The more they believe.

The bigger the lie, the more they believe. — Bunk.

Are the writers slipping, or am I getting smarter? Somehow, when Bunk dropped that line just ahead of the opening credits, I knew it would be the epigraph for episode one, and probably for the whole season, as well. Because this has always been a show about lying, among many other things.

The scenes are all being set: Carcetti’s lies to the police, now fully revealed as smoke and mirrors; the top editors’ lies to their underlings (do more with less, the University of Maryland is indeed hospitable to minorities); McNulty’s lies to poor Beadie, waiting at home. The lies of the opening scene, a little bit of comedy to let us know just how dumb some criminals are, is unlike anything you see in “Law & Order,” but then, isn’t that why we watch?

A careful viewer of any show like “The Wire” knows to pay attention to opening scenes — to all scenes, for that matter, but especially to the opening ones, because that’s the lede, as they say in journalism. It sets the tone. Bunk is telling a lie in service of a greater good, which is how we all justify our own fibs. No, your ass doesn’t look fat in those pants. Where’s the harm, if it gets a killer behind bars and improves the clearance rate? Bunk’s lie against the corner boy’s lie is a lesser-of-two-evils deal, but it’s still a lie. And lies make the world go ’round. This “The Wire” makes clear.

The focus this season is on the media, and I’ve heard all of those lies. (McNulty to his rooftop partner: “Do you believe everything you read?” Snicker.) To some extent, I share David Simon’s enormous resentment over what’s happened to the newspaper business, even while I acknowledge that some of it was inevitable. The inevitability might have been easier to swallow if the people in charge hadn’t acted, at every turn in the road, like the venal lying liars they are. If they hadn’t eyed their own employees like cattle in a feedlot. If they’d had any respect for anything at all besides money money money. A lot of us, myself included, were thrown overboard. Look at the water passing under the bridge. You might see us waving there, or just floating face-down, bloating out of our clothes.

The newspaper scenes in Episode One are note-perfect, from the plaintive call for budget lines (civilians: It’s the one-line summary of the story reporters are working on for the next edition; the editors take their budgets to the news meetings and hope no one asks too many questions about them) to the crusty rewrite man delivering his mini-lecture on the meaning of “evacuate” to the smoke break on the loading dock. That’s how I learned the difference between further/farther and less/fewer. To this day, I can’t hear someone say “I could care less” without hearing the editor who corrected me when I wrote that, years ago. Someone asked me the other day, do I miss newspapers? No, but I miss the newsroom.

I’m glad I’m not the Baltimore Sun TV critic this season, however. Talk about your no-win situation. That said, I don’t see much basis for this observation from Sun critic David Zurawik:

And the newsroom scenes are the Achilles’ heel of Season 5 – with mainstream entertainment sacrificed to journalistic shop talk, while fact and fiction are mashed up in the confusing manner of docudrama.

I disagree, but then, I understand the shop talk. But I didn’t understand the shop talk of the corners when the show debuted, or that of the docks, or the crime stats. I caught on, though. I think audiences will, too. You can already see the newsroom characters firming up, the ambitious hustler looking to move up in the world and trying to spread resentment: “That was worth more than a contrib line.” Yes, some restless souls on the metro desk parse that stuff on a daily basis, but who can blame them? So do their bosses. The last editor-in-chief I worked under instituted byline quotas. I guess because that would solve our problems. Right.

Of course, some pettiness eclipses all:

Time and again, momentum is lost as the story shifts to the newsroom. Part of the problem involves the way Simon populates the city room with several non-actors.

Two of the first Sun staffers that viewers will see are played by former Sun columnist Michael Olesker and former feature reporter Laura Lippman. They look like two people stuck in cement before the camera mercifully leaves them behind. (Lippman is Simon’s wife.)

Oh, snap. Olesker and Lippman are on camera for about 10 seconds, and their job is to stand in a conference room and look out the window, not perform a modern-dance interpretation of the First Amendment. I know Laura Lippman, we’re “friends” to the extent that two people who met via e-mail, live half a country apart and meet face-to-face every couple years can be, but even if we weren’t I think that’s a bit catty. (The WSJ described her performance as “a brief cameo in the upcoming season as a reporter who coolly watches a building go up in flames.”) I thought she gave a fine line reading, for whatever it’s worth.

And so we’re off. I’m hoping the next nine weeks go very, very slowly. (It helps that it’s winter in Detroit.) This is going to be far harder to leave behind than the newspaper business.

