunk (though I've had just about enough of Jimmy McNulty), but it's still the case, I think, that the canvas has grown overbroad at times, and somewhat scattershot as a result. The Wire's greatest story was the rise and fall of Stringer Bell, and nothing's matched it since.