The landmark HBO drama The Wire begins its fifth and final season Sunday night (seen in Canada on The Movie Network/Movie Central). This searing, yet at the same time ennobling, slice of urban America isn't a bigger hit for one simple reason: critics keep using words like "searing" and ennobling" to describe it.
There's an "eat your vegetables" resistance to this Baltimore-based series, I'm convinced. How else to explain why it doesn't draw more viewers.
The biggest shock of all is that it has survived into a fifth season. It gets nowhere near the audience that The Sopranos or Sex And The City used to get on HBO.
A handful of critics are all that have kept it on the air. One of my favorite bloggers and an influential media voice, Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle, writes glowingly about it to the point of obsession. Weeks went by last year when he didn't write about anything else.
Have to admit that whenever I do give it a look, I am always impressed and entertained. The series does not boast a big name cast (one other reason it is overlooked), but the ensemble is terrific, always on their game. Clark Johnson, who used to toil in the TV trenches 20 years ago in Toronto on the meat and potatoes cop series Night Heat, is achingly believable as a world weary newspaper editor who sticks to his code in a city (Baltimore) and a business that is going all to hell.
(Not everybody thinks so. Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik--who also agrees that this is one of the greatest shows in the history of television--argues that the newsroom scenes are dated and out of touch. Too much fear and loathing about downsizing, too many ethical lapses, too dispirited, he finds. He's crazy wrong, as Goodman agrees, but you can follow his argument here.)
All of the characters are just that real, whether they are city hall politicians, drug dealers, newspaper scribes or cops. This is the show for anyone who misses Homicide: Life On The Street or even Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue. It is even more real than those shows, again, perhaps one reason it is not universally embraced. It dares to challenge, to slow down, to think. There is no fancy, antiseptic crime lab like on CSI, no glamour shots like on any shows in that franchise. This is pure grit, a banged up, taken for granted look at the downsizing of the American dream.
Just like in real life, it is often surprisingly funny. The opening scene in Sunday's debut finds two cops resorting to their oldest trick in the book to con a street punk into copping to a crime. They duct tape him to a photo copier, rig a few "true" and "false" sheets into the copier tray and photocopy him into a confession. "The bigger the lie," one later observes, "the more they believe."
Creator David Simon (a former Baltimore newspaperman himself) has held a cracked mirror up to his home town and, by extent ion, to all of North America, where cities rust and burn as they continue to shelter and inspire people good and bad. Although he gets far fewer accolades, Simon is right up there with Sopranos' boss David Chase when it comes to capturing true and compelling TV stories. (He also created Homicide and the equally ignored and brilliant crime drama The Corner).
Sadly, as Rob Salen writes in today's Toronto Star, this fifth season is the last for The Wire. Sets have been struck and actors released. If you have never seen it (and you've read this far!), give it the ol' ten minute test. If you're not hooked by the first ten minutes, I tried. If you are, you'll be rewarded by a great and original storytelling in a season where stories aren't even being typed anymore.