the take

Debating the Legacy of ‘The Wire’: Did Season Five Tarnish the Show That Invented the Dickensian Aspect Ratio?

Photo illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos courtesy of HBO

With The Wire’s final episode approaching this weekend, it’s time to debate where the show fits in the pantheon of great American TV. It’s been widely declared the best show in the history of the medium, but that was before the fifth and final season — which added the media to the show’s long list of targets — was panned by, you guessed it, the media. Has season five taken the shine off The Wire? Or does it all come together in the end? Having watched the series finale, Vulture’s Dan Kois and Adam Sternbergh debate The Wire, IM style.

Note: Aside from some general comments about the tone of the finale, this debate is spoiler-free on plot points from this Sunday’s episode.

Dan: So, is The Wire the greatest show in TV history?
Adam: Well, given that I have watched every show in TV history, up to and including New Amsterdam, I feel qualified to say “Yes.”
Dan: You don’t think that this final season has tarnished the show’s legacy at all?
Adam: I do not.
Dan: Haven’t you been listening to us whiners all season?

Adam: I feel like the reaction to the final season followed a relatively predictable critical pattern.
Adam: I mean, it’s not like people could have blown their trumpets for the show EVEN LOUDER.
Dan: True, and I guess it’s not surprising that critics who work at newspapers have nits to pick about scenes occurring at a newspaper.
Adam: What were the main complaints about season five?
Adam: That the serial-killer plan was too implausible.
Adam: That Gus Haynes was too saintly.
Adam: Am I missing any?
Dan: Well, Gus Haynes being too saintly is part and parcel with the gripe that the scenes set at the newspaper made too clear David Simon’s grudges. Not only in the saintliness of Gus but in the cartoon buffoonishness of the higher-ups.
Adam: But were the newspaper higher-ups really outlandishly more buffoonish than the police-department higher-ups? Like Rawls? Or Burrell? Or Valchek?
Dan: Probably not. Or Mayor Royce, who when he wasn’t screwing aides in his office was busy screwing Baltimore?
Adam: And there’s no way Gus Haynes was more unbelievable than, say, Brother Mouzone, the Atlantic-reading, erudition-spouting, bow-tie-wearing super-killer.
Adam: Now it sounds like we’re saying the whole show sucked.
Dan: For me the oversimplifications of this season brought to my attention the oversimplifications of seasons past — ones I overlooked initially, because I don’t know the world of cops and drug dealers the way I know the world of the media.
Dan: Which ended up, yes, tarnishing the show for me somewhat.
Adam: I would never argue that the show is, or was, flawless. But most of these flaws were a product of its outsize ambition. (Not to reference the dreaded Dickens, but you think there aren’t a few one-dimensional characters in his classics?) And it’s this ambition, and the astonishing attempt to which it was realized, that makes this the GREATEST SHOW EVER™!
Dan: What were David Simon’s ambitions for this final season, do you think?
Dan: He’s frequently stated that he is less interested in telling a story than he is in effecting change, or at least illustrating social ills.
Adam: Well, that’s an interesting point. At certain times over the last few seasons (which I devoured in just the past year, having come late to the party), I thought you could make a good argument for The Wire as one of the greatest feats of journalism in recent years.
Adam: Mostly because it shows you a world you otherwise would never see.
Adam: That no one’s been particularly interested in looking at, in fact.
Dan: But this season focuses on a world that’s been looked at ad nauseum.
Adam: Yes, sort of. But for me, the Lou Grant–y–ness of it was overshadowed by the way the two plots, and what they had to say about lies, and the cost of lies, dovetailed near the end of the season.
Dan: But what is he saying about the cost of lies? Surely the lies that matter to our cities, and to our newspapers, are not the BIG ones, like made-up serial killers. The ones that matter are the small ones, the ones that previous seasons of The Wire exposed so clearly.
Dan: That’s why I thought that some of the most effective scenes in this season involved not the Jayson Blair–esque story line, but instead the moments when we saw news we knew to be earthshaking — the deaths of Prop Joe and Omar — relegated to “Metro” briefs or cut completely from the Sun’s coverage.
Dan: So many of the show’s great moments were great because they felt pulled directly from life — and in many cases, they clearly were. This season, though, I felt as though what was once a strength of the show became a weakness.
Adam: How so?
Dan: For instance, Vulture made great hay out of that scene in the first episode with the copy editor correcting the young reporter on the use of “evacuated.”
Dan: It was a throwaway scene, sure, but it had its problems besides the grammatical error, and David Simon defending it with heartwarming stories of the real guy who actually said that didn’t make it seem less pat or oversimplified to me.
