Attitude problems.

You know what I like about Roger Ebert’s movie criticism? He likes movies. Really. He shares a trait with the best pop-culture critics I’ve known through the years: He walks into every movie with an open mind and open heart, expecting to be entertained. Overwhelming experience has taught him he’s as likely to be disappointed as not — hello, Deuce Bigalow — but he’s hopeful. He wants to like it. It’s like the teacher tells you on the first day of class. “Everybody has an A right now. If you get anything lower, it’s your doing.”

Everyone knows “The Wire” has been one of the most highly praised shows in TV history, garnering the sort of over-the-top plaudits that can make even the person receiving them despair. How does David Simon top “The Wire?” He’s not even 50 yet. “Generation Kill” — now with super-duper, extra double-dog Simonizing genius! You gotta feel for the guy, if only a little.

As one of those people who slung those superlatives, I plead guilty to going into this season like sunny Roger Ebert, expecting to love it. And guess what? I did. I won’t call Season 5 “a rare misstep” or a huge letdown, or anything else. It was a nice package, a little light at 10 hours, but not stepped-on at all. If pressed to single out favorite seasons, I’ll go with the evens — two and four. But five was fine.

So I’m sorry that the series’ final act was such a deep, deep disappointment to so many people who have columns and high-profile blogging sinecures, and could write with a straight face how surprising it was that David Simon, with such a finely tuned ear to the music of the street, could have it all fall apart when he tries to write the newsroom. Oh, please. Like these college-educated white boys supplement their incomes slangin’ on the corner, absorbing the nuances of the local patois.

Maybe Simon was riding for a fall. Like I said, how much could they amp up the adoration? And people are so literal. They’ve never had a boss like Gus Haynes, therefore Gus Haynes doesn’t exist, could never exist, and the very suggestion of his existence is an affront. What-evuh.

But if they get to say that, I get to say this: Nothing about the newsroom arc rang terribly false to me. I can pick many nits. Sure, you’d like to see a little more detail, but this isn’t a documentary. Sure, Haynes, the Simon action figure, was a little too perfect. But he wasn’t heroic; I’ve seen many like him in 20-plus years. And after all, it’s Simon’s show — when I see “The Ashley Morris Story,” I don’t expect him to be played by anyone other than George Clooney with a digitally enhanced bulge in his pants. Get your own show, Slate TV Club.

From Prospect.org’s Wire dialogue:

We all know how jaded David Simon is about the state of journalism, but it seemed completely unrealistic that, presented with the evidence, the higher-ups at the paper would turn their heads and ignore Templeton’s plagiarism. Their defense of Templeton made sense up until this last episode — until Gus presumably laid out all the evidence. But even with a Pulitzer on the line, I find it pretty unbelievable that they would just let it all stand. I know they’re enemy No. 1 to Simon, but come on. And screwing Alma over just seemed excessive. (Ann Friedman)

Take the threads separately. The newsroom was undeniably the weakest. Templeton is not only victorious, but a Pulitzer-prize winner? Alma is kicked into Siberia? Gus is demoted to copy? If Templeton’s stories could indeed unravel, then Gus could have simply helped them come apart. If the editors were really the Machiavellian careerists Simon portrayed them as, they would have eagerly tossed Templeton under the bus. Instead, the facts of the plot’s outcome almost point towards the opposite interpretation: That Gus really didn’t have the goods; that Templeton’s work was basically solid, if a bit embellished; and that the series on the homeless actually achieved a bit of transcendence. In that light, Gus’s trajectory is, oddly, a perfect parallel of Simon’s actual experience: He’s so blinded by his own vendetta, so certain that the evidence he’s amassed and the slights he’s recorded amount to a damning case, that he lays out his argument and assumes everyone will gape in shock and horror, but in reality, few are actually convinced. (Ezra Klein)

Templeton wasn’t a plagiarist, he was a fabulist. If screwing over Alma seemed excessive, well, it happens all the time. Sending Alma to an outer bureau was the journalistic equivalent of sending McNulty to the boat at the end of season one. Laura Lippman, Simon’s wife, was sent to the suburbs. I don’t know much more than that, but I know she was a successful mystery novelist with a spot in Features one day, and in the county the next. And lots of people get sent to the copy desk (or “copy,” as Klein puts it, a usage I’ve never heard before), a time-honored way to publicly humiliate malcontents. I was. I was a columnist, then I went away for my prestigious fellowship, and came back to discover I was now on the 5 a.m. shift on the copy-desk rim. Oh, and p.s.: I was on probation. I don’t want to get into the details here; they’re not important, and not cut-and-dried at all, but don’t tell me it doesn’t happen.

