In episode five of season five of “The Wire,” when heroic stickup man Omar Little avoids a hail of gunfire from Marlo’s enforcers inside of a tiny little Baltimore apartment and jumps out the fourth-story window and survives (though he will hobble for the rest of the series up until his brilliantly un-cinematic murder), many fans of “The Wire” were pissed. There weren’t real-time Twitter takes like we’re used to now and even almost-immediate episode recaps were rare back then, but trust me, Omar’s jump was the moment that many worried the show had “jumped the shark.”
The gritty, realistic show had cheated, man, and fuck that.
Some viewers’ concerns were assuaged when they learned that Donnie Andrews, the character Omar was based on, really did jump out a window just like this and survive, or at least he claims he did—it was a sixth-story window “in real life”—but generally Omar’s leap is one of many oft-cited examples of how season five was a disappointment, which in retrospect seems very wrong.
Omar’s impressive leap is a way to better understand season five, which found “The Wire” at its most meta, exploring its relationship with that useful though overused descriptor of “Dickensian,” a crutch for television critics. Throughout season five, Simon shoves the word in the mouths of the most out-of-touch characters (“The Dickensian aspect of the homeless,” is how a Baltimore Sun higher-up describes a hammy story he intends to publish to capture the hearts and minds of readers and hopefully, some Pulitzers). But season five also seeks to reify the term. Omar’s arguably impossible jump is also “Dickensian,” but less the Charles Dickens we all know—social-ills-oriented sentimentality fueled by serialization—than the Dickens that at times challenged and arguably even trolled his audience and refused to let them get comfortable.
Back in 1852, in Dickens’ serialized novel “Bleak House,” readers were confronted with the rather strange death of the character of Mr. Krook. His room smells “like someone frying rancid meat,” Dickens writes, and Krook is nowhere to be found, though there’s a curious “pile of ash on the floor.” We learn he spontaneously combusted. This bothered critics who felt the rigid rules of social realism had been violated. One critic wrote that Krook’s combustion is “beyond the limits of acceptable fiction and give[s] credence to a scientific impossibility,” which is pretty much a wordier version of the “unrealistic” whine that came from frustrated “The Wire” fans back in 2008. In the next “Bleak House” installment, Dickens responded to the critics and steered them in the right direction. Krook’s coroner declares, “These are mysteries we can’t account for,” putting an end to the debate, and well, the same goes for Omar’s jump from the fourth story of an apartment building.
A decade before “Bleak House,” Dickens had killed off Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” which supposedly had all of London weeping when they read it. And perhaps Simon, like Dickens, became bored by the limits of “the truth” in fiction for season five, which tells a very different story than the previous four seasons and is concerned with things that are fake: fake serial killers (McNulty contrives a serial killer to boost the BPD budget and then redirects the funds to continue to investigate Marlo Stanfield) and fake journalism (The Sun, under major economic pressure, desperately embraces too-hungry reporter Scott Templeton who decides to fake stories to appease the higher-ups).
Season five is a media critique, so it makes sense that the show gets so meta. Many took issue with the Sun elements of the story at the time, but years later it feels like a responsible impulse because how could Simon, a newspaper guy now making a TV show based in part, on his reporting, not acknowledge his role in all of this? Had there been a sixth season, maybe it would’ve been about a show like “The Wire” coming through town and turning all of the characters’ lives and exploits into smart, penetrating television.
The fake-serial-killer subplot is mostly a chance to mock other more popular television crime shows, namely “CSI” and other sex-pervert-obsessed murder shows like “Law & Order: SVU.” If you look closely in the first episode of season five, before the serial-killer subplot is even introduced, there’s a scene where Bug and Michael play Connect Four and on television is some contemporary police procedural—we see a gloved doctor operating on a body and it has that ridiculous green-ish lighting that these primetime dramas indulged. You see it for a second but long enough to process the lazy signifiers of this type of show.