Adam: I don’t know — I’ve known some pretty crazy copy editors in my time.
Dan: If anyone who wasn’t a journalist watched The Wire — not that anyone does — do you think they would view the scenes in the Sun’s newsroom as ham-handed, or as surprising and fresh?
Adam: I think they would probably react in the same way that I think most people react to any entertainment about journalism — they’d find it much less interesting than we, journalists, do. I think the final season got proportionately better as the Templeton story faded into the background. But that’s not so much because this particular story didn’t work, but because journalism-ethics stories in general are never going to be as compelling as, say, Snoop rolling out to assassinate someone.
Adam: I will say that, if I was disappointed at all by the final season — and realize now we’re talking about it in Grand Moral Terms, not as a rip-snortin’ good story — it was in the kind of shrugging, ‘twas-ever-thus conclusion it’s been heading toward for several episodes.
Dan: Even though that has traditionally been the worldview of the show? That even the most aggressive instruments of change — from idealistic politicians to Hamsterdam to a made-up serial killer — will in the end not change the fundamental realities of life in the cities of America?
Dan: In that respect I saw it as a not inconsistent ending.
Adam: I didn’t think it was inconsistent, and certainly individual characters were redeemed. But — and again, we’re in Grand Moral territory — sometimes the function of great fiction (as opposed to great journalism) is to help us imagine what might be, rather than show us what is. No matter how deftly.
Dan: So you hoped that the show might, at long last, prescribe solutions?
Adam: Maybe not prescribe solutions — that’s a lot to ask — but show us one thing that actually works. One person who remains unsullied. I guess there was one, but he got popped in a deli buying Newports. I still wish Omar had stayed on that damn tropical island, eating Cheerios.
Dan: Honey Nut Cheerios!
Adam: Oh yeah, you’re right.
Adam: Here’s what I thought was most great about the show.
Adam: I can’t think of another show that used the inherent scope of TV — the episodic structure of it — to continually zoom back, showing us a bigger and bigger world.
Adam: I think that’s what people will remember as this show’s great influence, in the same way Hill Street Blues introduced multiple story lines that continued over many episodes. Which now we take for granted.
Dan: Right. Hill Street Blues invented the Multi-Episode Arc, and The Wire invented the Dickensian Aspect Ratio.
Adam: Plus, really, when we toss around moral imperatives and that dread phrase “Dickensian,” we tend to overlook that the show was just great ripping fun. Great dialogue. Great scenes. Really tense. Lots of action. Fun characters. Very heartfelt and real.
Adam: There are a few scenes I remember that cement its greatness in my mind:
Adam: The scene from season two where Ziggy goes back into the store to kill that dude. It was like the air was being sucked out of your lungs.
Adam: And maybe my favorite scene of all was the one in season three where Bubs walks through Hamsterdam and sees it as a kind of Dante’s Inferno. That was masterful, one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV.
Dan: I agree with the brilliance of those scenes, but what I’ll remember the most are the scenes that made me laugh out loud.
Dan: Like Herc asking that kid where he buys hats with the brim to the side like that.
Adam: And Fuzzy Dunlop, R.I.P.
Dan: Or McNulty crashing his car, getting out, drunkenly figuring out how it all went wrong, then crashing his car again.
Adam: Aw, you’re making me tear up here.
Adam: Here’s one other thing I blame The Wire for: It’s ruined other TV for me. How am I supposed to go and watch CSI now, or freaking Prison Break? It saddens me to know that there are no more new episodes of The Wire for me to watch, and never will be. And now, in its shadow, everything else pales. THANKS A LOT THE WIRE.
Dan: Yes, I have that reaction to it too.
Dan: Even as I had problems with this final season, I gave a little sigh at the end of each episode, thinking, “Well, only x-1 episodes of The Wire left for me to watch.”
Dan: It is shocking how artificial even gritty, “realistic” shows like The Shield or 24 or, yes, Prison Break, seem when viewed in light of The Wire.
Dan: You can even read the Baltimore P.D.’s ham-handed, incompetent serial-killer investigation as a response to, say, Dexter, with its cop so clever he can find serial killers and … KILL THEM HIMSELF!
Adam: I kind of like Dexter.
Adam: And The Shield.
Adam: Granted, they are not The Wire.
Adam: Alas.
Adam: I did think one other thing at the end of the finale (which I found quite satisfying): Boy, David Chase should feel like a chump. Seriously. Your meta-blackout seems awfully weak by comparison, sir.
Dan: Yeah, Chase’s ending was the more artistic, but Simon’s is more satisfying in its anti-artistry.
Dan: So long, The Wire.
Adam: You have left us way down in a hole … of gratitude.
Dan: Cripes.
Dan has left the conversation.
Adam: What the fuck did I do?

Debating the Legacy of ‘The Wire’: Did Season Five Tarnish the Show That Invented the Dickensian Aspect Ratio?