But the biggest deployment of poetic license — that, after seeing the complete file on Templeton, there’s no way the bosses would continue to back him — is hardly pulled out of anyone’s ass, either. Ann, Ezra, Slate TV club, others? Don’t ever underestimate the depth of management incompetence at an American newspaper. I saw an obit a few months ago , for an editor at the Washington Post, who was one of the first to read “Jimmy’s World,” pre-publication, pushed away from the desk and said, “No way is this true.” She was removed from the task, probably thanked for her “excellent work” as it was handed off to a more compliant party. Jack Kelley’s bosses thought the world of him, too — his work was promoted for a Pulitzer by his bosses, five times. Mitch Albom’s 2005 screwup, the one that led to the investigation of his work, turned up multiple instances of quotes being polished up and improved, and he still has a job.

Hell, why even reach that far? Simon himself has said the Templeton subplot was inspired by the story of Jim Haner, former Sun reporter.

The pattern for these things is typical: Reporter joins paper, has some success, catches bosses’ eyes. A great story is followed by a great assignment, guaranteed Page One places. Staff envy kicks in. Why does Templeton always seem to get the great quote? Suspicions rise, and are batted around over beers. Maybe one or two brave souls bring them up with an editor. Maybe it goes further up the chain, maybe it doesn’t, but at some point the bosses will hear about it, and have the reaction of bosses everywhere: You’re just jealous. If you worked as hard as Templeton, we’d be sending you to Iraq, too. At some point everyone gets dug in, and it’s not easy for anyone to budge. Happens all the time.

In fact, now that I write it down, I’m starting to see the motivation for taking Simon down a peg. There’s no place more depressing at the current moment than an American newspaper newsroom. The only thing you can count on, as an employee, is this: As bad as it is now, next year will be worse. I don’t know a single reporter or editor who isn’t kicking himself, wondering why he didn’t go to the Silicon Valley years ago, or law school, or even financial planning. And here’s this guy, this Simon, who gets out and goes up. He never won a Pulitzer, the Marimows of the world point out, but he did win a Peabody. And he’s rich and famous and works for HBO, all without compromising his principles, and just did what every reporter dreams of: He made living, breathing models of his nemeses, put them on national television, and kicked them until his foot got tired.

“Kill my boss? Dare I live out the American dream?” — Homer Simpson.

You know what, Wire haters? I think you’re just jealous.

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13 Comments

  1. Damn, woman.

    Just … damn.

    A.

  2. Holy fucking shit.

    Amen, amen, amen.

  3. Right on!

    I snorted coffee through my nose when I read, “…kicked them until his foot got tired.”

  4. Thanks for weighing in with this. It’s as enjoyable a read as Simon’s own March 10 mea culpa on HBO’s The Wire thread. I was chastised when I told a non-Wire-head ,”It was the greatest show ever on TV!”
    She said “You just said that about “The Sopranos!”.
    I just said, “…my dear, you cannot compare apples and oranges.”

  5. Brilliant, NN.

    Season 2? Really? wow. I think you’re the first person I know who said they liked Season 2 most. AFAIK, the general consensus is season 4 as the fave, with 2 (or 5 by some refuseniks) at the bottom.

    For me, the final episode was as close to perfection as they could come. Some mook at the Sun said that the season 3 closer was a better close to the series. They just didn’t “get” The Wire. The whole idea of the series was as a visual novel. There were more threads, more storylines than you could shake a stick at. For Simon to come to grips with them and pretty much tie up every loose end is nothing short of amazing.

    Yeah, we don’t what McNulty will do. But we saw that he basically took a vacation at the end of season 3, and became a foot patrolman. For Jimmy, that wasn’t the “natural murder police” work that he was born to do. It was R&R. He’ll be fine. He doesn’t have anyone that could bring him back in, even. Lester, Daniels? They’re out of that game as well. And if Sydnor has a problem, he’ll call Lester before he even thinks of calling Jimmy.

    But the finale was glorious. Every loose end that needed to be tied was tied. Everything went down in an entirely plausible way, and Simon reinforced the basic premise of the show, that the institution will amost always win out over the individual.

    Ezra Klein, like a dog that’s been fixed, doesn’t get it. If he thinks that the newsroom story was weak, he hasn’t been in a newsroom. Hell, I get it, and I only worked in a 4 person newsroom — but I worked in corporate America, and the shit floats to the top.

    Nance, I didn’t know you were on probation. I thought the worst thing about you being on the copy desk was listening to the Vibraphone music on the drive in. Anyway, that goes to show that the newsroom story rings true.

