When good TV goes bad: how The Wire lost its spark

It began as a scintillating exploration of Baltimore’s cops and crims. When it became The Jimmy McNulty Show, though, daftness started creeping in

Almost a decade after it finished, The Wire still stands as the pinnacle of the boxset era: Baltimore shaken down block by block, institution by institution, in a peerless 60-episode stickup of the American Dream. Among its embarrassment of virtues was its nose for character. Not just the feat of conceiving a carefully individuated gallery of cops and robbers, casting them perfectly and watching each one pick their appointed path through the city’s tatty rowhouses and gleaming bureaus. But also knowing when the hour came to rein them in. From Stringer Bell’s fatal overreaching into legitimate business to Ziggy Sobotka’s faceplant entry into the world of drug-trafficking, it never lost its feel for how every player fitted into the polity, and when their actions would cause them to lose their place. Hamartia turned out to be just as applicable to the Baltimore badlands as ancient Greece.

Maybe it’s the sheer momentum of The Wire’s character-writing that led it to drop the ball with its favourite son: Jimmy McNulty. Of course we came to know and love him as the incorrigible loose cannon of Baltimore homicide. But it’s not just his partner Bunk Moreland who had to cock an eyebrow at his antics in season five: McNulty, outraged by the slashing of police funding, decides to fabricate evidence that a serial killer is stalking Baltimore’s homeless. Hmm.

The seven episodes of the season – in which the whole of Baltimore is reeled into his fantasy – are the worst of The Wire’s run. Tied with the mechanics of the fakery – red ribbons around the victims’ wrists, heavy-breathing phone calls to the local rag – any tension in the storyline is stillborn. The Wire briefly becomes The McNulty Show. And a self-parodic McNulty at that, with some of Dominic West’s heaviest mugging; the series was teetering on the edge of the trap over-extended TV shows often fall into, indulging crowd-pleasing characters. Even voice of reason Lester Freamon, who becomes McNulty’s partner in crime, is dragged into this farrago.

Of course this is The Wire we’re talking about, and there was a serious point beneath this plot arc. The storyline runs in parallel with another about Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton, who – like Jayson Blair – spices up his reporting with details of his own invention. Eventually, the two fabulists trip over each other in the “killer’s” wake. Creator David Simon, 12-year stalwart of the Sun, is questioning the sensationalist and commercial needs underlying modern news reporting. And, deeper still, the audience’s appetite for crime fiction itself. But meta ground – the first time the show puts a foot there – is perilous for The Wire. At best the detour seems frivolous; at worst, it threatens to dissolve the observational realism the previous four seasons were built on.

Simon pulls it around. McNulty eventually gets his comeuppance, and the show manages a magnificent crescendo of a finale. Rewatching it, the McNulty-Will-Kill-Again swerve stands out a bit less as a conspicuous drop in standards, perhaps because fabrication has gone mainstream. Fake News is now a trademark and – caught in the social-media hothouse – we all understand the conditions under which it has run rampant. The once-criminal has gone legit – meat and drink to The Wire, even in its weakest hour.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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