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On The Record

The Wire Turns Its Unblinking Eye Toward Daily Journalism With Its Fifth and Final Season

The City Paper Teevee-Cam™
PLAY ONE ON TV: Clark Johnson (right) and two other make-believe Sun staffers.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/2/2008

Late on a weekday, a metro desk editor notices a bill item at the bottom of the City Council agenda that draws his interest. But time is running short. A reporter is sent back to the council to find out the bill's sponsor and get a quote. Another reporter is dispatched to a local business mentioned in the bill to get a quote from the owner. Another reporter dives into the daily paper's morgue for research. And the next day, when the paper's editor and fellow reporters congratulate all involved on a great catch, everybody feels a bit of pride in doing a job well.

That exact scenario plays out in the debut episode of The Wire's fifth season, which airs Jan. 6 on HBO. And it recalls other scenes of work-force pride from earlier seasons--such as Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) recounting making a collar as a rookie patrol officer in Season 1. The Wire being The Wire, though, you know such a personal pride is fleeting, a momentary thankless victory in a workplace that isn't really interested in how you feel about your job.

In interviews during the series' 2006 fourth season, co-creator/co-producer David Simon intimated that the writing team's planned fifth season involved the media, and they have intimately and cannily wound The Sun into the vital fabric of the show's life. The print ads for this new season cagily capture this framework: The series' title block letters are cut out of The Sun, with headlines referencing Mayor Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), the school budget crisis, and rising murder counts.

That one image outlines this season's calibrating edge: Over the course of the season, we're going to get to see the familiar characters through the eyes of the business institution that should both be acting as watchdog over local crime and politics and informing the public about it. And there's plenty to report: After declining the governor's $50 million school budget bailout in Season 4, Carcetti and his savvy fixer Norman (Reg E. Cathey, still amazing) have to get that money from someplace else, which means stripping the police department budget despite campaigning as a tough-on-crime candidate. Police morale is sinking fast, which Western District Sgt. Carver (Seth Gilliam) has to placate the best he can. Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) and the Major Crimes Unit--which includes Greggs, Dozerman (Rick Otto), Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson), and Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), back in from patrol in Season 4--is still sitting on West Baltimore dealer Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), following the 22 dead bodies found in abandoned rowhouses that they suspect Marlo's hitters Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson) put there.

The problem is both the police department and The Sun are hitting hard financial times, and a genuine "more with less" directive--familiar to virtually any American worker today--is the top-down management line. What, who, and how The Sun, law enforcement, and City Hall intersect is one of the many fascinating plots emerging out of Season 5, and in some ways it's one of the most impressive aspects of the show's entire writing staff. Simon has mentioned that the writing team--which includes Simon, co-creator Ed Burns, David Mills, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, former Sun reporter William F. Zorzi, and Chris Collins--envisioned The Wire's five seasons as a continuum, and, even just one episode into this final run, that big picture is already starting to manifest itself.

In years past City Paper has tried to lead each season of the The Wire off with a large cover-story package addressing the season's themes, interviewing some of the players involved, and, in general, marveling at what has come to be a favorite TV show. But as I was reminded recently, it's hard to pimp watching any network television when you know writers are on picket lines with no paychecks, health insurance, etc. This year's Wire coverage will be spread out over the entire run, in an effort to talk about what the show--and the people behind it--have brought both to television and the city. (Also: Look for weekly episode reviews/mini essays online.)

What we will pimp for Season 5's debut is the return of Clark Johnson to portraying a Baltimore professional on the small screen. Homicide: Life on the Street fans remember Johnson as Detective Meldrick Lewis, the sort of self-made African-American cop you never see on TV. Here he appears as an infinitely competent and put upon Sun editor who would be great at his job--if his job let him. Anybody who has ever worked at a daily paper--or, hell, currently works in publishing--is going to find that Season 5's newsroom scenes hit entirely too close to home. Print journalism is one of those careers that movies and television so often mishandle. The Wire, like it has with so much else, gets it right--and honest.

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Case Closed : David Simon: The Wire Exit Interview 3/12/2008

The Wire: Enough Already in Arts and Minds 1/28/2008

The Wire: On Newspapering in Arts and Minds 1/17/2008

The Wire: Still Simon vs. Sun in Arts and Minds 1/16/2008

Decision 2008: Obama Doesnít Endorse Omar . . . in Arts and Minds 1/16/2008

The Wire: The Music of Episode 2 in Arts and Minds 1/15/2008

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The Wire: David Simon Repeats, The Wireís Sun Is Not the Real Sun in Arts and Minds 1/10/2008

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