TV Club

Week 1: How Do You Follow Up the Best Season of the Best Show Ever?

Tristan Wilds as Michael Lee in The Wire

Remember that time you had an awesome college girlfriend and you hadn’t seen her all summer and it was finally the first day back on campus? That’s approximately how I feel about the return of The Wire for its fifth and final season.

As Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg observed a year ago, The Wire is not merely the best show on television now, but the best show that has ever been on television. And Season 4, which focused on the catastrophic lives of four Baltimore schoolboys, was The Wire’s best season. So, Season 5 has a practically impossible task: It’s following the best season ever of the best show ever—how could it not be a letdown? (Compare this to The Sopranos, The Wire’s rival for show of the century. The Sopranos limped into its final run, coming off two bad years. Its last episodes—which really were incredible—seemed even better because they followed dud seasons. The Wire has no such luck.)

Here’s a good sign: Season 5 begins with a tight close-up on the face of homicide detective Bunk Moreland, who’s in the process of conning a particularly dim murder suspect into confessing, in part by rigging up a Xerox machine as a “lie detector.” Bunk, the profane teddy bear, is one of my favorite Wire regulars (though that list is so long it’s hardly worth keeping anymore: Bunk, Omar, Clay Davis, Stringer Bell,  Prop Joe, Herc, Snoop, Namond, Dukie, Norman, Cutty …). Now that I think of it, Jeff, if you were a Wire character, you’d be Bunk—funny, ironic, lovable, and brilliant. Anyway, if this season is going to give us plenty of Bunk, it’s going to be all right with me.

That said, I found the opening episode promising but a little too busy. It threw a huge number of balls in the air, almost too many to follow: a brewing battle between Marlo and Prop Joe; the collapse of the police department, McNulty’s return to alcoholism, womanizing, and the homicide squad; Bubbles’ sorry attempt at rehab; a shady real estate deal rigged by the city-council president; the investigation of Clay Davis; Carcetti’s descent into pure political opportunism; Herc’s new dirty tricks; Dukie’s failure as a drug dealer. … And I am skipping a bunch, notably the Baltimore Sun, which is going to be a central character in Season 5 the way the schools were in Season 4 and the docks were in Season 2.

I’m a little worried about the Baltimore Sun plot. I’ve had two brief conversations with David Simon—he’s a friend of a friend—and my wife has had two long ones. In all four of those exchanges, Simon demonstrated an obsession with the Sun that bordered on monomania. There Hanna and I were, slobbering to him about Omar, and Simon kept changing the subject to stories that his editors had screwed up 19 years ago. I’m praying that his fury at the Sun won’t overwhelm his genius for storytelling. The signs in Episode 1 are good: The Sun characters—most notably city editor Gus Haynes—are vivid and humane, and there’s only one heavy-handed scene (the one where the Sun’s blowhard editor squashes a story idea). And it gets the newspaper uniform—the cheap looking ties and dingy striped dress shirts—exactly right.

Finally, let me pay homage to the miracle of Snoop: She utters only one sentence, and it’s the best line in the episode. She’s explaining to a reluctant partner of Marlo how she’ll retaliate if he doesn’t cooperate: “We will be brief with all you mother—–rs—I think you know.”