Monday, May 26, 2008

Baltimore is a Country, revisited.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the differences between Stringer and Avon, and their respective philosophies- innovate the drug business and rise out of the ghetto vs. run the drug business with maximum respect. After writing the post, I felt that I oversimplified some of the arguments/intellectual strains. So forgive me for that.

This week I want to revisit the fifth season. Many have critiqued it, and the newsroom action more specifically, as the weakest season because the characters were flat, the plot too farfetched, and the action too compressed. But I continue to defend it. No, it's not my favorite season (Probably 4, maybe 3 or 1, I'll let you know after I rewatch them), but some of the themes Simon has explored really come together in 5.

Basically, Simon brashly critiques a lack of citizenship in the Baltimore inner city. Here, I define citizenship as the ability to vote and have representation in city, state, and national government, but also to have a voice and representation in the media. While the media is not directly connected to the behavior of citizenship, I'm pretty sure the journalism majors out there will support me in saying it's an essential pillar of informed republican citizenship (there's something about freedom of the press in the Constitution, I think).

In season 5, the irresponsibility of the press and of local government come to the forefront. In one corner, the media is completely oblivious to America's "invisible citizens". I'm not talking about the homeless either. I'm talking about the murder of Omar Little, a incredible character that Wire fans (universally) love. I'm talking about the murder of Proposition Joe, after being given up by his sister's only son. I'm talking about Baltimore's mayor rejecting millions of dollars that would save an education financial crisis, because it would diminish his chances of winning a gubernatorial election. And, oh yeah, the mayor is telling the police department to juke the stats in return for political gain. The media writes about none of it. But we do get a fake serial killer (which the administration buries), the homeless, and an article on a former drug dealer earning development money in return for political contributions.

Ok, step back. I'm not suggesting that all media needs to uncover every murder or write omnisciently about an industry which takes great pains to stay mostly invisible. I'll also agree that the journalists include some of Simon's weakest characters, a plot that is less realistic, and a subplot which exists for psuedo-revenge's sake. But these criticisms are not what the show is attempting to do. I'll agree that it's less exciting to have the actual story be "in the silences" of the main story, yet, there is a story here, and a group of people (I guess we'll call them the underclass) whose vote doesn't count and whose story does not get written about (see season 4).

Besides not having a voice in the media, the people don't have a voice in government. Mayor Carcetti has heard some of the citizens' complaints and initially does a great job of fixing them. But as his term continues, a budget crisis (brought on by his political hubris) cuts into services for the inner city. Schools limp on, barely missing teacher lay offs, but certainly without enough money to fund special programs (see season 4). Carcetti no longer acts in Baltimore's best interests, but in his own interests. Instead of the media calling him on it (free press' function in a democracy...), Carcetti gets elected on a fake homeless issue.

So I defend the fifth season's message, but not its substance. But really, the season was not as bad as many said, and I'm pretty sure that many of the journalists ("where's the internet in the newsroom?" "that's not how a story gets confirmed by the army") miss the main points in nitpicking. And I actually think the visual aspect of it was some of the strongest of the five seasons. Some of the montages were a bit indulgent, but also some really great shots. In sum, quit beating up on that season!

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