    It really pisses me off to think that these fuckmooks claim that this season was weak. Say what you will about Simon, but he has never, ever put anything on celluloid or paper that he didn’t thoroughly research to death. That’s why he has the cred he does — he’s not going to do it unless he knows he’s being true to the source. It is, as you called it, simple jealousy.

    Simon won an Edgar award as well, for Homicide.

    BTW Nance, if I could get Clark Johnson (with the digitally enhanced bulge) to play me, I’d be a happy camper. Oh, and follow that Lippman link, and look at the end of the page.

  6. Simon posted on the HBO board? Where? Somebody really must have pissed him off.

  7. I bear a soft spot for Season 2 because it was the first to show us the bigger picture. It was possible, after the first year, to still think of “The Wire” as a police procedural. Although the forward momentum was always provided by the cops-and-robbers, the depth came from the ancillary stories — the why-is-this-happening factor.

    Also, S2 had Ziggy, and Ziggy was awesome. It also had a lot of humor. And it did something I’ve always been partial to, in both fiction and non-fiction — it showed a world I hadn’t really seen or thought of before, and it was a place where work gets done. So many of us have jobs that don’t put us at risk for anything more dangerous that carpal-tunnel syndrome or a workplace shooting. It was nice to see men doing work that requires muscle and hardhats. When New Charles lost his leg on the dock, it brought a whole new level of tragedy into focus. Yes, at some level we want machines doing this work, so no more men have to lose their legs. But at the same time, there’s no system to take care of the men who used to do the jobs, or their sons. Which brings us to the schools, and…

    I’m running on. Yeah, season two was pretty good.

  8. Season 2 was where the scope of the show change from local to global.

    Season 2 was also the only episode my dad the Coast Guard/merchant seaman could watch. He loved the docks stuff, he told me stories about how things would get stolen back in the 50’s when he was Coast Guard port police at Boston Harbor. Back then the CG (at least the working stiff enlisteds) and police were part of the game as much as anybody, and many an Irish bar in Southie benefited from the fact that nobody bothered to search the trunk of a Coast Guard MP patrol car when it left the docks.

  9. I agree with NN. It put us on notice this was not just about the cops and the drug trade, it was about America and the devaluation of men and women trying to get ahead. The black men slinging drugs were the children and grandchildren of the men who were a few rungs further down the ladder than the Sobotkas and the other guys at the docks. For that matter, so was McNulty. We learn in the first episode that his dad had been laid off from Beth Steel in the 60s.

  10. Hey y’all, it wasn’t me, I’m just saying tha everything I’ve read claimed that season 2 was the weakest. In what may or may not be coincidences, it was also the whitest season, and the season with the highest ratings.

    I feel that it was the season that truly showed how powerless the individual is against the institution. FWIW, I worked two summers at an industrial plant maintaining a railroad spur. I jacked rail, I pounded spikes, I carried cross ties. Honest to God work that made me appreciate the cushiness I have now. Of course, now, they have machines to lay track at about 100 times the speed we could do it, and that track is almost unmaintainable. I made $4.50 an hour with no benefits.

  11. very interesting write-up.

    it guess it really all depends what you want to get out of the show and what your expectations are.
    just to go to the sopranos for a second – the people who thought of it as a mob show, basically only enjoyed the mob realted stuff; the people who thought of it as a chracter’s psychological profile enjoyed the scenes with melfi and the dreams more than others.
    likewise, with the wire, the people who thought of it as about the drug trade and the related violence basically only liked those shows and seasons. whereas the people who saw it as a novel or sociological profile of a decaying city, its institutions, and inhabitants has a different sense of appreciation.
    the media’s critiques of everything to do with the media storyline was very annoying and in some ways prove simon’s points about the stories that get told and those that don’t.
    i am very glad i found this blog – only wish i had sooner.
    maybe if the wire void gets to be too much – we can start over at season 1 and discuss from there.
    i am going to take a lesson from you and roger ebert and watch generation kill – evern though i usually don’t get into war related stories – i think i am going to enjoy this one.

  12. I jacked rail, I pounded spikes, I carried cross ties. Honest to God work that made me appreciate the cushiness I have now.

    I spent six months deckhanding on my father’s shrimp boat to pay off a debt. I remember that when i think my job sucks now. “It may be a shitty day but at least I have on dry clothes, don’t smell like fish and diesel, and haven’t had a hardhead catfish spine go straight through my rubber boot into my foot.”

  13. So nice, Nancy. I need a drink and a cigarette after reading that one.

    Looking at Ezra Klein, I see nothing from him but surprise at your contrary assertions. It is obvious from the top of is head down to the tip of the tag on his toe… he all bagged up.


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