First, a couple of notes. . .
Unlike most critics, I have seen nothing of The Wire's fifth season beyond the first episode (I plan to watch the second episode on demand at some point, but Rock Band is currently dominating the television). As you probably know if you watch the show, The Wire succeeds because of the cumulative effect of the show -- it's good in single episodes, but it becomes great or even transcendent when you watch episode after episode after episode. It's only from the accumulation of time that the show's careful considerations of the failures of the American system grow to have actual tragic weight.
To that end, I really won't be able to say which plot points are going to become insanely important at some point (the answer: all of them), and I may overlook things that in retrospect will seem ridiculous to be overlooked. If there were any show that I wish I could do 5,000 words on weekly, it's this one. Sadly, though, I've become much too busy, so this one will get weekly glosses (hopefully in a more timely manner than this week's episode).
While we're at it, I've worked for many a newspaper. While I'll try to keep my nitpicks to a minimum (I generally find this "style" of criticism sort of irritating), one or two may creep in. Forgive me if this is the case.
Follow me after the jump for thoughts on the season premiere. . .
For the first episode, I'm GOING to focus on those newspaper scenes, which I thought centered in on something that The Wire does well -- detail work. The way of the world is to do good work and focus in on the things you love doing, getting down into the nitty gritty. One of the best things about The Wire is how detail-oriented it is, how happy it is to get down into the procedures of day-to-day life in the institutions it covers. David Simon has said that the show uses the framework of the Greek tragedy to tell its stories -- it substitutes the gods who dictate the fate of Oedipus and pals for giant institutions. But the way you prolong your life in Simon's world is just to do good work.
That's why the newspaper scenes were so thrilling to me. While we were introduced to the newspaper folk (especially Gus, played very well by Clark Johnson) in a scene where they
gossip about buyouts and bitch about the declining quality of their product ("Someday, I'd like to work for a real newspaper," mourns one of them). Later, Gus comes across people standing to watch a fire, not having called someone to go and look in to what's going on. His anger at them is palpable. People grow comfortable in their jobs and forget either what it was that they started out doing or just the tiny things that need to be done to keep the machine humming. When you don't make that call, you're almost saying you no longer care about what you do or about trying to stand up to the gods themselves.
Gus' later catch of an item on a city council agenda (where the city is making a deal with a known drug lord) is one of those perfect journalism moments that those in the profession live for -- when everyone comes together at the last minute to pull off some seemingly impossible task (I love the way that the young reporter is happy with just a contributing line). I also liked when the old copy editor pointed out that you can't evacuate people, but you can evacuate people. The details, as always, remain important.
If there's one thing I don't like in the newspaper scenes, it's the opportunistic reporter from the Kansas City Star. He strikes me too much as a character I've already seen before, and I'm willing to bet he gets caught making up stories or something in his attempts to move on to the Post or Times (speaking of which, why hasn't someone made a movie of the gloriously, goofily tragic Janet Cooke story?).
As for the rest of the show, I want to wait a while and see what transpires. The Wire always begins with a little pause before the storm, even if a major plot point was set up at the beginning of the episode (with the shutdown -- again -- of Major Crimes). I'm interested to see how far McNulty goes before he reaches his breaking point, and I'm fascinated to see if the scattered MCU guys can bring down Marlo.
But it's the newspaper stuff that got me in the premiere. It's just RIGHT, from the rhythm of the dialogue to the various characters in the newsroom. This is a solid, solid portrayal of an institution that's gotten too little portrayal on television, and I hope it continues in this vein.