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21 Comments

  1. Aha, so *that’s* who Laura Lippman is – I was guessing either the smoke-watcher or the woman with the fancy updo whose UM deseg story got killed.

    I’m just glad winter in Maine will proceed as slowly as does the season in Detroit… We had friends over tonight, for some roast pork and the season opener. And during a lengthy, pretty serious discussion of the primaries, my husband commented that he’d vote for any candidate who’d admit to watching The Wire. We all laughed, but then realized that he had a damn good point.

    Season Five, so far: Totally worth finally signing up for HBO.

  2. Someone asked me the other day, do I miss newspapers? No, but I miss the newsroom.

    Word.

    I have worked with all those people, every last one of ’em. The UM argument gave me a horrible flashback to the meeting about race relations and “changing neighborhood” stories where an editor told me that I simply didn’t have enough empathy for bitter white flighters. And Zurawik’s line about the editor who seemed too good to be true? Worked with him, too, and he’s not not too good to be true. There’s a reason why what’s happening to newspapers hurts so much, and it’s because guys like him are the ones on the losing end of it, while the dim-bulb ME and the interfering suit are always gonna land on their feet. They’ll have jobs at the last newspaper in existence, as will every other managment fucktard who didn’t put up a fight and then called their cowardice inevitability.

    And count me as one who wanted to punch the little résumé-packing contrib-line creep in the face. He’s not wrong, that guy, he’s never wrong, exactly, but one of the only things that saves the job is that it’s incredibly fun and being a clubhouse cancer kills that off, too. For all Zurawik’s complaining that Simon didn’t address the almighty Internet, I worked the entirety of my newspaper career in the age of the Interwebs, and news still broke because somebody saw something at the end of a big long list, on my first day at work and my last.

    Bravo had a TV show for a while, called Tabloid Wars, about the NY Daily News. I couldn’t watch it, it was too soon after I’d left my last paper and it cut too close to the bone. This is going to hurt like hell, too, but I trust Simon to not just piss me off and leave me there, to give me somewhere to go with it.

    A.

  3. Michaela, I don’t know if it’s good news or bad news for hubby, but:

    Barack Obama tells TV Guide that his favorite TV character of all time is “SpongeBob SquarePants, because SpongeBob is the show I watch with my daughters.” His favorite TV shows of all time are M*A*S*H and The Wire.

  4. Verrry interesting. Thanks for posting that, Virgotex. I’d love to hear Obama’s thoughts about The Wire. For that matter, I’d like to see what happened inside the robotic gears that operate Mitt Romney’s brain if he were to watch a season or two…

  5. Wlell, ya know, you may be getting smarter but I don’t think Simon is slipping. I think we’ve all just been drinking from the firehose of hype and preview and review so much the past few weeks that we have a much clearer idea of the themes of this season than we have in the past, so in the first few episodes we’re going to catch all these little things like “Do you believe everything you read?” and attach great import to them.

    In a sense, this makes me sad. I’ve tried avoiding a lot of the build-up hype and ESPECIALLY reviews. Why would I read a review anyway? I’m gonna watch it regardless, so I don’t need a consumer guide to convince me, so why would I risk spoilers or having some other asshole’s interpretation pre-emptively infect my own? I don’t know about y’all, but I went into the other four seasons a little more innocently, with more of a clean slate, and I think it was better that way.

    I’d rather just watch the show and experience it, and then go back and watch it again and look for all the foreshadowing and hidden subtexts later, the way I am with the other seasons now, the way Virgotex did when she rewatched Season 4 and picked up on the probabilities theme. Which I bet was a whole lot more fun than having some reviewer from the Atlantic say “Season 4 will be all about odds and probabilities”.

  6. One more thing, Athena, that only occurred to me, later: Gus brings what the management consultants like to call “institutional memory” to the Sun. The reporter didn’t know who Ricardo Hendrix was; none of them did, but the middle-aged editor remembered, probably because when he was a reporter he covered the guy. Institutional memory is another casualty of buyout mania, as older staffers leave in disgust and new ones take their places. My prediction today: Season 5 ends with Haynes working a new job in p.r. for Johns Hopkins or some other local institution, where his dissent at meetings is definitely not appreciated.

    You’re right, Ray. I tried to avoid as much of the pre-game hype as possible, particularly reviews. Goddamn Shales.

  7. Institutional memory is another casualty of buyout mania, as older staffers leave in disgust and new ones take their places.

