While a critical darling, HBO's gritty series The Wire has struggled over its last four seasons to build up much in the way of viewing audience. And if the victories of the upbeat Barack Obama and the optimistic Mike Huckabee in last week's Iowa caucuses are any indication, the bleak turn the show took in last night's season premiere is unlikely to win it any new fans in middle America. In its fifth and final season, creator David Simon's Baltimore-based urban drama is turning increasingly dark at the same time Americans seem eager to look to the sunny side of the street.
All the pre-premiere hype had led viewers to believe that the season of the show would shine a spotlight on the media in the tradition of past seasons' treatments of other struggling urban institutions: the police force, the drug game, unions, city hall, and the school system. And true to that form, last night's premiere certainly drew its share of connections between those institutions and its new target, The Baltimore Sun. Before the opening credits even roll, Detective Bunk Moreland and Sergeant Jay Landsman shake a confession out of a young suspect by duct taping his hand to a truth-telling Xerox; when the Bunk mutters a smug, "the bigger the lie, the more they believe," we get the picture -- he's not just talking about street-corner hoppers. When a wide-eyed young cop asks officer Jimmy McNulty about reports of the veteran's escapades in the rogue Western District, McNulty snuffs, "You believe everything you read?" And Simon is sure to draw connections in the other direction. The Baltimore Police Department's struggles in the face of budget cuts laid the groundwork for the storyline launched when a Sun muckety-muck drones that diminishing resources means that the paper's staffers simply "have to more with less."
But last night's episode laid plain The Wire's startling new central conceit: by nature or by nurture, people in positions of power are plain incapable of doing the right things the right way for the right reason. "They don't have it in 'em," explains McNulty. Not newly-elected mayor Tommy Carcetti. Not emerging drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield. Not the tired executives or ambitious young reporters at the Baltimore Sun. In seasons one through four, the enemy was urban complexity, the challenges that arise when large groups of people try to live city lives; in season five, the "bad guy" is simple and ugly human failings. As the season opens, Mayor Carcetti has been laid low not by the tremendous problems posed by a drug-ravaged post-industrial city with a diminished tax base, but because his own political ambition prevents him from asking for help. Marlo is at the cusp of upsetting the immensely profitable and well-oiled drug trade because of greed that tempts him to make an end run around Prop Joe's community-based co-op. And the layabouts that now populate the Sun's newsroom are presented as professionally inept. (In last night's episode, a young reporter is sent scrambling for a dictionary when an ink-stained colleague informs her that "evacuating" someone means something far different than sending them out of a burning building.)
Season five finds David Simon fed up the world; ambition and incompetence have made Baltimore a miserable place to work while trying to retain some semblance of dignity. After McNulty's major crimes unit is disbanded, he laments "Wonder what it feels like to work in a real f***'in police department." A committed Sun newshound echoes the sentiment, saying "Someday, I want to know what it feels like to work for a real newspaper." But their words are hollow. They and Simon surely know that the city of Baltimore doesn't have an American monopoly on destructive greed and dignity-crushing stupidity.
Simon still has time for heroes. Given his eye for detail, it's not for nothing that solemn and skilled cop Lester Freamon is seen picking up a copy of The Afro-American, a celebrated Baltimore-based newspaper that has served the black community for more than 100 years. But I for one am I'm keeping my eye on another character: Omar Little. Both a violent stick-up man and philosopher prince, Omar is desperate for both worldly success and a just existence; as he says impassionately to Detective Moreland when wrongly implicated in killing a bystander, "a man's gotta have a code." Omar was missing from the season's premiere -- almost as if Simon doesn't know where he fits in this new world order. What becomes of Omar this season may answer the question of whether or not doing well by doing right is even possible in Simon's bleak vision. Whatever the next nine episodes bring, The Wire has already proven itself among the best shows ever aired on television. But the grim portrait it paints is unlikely to win it many new fans in an age when Americans seem desperate for hope.