The Wire's fifth-season focus on journalism has prompted a torrent of coverage from the print media, not all of it positive. It's hardly surprising that this critical darling would finally sustain some negative criticism this year: the show reached a national profile after last season's amazing exploration of inner-city schools, and with that greater exposure comes greater vulnerability. It's also predictable that the typically slow build of the season openers wouldn't compare well to the heartwrenching final episodes of season four. And frankly, those openers have had some problems compared to previous seasons--not in the least a narrative compression (mandated by HBO cutting the season from twelve or thirteen episodes to ten) that's led to some blunt exposition and other uncharacteristic shortcuts.
But there's another reason The Wire has been coming under so much journalistic fire: this season, it's turning its withering urban criticism on the journalists. Many of the complaints about season five have centered around its portrayal of a fictionalized Baltimore Sun newsroom, and many of them have come from people with ties to that newsroom or its former editors. Sometimes it's hard to separate the valid criticisms from the long-simmering feuds or simple stung pride.
Some of the more earnest criticisms come from David Zurawik in this review for the Baltimore Sun. I believe he comes by them honestly, but he lets his familiarity with the newsroom distort his view of the show's past seasons. Zurawik writes,
the newsroom scenes are the Achilles' heel of Season 5 - with mainstream entertainment sacrificed to journalistic shop talk, while fact and fiction are mashed up in the confusing manner of docudrama.
I think he gets this much right: the newsroom scenes have been the most likely to drag on the rest of the storylines. I would say that's because they tend to lean heavily on expository dialogue, not "shop talk"--if it were only shop talk these seasoned reporters wouldn't spend so much time telling each other things they should already know. Besides, when has The Wire not featured shop talk? For that matter, when has it not combined fact and fiction?
Most of Zurawik's criticisms take the show to task for doing things it's always done. For example:
Simon, who is so skilled in creating multifaceted characters elsewhere in the series, makes Haynes a one-dimensional figure without flaws.
I might quibble that Gus Haynes does have a flaw or two--he's been ignoring Templeton and his combative attitude towards Klebanow and Whiting has destroyed what little political capital he has in the newsroom--but he is one of the series' unambiguously good characters. The thing is, he's no different from the other good mentors like Walon, Grace Sampson, or especially Bunny Colvin. I could see criticizing Simon for recycling the character type, but the good mentor isn't a new development.
More problematic still is the way Simon links certain newsroom characters to real-life journalists through words and actions - and then depicts them exclusively in a negative fashion. Simon moves deeper into docudrama when he does that, and The Wire suffers as a result.
The docudrama genre, which has come under increasing fire in recent years, combines the look of documentary film with the literary license of theater - giving viewers the sense that what they are watching is true even though facts have been rearranged and actions invented.
Beyond blurring fact and fiction and ignoring any sense of proportionality, the genre also telescopes and confuses time. Simon left the Sun in 1995, and his newsroom villains are patterned on editors and a reporter long gone from Baltimore. But Simon presents his story as if it is taking place at The Sun today.
Again, The Wire has always done this. Every time the show uses a real person's name--usually names of unseen homicide detectives, though occasionally a fictional landmark like the McCullough homes or an on-screen character like Sgt. Jay Landsman--those names are ten to twenty years out of date.
Somewhere back in season one or two, McNulty rattles off a list of the good homicide detectives in Baltimore; they're all guys who worked back when David Simon was tailing the unit in 1988. Bunk Moreland is based on one of them. This season, McNulty says one of the homicide unit's only working cars is "at the morgue with Fahlteich." Richard Fahlteich, a 1988 detective who rose to the rank of major and homicide commander, retired in 2006. When a couple of Arabbers are trading stories about hardened criminals late in season four they name-check Junior Bunk and other fixtures of a long-gone Baltimore underworld. The Barksdales are based on a couple of criminals Ed Burns investigated and caught in the 1980s (one of whom now appears on the show as a church deacon). Bubbles is based on a snitch of the same name who died in 1992.
I don't wholly disagree with Zurawik here. While these names are no doubt meant only as homages or in-jokes they do telescope time, generating a troubling sense that the show is sometimes more about the Baltimore of the 1980s than today. Zurawik is right that this telescopy can be confusing, disorienting, even disappointing. But it didn't begin when The Wire turned its sights on the Sun; that's just when the journalists took notice.
The Wire is telling the same story it's told all along, a story about how institutions are destroyed by new economic forces and corrupted by the careerist ambitions of the people who should be safeguarding them through the rough times. (In fact, it's a story that predates The Wire, going back to some of Simon and Burns's finest work in The Corner, but that's a post in its own right.)
The only difference is that now The Wire is telling its story about a very different group of people. Whether they're friends of Simon's targets like Mark Bowden or just newspaper insiders like David Zurawik, the show's new legion of critics all assume this is the first time The Wire has said unpleasant things about real people, and they all claim it's treating their colleagues as one-sided caricatures. David Montgomery of the Washington Post is the first mainstream media writer to concede this obvious point: "wouldn't members of the longshoremen's union have said the same thing about Season 2, which featured the Port of Baltimore?"
But previous seasons have focused on groups that have no voice in the national media (drug gangs, teachers) or that close ranks and keep their dirty laundry to themselves (politicians, police, unions). Now the show is taking aim at people with the ultimate media access who are none to shy about defending their their friends and their profession.
I don't think David Zurawik is criticizing the show out of some misplaced loyalty to his paper. (Mark Bowden, that's another story--come back tomorrow.) He's just letting his insider knowledge as a Sun writer overshadow this season's continuity with what's come before. The Wire has always spiced its fiction with a little fact, and previous seasons have productively mined real-life events. Does anybody really think Rawls and Burrell aren't acting out some old stories from the Baltimore police department? When Bunk is saddled with a thankless, no-hope assignment to find a missing police gun in season three, that's based on an actual punishment doled out to Ed Burns's former partner. Season three was still one of the show's finest.
Previous seasons haven't suffered for being based on real people and events; I don't see why this one has to either.
(Thanks to Bart Beaty and Mike Rhode for sending me the newspaper links.)