    You know what else struck me about him, immediately? His kindness. He didn’t make the other, younger staffers feel stupid for not knowing who the guy was, he didn’t say, “You’re just a dumb 20something, what the fuck do you know about anything” and he gave credit for the find away to the reporter. That’s a good boss, right there.

    A.

  8. I love that Gus is a not just a mensch but a snarky-ass mensch.

    “Dean Wormer…Dean Martin…whatever…”

    And Ray, I don’t think anyone is slipping either. I’m thinking it’s a who’s zooming who situation. More on that later….

  9. I probably shouldn’t be here — if I’ve learned anything the past week, it’s that my local newspaper considers me a public figure — but Nancy’s post shook a few things loose. 1) Very few bosses in my 20-year career stood their ground to protect journalism. They wanted to protect their reputations and their pets, and the kind of journalism that enhanced their repuations. 2) Yet there were, in fact, Gus Hayneses, and I’ll name one name: Lynda Robinson, my editor for a time at the Sun, who had to flee for her own career, ended up at the Washington Post. She was kind, she was ethical and she had my back. In fact, when a story of mine was almost spiked on the grounds that it was mean-spirited — I wrote a piece about how local soup kitchens don’t need that much help on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but sure would appreciate some volunteers the other 363 days — she marched into the top editor’s office and said, “If this story doesn’t belong in the paper, then I don’t deserve to be an editor here.” Or words tot hat effect.

    I’ve watched episode 1 five times, once in Spanish. (I was curious to see how broke-ass city was translated, seems to have been something about a ciudad de basura, but I confess my Spanish just isn’t good enough.) The newsroom seems real to me, but I’ll cop to my inability to be truly objective. While others were watching Episode 1 last night, I watched 9, and I think people will be pleased with how the newsroom story meshes with the Wire’ s larger stories.

    As for my performance — well, it was my debut and my swan song, you’ll see no more of me. I will note that the scene was described, in passing, at Gawker, with zero snark, so how bad could I be? It’s not, as I told friends and family this weekend, as if the SO were Charles Foster Kane and he built me an opera house. What saddens me is that anyone would waste a paragraph on two day players, even in the service of a larger point, when so many terrific actors on The Wire don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve, in part because of how many actors there are. There’s Reg Cathey, for example, who plays Norman Wilson, and the mayor’s chief of staff, Neal Huff. Or Robert F. Chew, who plays Prop Joe, or Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow). I could go on and on, but I’m afraid I’ll sound like one of those tiresome people who think newspapers never print any good news. Actually, they print too much of it for my liking.

  10. Zurawik, much like a dog that’s been fixed, doesn’t get it. He can’t understand how people might like something better than lowest common denominator writing.

    Perhaps he should read
    this snippet from a Simon interview.

    I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

  11. Jeez, Ash, you’re a computer science professor. Close your tags!

    Thanks for stopping by, Laura. If I can reveal one more piece of inside info: Years ago, when LL and I were corresponding about the show, she said she’d been offered a number of small cameos over the years and turned them all down. Including, if I remember correctly, a role called “drunk hillbilly woman,” or some such. If I thought you were fine in your one-line bit, it’s because you looked like you belonged there, like virtually everybody else in the newsroom scenes. One advantage to using unknown or less-known actors is, you’re freer to cast for authenticity and not to show off some showbiz type’s better side. I love how everyone looks a little tired in the eyes, how even the raving beauties on the show — the actresses who play Perlman, Greggs and a few others — are at least dressed correctly and not glammed up too much. (Although I noticed, in one scene last season, Kima working a murder scene in heels. Maybe she just needed to be taller.)

    And the newsroom wardrobes were absolutely correct — the lumpy sweaters, the khakis, the blue oxford-cloth shirts and the ever-present half-glasses on the desk people. (Laura, for the record, wore a 12-year-old suit from Banana Republic. From her own wardrobe.) If we’re calling out favorite actors, though, my heart belongs to everyone you mentioned, plus Michael K. Williams. I love the way he says “heroin.” Hare-on.

  12. And the newsroom wardrobes were absolutely correct — the lumpy sweaters, the khakis, the blue oxford-cloth shirts and the ever-present half-glasses on the desk people.

    True story: We had a girl scout troop in one afternoon and they rounded up all the female reporters in the newsroom to go talk to the girls about being a woman in journalism. They got to me and asked for advice and all I could come up with was, “Don’t wear a miniskirt to a train wreck.”

