The near-orgasmic enthusiasm of TV critics hasn’t brought “The Wire” the respect it deserves from award voters or the public, and given that the final season incorporates a devastating look at newspapers, that dichotomy is likely to continue. Series creator David Simon writes “-30-” on the last chapter of his great American novel for television, and based on the seven episodes previewed, it’s every bit as cynical, riveting and brilliant as the four flights that preceded it — a searing look at the decay of a major American city that puts most of what’s on television to shame.
As structured, Simon has deftly layered each season of “The Wire” upon the one before it, resulting in a project that tackles the endless cycle of poverty, drugs and futile law enforcement efforts with astonishing complexity. Year one dealt with the cops and Baltimore’s urban drug trade; year two, the declining middle class and unions working the local docks; year three, local politics, as an impediment to action; and year four, the overwhelmed school system, where young teens could be seen slipping through the system, leading tragically back to the drug-dealing corners where the show began.
In this last gasp, Simon brings in the local newspaper, in a portrait informed by the years he spent as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, which helped birth NBC’s “Homicide” and HBO’s “The Corner” before “The Wire,” paving the way for his masterpiece. Reporters and the paper’s principled city editor (“Homicide” alum Clark Johnson) are being told to “do more with less,” as layoffs eliminate institutional knowledge and competitive pressures rise.
The police, meanwhile, are grappling with parallel problems: A citywide budget crisis that slices into overtime and the ability to pursue cases, including the major crimes investigation into Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), the drug dealer responsible for the 22 bodies the police located in boarded-up tenements the previous year.
Against this depressing backdrop, with the mayor (Aidan Gillen) having run on a law-and-order platform, a recurrent theme arises: How many corners are cops and journalists willing to cut amid declining resources, and given the apathy that allows this system to fester, when do the ends justify the means?
“The bigger the lie, the more they believe,” detective “Bunk” Moreland, played by Wendell Pierce, says in the opening hour, providing a window into a season whose labyrinth of plots are too good to give up and too intricate to do justice.
In the process, the series juggles a mind-boggling assortment of characters (40 are listed in the credits provided by HBO), raises issues seldom explored elsewhere in either drama or news (such as the tepid reaction to African-American fatalities) and assiduously builds from an understated start in tone, depth and intensity.
Those attributes have likely muted the show’s ratings performance, just as the scope (and yes, racial composition) of the tremendous cast has surely contributed to a lack of individual recognition. Even so, there’s almost no way to overstate what Simon and company have achieved, and HBO should be applauded for affording him the opportunity to finish his opus. For those of us to whom “The Wire” has become its own kind of addiction, he’s left behind a very, very tough habit to break.