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THE MONITOR

Dissecting threads of decay

As 'The Wire' traces a city's institutional failings, the series itself begins to show signs of unraveling.

January 04, 2008|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

"What kind of people stand around watching a fire?" So wonders Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), city editor of the (fictional) Baltimore Sun, one of the many suffering institutions so carefully documented and dissected on "The Wire," HBO's merciless portrayal of the slow death of Baltimore, Md., a city dying before its time. A city that death becomes.

There is, indeed, an actual fire burning up a row house a few blocks from the Sun office, but no one on staff has thought to check it out. That's because the Sun's own house is decaying -- buyouts on the horizon, shuttered foreign bureaus, getting beaten on stories by both national press and smaller, nimbler local outlets. (The Sun, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by Tribune Co.)

For four seasons it's been the holy mission of "Wire" co-creator David Simon to report on Baltimore's fires, put them out, and by extension, help to rebuild afterward. "The Wire" has been not only remarkable, nuanced and sensitive television, it has also served as education -- for those on the outside peering in -- and a salve, for those inside who felt they never had a voice.

It has also become a critical cause celebre, spoken of almost exclusively -- and seemingly reflexively -- in superlatives. That happens when a show is good, sure, but also when a show is foreign. It takes something shockingly new to recalibrate the old standards.

Last season consisted primarily of a grim account of the rise of Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) to the top of the Baltimore drug trade, and the failure of police to bring him down, even when they knew his team had been responsible for almost two dozen homicides.

Opening this season, about a year has passed, and the Stanfield organization is operating as slickly as ever. The police still surveil him, but they've made nary a dent in his business. What's more, he's eyeing Proposition Joe (Robert Chew), the elder figure who runs the drug co-op that keeps prices down.

By contrast, formal organizations and institutions -- the police, the city government and the news media -- are in disarray. Mayor Tommy Carcetti's (Aidan Gillen) promise to revitalize the school system has drained the city budget to the point where police vehicles can't be serviced, and the team working the Stanfield case has to be disbanded.

Regarding it all, and warily at that, is the Sun, the real version at which Simon spent 13 years covering criminals and those who hoped to catch them.

Simon et al have long been careful to give their least forgivable characters -- kingpins, dope fiends, corner boys, killers -- shades of warmth and accessibility. And for the city servants -- the cops, the politicians -- who have to mete out half-cocked justice, they've got larger structural failings to blame. They want to do better, or more, or different, but the system won't let them.

But Simon's pessimism about the media is different. And it's clear where his allegiances lay. Just as McNulty (Dominic West), Bunk (Wendell Pierce), Lester (Clarke Peters) and the rest of the "murder police" take pleasure in the minutiae of their work, so do the paper's elder staffers, whether plucking the name of a drug dealer out of a zoning ordinance and turning it into front page news, or musing over the proper usage of the word "evacuate."

These newspapermen -- and they are mainly men -- are Simon's heroes. (He places some former Sun colleagues, awkwardly, in supporting roles.)

These brief scenes are about as close as "The Wire" has ever come to conviviality. Those who delight in piecing together words are left unchallenged -- even Haynes, who is foulmouthed, literate, detail-oriented and brusque in equal measures. It's the higher-ups, and the strivers who seek to please them, whom the show paints unflatteringly. Executive editor James Whiting (Sam Freed), is one of the show's rare one-note characters, more a caricature of corporate mismanagement than a commentary on journalistic practices. By next week, he's demanding "Dickensian" stories, perhaps a poke at critics who often slap that tag on "The Wire" itself. Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) is the reporter who gives Whiting what he wants, over Haynes' objections. He's never something other than contemptible, though -- even Stanfield, with his prodigious body count, is more sympathetic.

The result is the first narrative arc in five seasons that feels cheap, or smells anything like vendetta. Plus, lamenting the fate of the daily newspaper feels decidedly fogeyish, and stuck in time as well. There are no mentions of the Web, for instance, and the idea that in the post-Jayson Blair era an editor such as Whiting would brush off Haynes' concerns about Templeton feels impossible -- especially on a show obsessed with accurately capturing the details of contemporary life, from music to drug-selling tactics. Grousing about how things used to be isn't a perspective well-suited to "The Wire," on which characters are ruthlessly focused on tomorrow.

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