Whether Man in Member's Only Jacket shot him or not, Tony Soprano is dead. No one was happy to see him go (with the possible exception of the American Italian Defamation Association), but his departure finally leaves no serious rival to fellow HBO series The Wire for the best show on television.
If you've been watching, or catching up on DVD, all you need to know is that McNulty, Daniels, Bubbles, Lester, Marlo, Omar, and most of the rest of the show's regular characters from the first four seasons are back and ready to play out all the storylines they're ever going to get when the fifth and final season debuts Jan. 6. If you haven't been watching, you've missed a portrait of the American city that's as sweeping and complex as any novel, as dramatic as any film, and a damn sight better than most examples of either medium these days, let alone other TV shows.
Created, executive produced, and co-written by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, the show takes dramatic license to tell the story straighter, and more effectively, than even our best journalism can. Season one's cast of Baltimore police and Baltimore drug slingers engaged in some high-level cops-and-robbers procedural action, but they also demonstrated how management manipulates the front-line man, whether in the squad room or on the drug corner. Season two turned to the ports to chart the decline of the working class. Season three dipped into politics and reform, and how the two usually manage to cancel each other out. Season four tackled the question of not only how are we educating kids, but what we think we're educating them for. And all along, Simon and company have managed to add new storylines and themes while continuing with old ones, especially the ongoing struggle of the Baltimore Police Department's Major Crimes Unit against the drug dealers of the city's blighted west side—first the Barksdale crew, then new jacks led by the reptilian Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector)—as well as against its own self-sabotaging bureaucracy. (In the final season, the disgruntled Simon takes on the media.)
One of the things that makes The Wire so absorbing, especially for Baltimoreans (a subset that includes me, in the interest of disclosure), is the level of verisimilitude. The recent story line about white City Councilman Thomas Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) winning the mayor's race in predominantly black Baltimore, for example, was literally ripped from the headlines about former mayor and current Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. But it goes deeper. The names of streets are not only real, they mean something. It matters when a character says that he went to Mount St. Joe, or that he grew up in Catonsville, or that the crab cakes in question are from Faidley's and not somewhere else. Such details may not always make sense to out-of-towners or newcomers, but they help almost everything that happens on The Wire feel real. No wonder: Most of it is.
But the thing that makes all the messages go down easy and the lingo worth sifting is the writing. Though the show continues to center loosely around the career/careen of BPD prodigy/ass-pain Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), the plots and subplots have expanded to encompass and flesh out a dizzying array of great characters, from Stringer, Marlo, and Carcetti down to Omar the scar-faced gay stick-up man (Michael K. Williams), borderline-homeless sad-sack teen Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), and brazen sheee-it-talking state pol Clay Davis (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.). Simon brought in crime novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price to stock the writers' room; Wire scripts tend to play like the literary pulp of dreams. McNulty and Det. Bunk Moreland (the great Wendell Pierce) shared a sequence in the first season where they figured out a crime scene while dropping nothing but f-bombs, each iteration given a new shade of meaning, but that was just showing off. What these characters say, and don't say, about their lives, their city, and the deadly serious games they find themselves caught up in, has said as much about urban America at the dawn of an unfriendly new century as just about any other popular art you can name. Don't know about you, but I can't wait for the last word.