In episode eight, a big-deal FBI profiler brought in to help with the (fake) serial killer boasts, “They’ve used a lot of my stuff on those CSI shows,” and in episode nine, there’s a hilarious scene when Michael, who just killed Snoop, returns to the hotel where Dukie and Bug are staying and Dukie jumps up and describes something he’s watching on TV (“Dexter,” probably), which has an absurd plot about a “serial killer, but he only be killing other serial killers.” So in part, season five is best understood as a real-time satire of all the other exploitative garbage on television. It’s Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” to “The Wire’s” previous four seasons of “Do the Right Thing.”
Satire, however, is often the work of a frustrated idealist and what season five also reveals, perhaps to no surprise, is that Simon’s soft gooey center is for newspapers and the men—and it is almost entirely men—who run them. The Sun here is a dead-in-the-water paper, ruined by out-of-town corporate types only concerned with the bottom line (specifically the Tribune, which still owns The Sun and also purchased the City Paper in March of 2014) and although nearly a decade later it isn’t doing any better economically, when I think of The Sun, I think of seriously thoughtful reporters and writers like Wesley Case, Ian Duncan, Justin Fenton, Justin George, Erica Green, Mark Puente, and Julie Scharper. Even if the paper seems to be talking to the suburbs mostly these days, these journalists, especially when they get to do the stories they want to do unabated, are in a league with anybody else who has ever written there.
Then again, Simon’s portrayal of The Sun suggests that it’s not so much that reporting doesn’t go on there, but rather that it isn’t valued by the suits who prefer lazy leeches and hacks. Perhaps that’s true downstairs at The Sun right now, I really wouldn’t know.
At the same time, Simon’s vision of a newsroom, or what’s left of it in his opinion, is at times stupidly sentimental. Scenes of Gus Haynes, city desk editor of The Sun, doling out tips to young reporters Alma Gutierrez and Templeton are a bit much; a scene in which Gus and Roger Twigg recall why they got into the newspaper, sending Twigg down memory lane (he saw a man on the bus reading the paper, “and the way that man folded that paper and concentrated on reading those pages made him look like the smartest son of a bitch on the bus”), seems self-absorbed and a little pathetic to this alt-weekly- and blogs-raised critic.
Consider an illustrative scene in which Twigg, a victim of The Sun’s most recent round of buy-outs, is assigned a crime story initially handed to Templeton because Twigg’s years of reporting means he knows all of the major players already. It’s a scene about institutional memory. Here’s the wisdom a paper has when it retains reporters who’ve been in the newsroom for years. And that just can’t be replaced—especially by a lazy newbie who is already looking to apply for work at The Washington Post. Here at City Paper, the knowledge we lost when Van Smith, who recently left the paper to pursue other projects, has been palpable—just look at how many of the “Wire” stories in our archives (page 17) bear his byline.
But what seems just as prevalent are the dudes who stick around too long, who are no longer motivated and obstruct stories or half-ass their work or sit around bitter that the big stories aren’t just handed to them. Newsrooms are full of lazy motherfuckers too and Simon’s decision to idealize newsroom vets is curious.
In other ways, season five’s newsroom subplot was predictive. By exploring the “if it bleeds it leads” concept and reducing it to absurdity and skewering bad crime television all at once, Simon predicted the increased obsession with the ways in which the bottom line of advertising directs editorial. McNulty’s pervy serial killer and Templeton’s “reporting” on it are just elaborate exercises in what we now call “clickbait,” really. And if back then the homeless story had the suits salivating for a Pulitzer, these days they’ll settle for all the page views it racks up which they can translate into advertising money.
It isn’t that media in 2008 or 2015 isn’t mostly fucked and full of phonies, it’s just that I wish Simon didn’t harbor illusion that it used to be that much better (though it certainly paid better). As Cheese says in the series finale, “There ain’t no nostalgia to this shit.”
He’s talking about “the game,” but the same should hold true of journalism.