    Every damn time I wore sandals I got sent to a construction site. Every time. I started keeping a change of clothes in my car after the second time I had to go out and buy something at Kmart because I’d ruined whatever it was I’d put on that morning.

    A.

  13. Jeez, Ash, you’re a computer science professor. Close your tags!

    The key word here is “professor”. Ashley doesn’t close tags. Ashley submits papers to SIGCHI with titles like “Analysis of Failure Modes in Italicizing Other People’s Shit in Collaborative Content Management Frameworks”. Then he gets some grad student peon to close his tags for him.

    Now I know why the formatting of my rap sheet went all to hell the day Ashley added his.

    Hey, Laura, it could be worse. Your mom could be reading your blog.

  14. Do I have to take your 3 card monte ass back to school?

    I get shit from Nancy, who added an “edit” feature to her comments because of dweebs like me who either need an edit feature or a preview button.

    BTW, for proper credit, that link came from Her Nallness.

  15. In Ashley’s defense, WordPress.com offers NEITHER an edit or preview for comments, which is an aggravating shortcoming.

    It’s a hot topic on the support forums, believe me.

    signed,

    the peon who corrected Dr. Morris’ tag this time

  16. But VT, I axed real nice like.

  17. Laura, you so damned right about Robert F. Chew. I watched all of Season 4 this weekend as a warmup, and he is just so spot on in every movement, every action. When he was making the phone calls to track down Herc, I was laughing my ass off.

    I like how “broke-ass city” was translated as “ciudad de basura”. I used to refer to myself as “basura blanca”, before I was married. My wife and kids pulled me up to the non-trailer park corner denizen version of myself.

  18. This just in: A friend writes that my scene is up at BaltimoreSun.com. Huh?

    I, too, used to wear my nicest clothes on the worst possible day. I remember I was wearing heels and hose the day I was assigned to get the story on a fire that had wiped out an entire kennel — 20? 40? — of purebred Pomeranians. There had been heavy rains, though, so I ended up tromping through the mud at the scene. Killed myself on the story because the word was that “downtown” was very keen on it. Located the owner, which was not at all easy. Got the names of many of the Poms who had died, along with their distinctive characteristics. In short, I wrote the hell out of that sucker.

    Story ran B3.

    But it was a justice of the peace at my first fatal who forever influenced my working wardrobe. Three girls tried to beat a train; they didn’t make it. The JP, who pronounced people dead in that county, said he didn’t have positive IDs but they were “nice girls. They’re wearing clean underwear.” I didn’t realize such judgments would really be made.

  19. A whole kennel of dead Pomeranians? It must have been like “The Trouble with Tribbles,” only water-soaked and with the smell of burning flesh.

    Seriously. Those dogs are walking, yapping powder puffs.

  20. Shop talk? He bitches about SHOP TALK? The whole dang show is about shop talk, and how you slide from nodding incomprehension into occasional correct usage to incomprehensible shop talk, whether drug dealer, cop, teacher, social worker, or frickin’ journo.

    [Steaming……] Shop talk . . . honestly. Why do half of us watch, but to pick up scraps and bits of shop talk for shops not our own?

    Dweeb.

  21. Finally watched the first ep last night. The newsroom, esp. the banter, was just nailed with one exception: Whitting was just too stage actor-y. What came out of his mouth was appropriately idiotic and depressing, but the way he said it just didn’t ring true. Plus he didn’t cuss enough. Sure had a nice suit, though. Looked kinda like John Madigan.

    I loved the smoking scene – too hilarious and true, a great visual on how things are, and what used to be. Templeton’s “plan” to cover opening day going awry was classic, and when I told my husband the poor boy was gonna invent he couldn’t believe it. Loved the heavy-on-the-white-guys-in-ties newsroom management. Can’t wait to see the HR lady (it’s gotta be a lady!) handle some crisis.

    Loved when Gus woke up over maybe flipping statistics no one was gonna read. Loved how Gus cares about the mission and its people both in the newsroom and on the street. It’s too rare a thing. My best editor ever would stand up for what was right. Many climbers considered her a bitch for it. When the management finally succeeded in crushing a project that would have been complicated and relevant she choked up in a budget meeting (during which she’d successfully described said project in a coherent, brief sentence), thus enabling them to consider her a weak bitch. She went on to a few other newsrooms and is now in one where her Gus-like weaknesses are considered strengths. Thank god for that.

    Snoop scares the shit out of me. Chris, too.

    Nance, you sure got it right about missing the newsroom. No place like it, just about any hour of the day.


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