The course ended last week.
It spanned a total of five units, each broken into 10-13 classes with one overriding theme: the decline of the industrial metropolis in a post-industrial world.
The course was challenging; it didn’t pull punches; and it demanded far more than its few but distant peers in the field. But it had to be difficult to be worthwhile, and I can confidently say it was the most valuable course I’ve ever taken.
It was also the best television show I’ve ever seen.
The final episode of HBO’s “The Wire” aired two Sundays ago, closing out a five-season arc that efficiently documented the current state of inner-city America with a degree of focus and care previously unseen on television. What started as a parallel look into both Baltimore drug traffickers and the police department trying to shut them down expanded into a nearly all-encompassing look at the city of Baltimore. Drug dealers, politicians, stevedores, cops, attorneys, inner-city youth, prisoners, public reformers, stick-up men, broken families, reporters, educators, junkies – “The Wire” tapped into all of them.
The show was created by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, whose previous works include “Homicide: Life on the Street” and HBO’s “The Corner” mini-series. And although Simon’s career as a crime reporter spanned 12 years, “The Wire” might be his greatest journalistic act. The show’s 60+ hours of content aren’t factually accurate, but most of the show’s threads are rooted in actual occurrences and all of its themes are true.
During an early fifth season episode, a few higher-ups at the fictional Baltimore Sun depicted in the show muse over a possible series for the paper to tackle. The Baltimore School District is suggested and loose plans are put in place to delve into the city’s schools. A few episodes later, however, a fabricated serial killer who preys on the homeless has attracted nearly everyone’s attention at the paper, and the school-system series is abandoned in hopes of snatching a Pulitzer for coverage of the non-existent-serial-killer and his victims. Baltimore’s schools are decaying, and the Sun never told anyone about it.
But Simon did.
In “The Wire” ‘s fourth – and arguably best – season, the show’s lens grabbed hold of four middle school students in inner-city Baltimore. Although they started out as relatively na’ve kids, throwing urine-filled water balloons at rival cliques early in the season, they end up in vastly different and infinitely more depressing situations by season’s end. Failed by schools and their parents, only one of the four ends the show with a chance to make something of himself – unless you consider shooting junk or sticking up drug dealers to be promising – and only because a disgraced ex-cop removed him from the home of his mother, who let him go because she couldn’t handle the thought of her baby being anything other than a drug pusher. Aided by co-executive producer Ed Burns (“The Corner”), who served as a police officer and a schoolteacher in Baltimore, Simon presented everything wrong with under-funded, inner-city schools in a way the fictional and factual Sun could not.
The show was not perfect, however. The final season was the weakest of the five but still qualifies as the best drama on TV – even though Emmy voters won’t show the production any love next fall. The final season dealt with a fake serial killer co-manufactured by frustrated cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West, “300”) and lying reporter Scott Templeton (Thomas McCarthy, “Michael Clayton”). McNulty instigated the deception as a means to divert funding to an abandoned case against drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), while clips and career ambition drove Templeton to add his own twists.
The McNulty side of the story was frustrating because it seemed like an incredibly stupid thing to do but wasn’t wholly unbelievable based on his case history over the previous four seasons. However, Templeton and the Sun storyline were more problematic. The issue was not that Templeton fabricated stories but that the development of his characters and his fictional co-workers was not on par with the rest of the cast. By the second episode every newsroom character was locked in place and with the exception of one peripheral reporter, no one showed any growth or made any surprising turns.
Simon’s portrayal of the Sun was grim, and perhaps appropriately so, but his very open disdain for the paper’s management shouldn’t be ignored. The Sun storyline was highly personal and it’s difficult to discount that a possible vendetta against the paper may have led him to approach the arc less objectively than, say, the stevedores in season two. Whereas Simon and Burns’s skewering of the city in past seasons was generated by an eye for institutional failure, Simon’s Sun plotline came off as more of an attack on certain individuals rather than the institution limiting them.
Yet for all the show’s hiccups in the final season, the last 10 episodes tied up most of the show’s plotlines to complete a story on the scale of an epic novel – or five of them. Film or network television could not have captured the necessary intricacies of this story, as there were legitimately no wasted shots. One scene built on the next and before it was done, “The Wire” had documented two cycles of inner-city despair and introduced a third. The original pushers were supplanted midway through, only to have a younger generation rise up by the show’s conclusion. Some people tried to break the cycle, but it didn’t matter. Sixty episodes later, nothing had really changed.
For as cynical – or, as Simon recently put it, “pragmatically realistic” – as the show’s message was, it is nothing but optimistic for the future of television. “The Wire” wasn’t just an important television show, it was the important television show. It’s unfortunate that we’re losing the series, but it speaks volumes for the potential of the medium if placed in the right hands.
Sixty hours ago I didn’t really care about the plight of inner-city America. Sure it was unfortunate, but it wasn’t something I ever truly understood or thought about. Now I do, and I don’t know how anyone could watch “The Wire” in its entirety and not feel similarly.
If that’s not education, I don’t know what is.
Passman is just biding his time until the return of “Battlebots.” E-mail him at email@example.com