So much for a new day in Baltimore, huh?
We already knew things were headed in this direction at the tail end of season four, after Carcetti left the $54 million on the table, but by jumping the story ahead more than a year (there's a reference in episode two, which doesn't take place much after this one, to Bubbs having been clean 15 months), we see just how much Tommy's push for governor has cost this city. Tommy ran on an anti-crime platform, and instead he's so strapped for cash that he's gutting the police department. Even before Major Crimes gets disbanded, we have that hilarious/pathetic sequence at Western roll call, where Carver just barely gets the troops under control, only to hang his head in defeat after reading the announcement about vehicle maintenance. When Mello tells Carver that his men have no morale left, he isn't kidding.
I've already seen some On Demand viewers complain that the pilot wipes out virtually every gain made in season four: MCU is disbanded again, City Hall is in the hands of a hack, the department is in trouble, McNulty is drinking, etc. But, again, we already knew some things were going badly at the tail end of that season with the $54 million dinner check, and we know that the more things change on "The Wire," the more they've always stayed the same.
With McNulty, keep in mind that he's been back in Major Crimes for more than a year. Previous seasons established a very simple equation: McNulty + investigative work = McNulty + booze. Take a serious alcoholic like him, who I'm guessing was white-knuckling it during his time on the Western beat, and put him back into the environment that caused all his drunken bimbohood in the first place, and it doesn't take Lester Freamon's great brain to figure out what's going to happen, does it? There's definitely some storytelling economy coming from the shorter episode order (10 episodes instead of 12 or 13), but we needed to return to the story this far down the road to really see the impact of Carcetti's decision, and there's no way we could come back after so long without Jimmy getting sloppy with The Bunk again.
(Poor Beadie, though. Looks like Elena doesn't have as much to be jealous about anymore, does it? I wonder if she kept the light on as long as Beadie is.)
Keep in mind, too, that it wasn't as though the MCU was making much headway with Marlo even before Burrell and Rawls pulled the plug. As I noted at the end of last year and as Kima noted tonight, "How can you wiretap that?" The MCU's usual electronic surveillance tricks are useless against a guy this cautious and low-tech, no matter what Lester insisted about Marlo getting lazy with the meeting places. It was sad to realize how Marlo, Chris and Snoop were aware of where the MCU was at all times -- and even able to slip away on occasion, as Marlo did with his trip to the co-op meeting -- but you could tell the MCU cops knew they had been made, based on the line about lowering the crime rate simply by sticking so close to these guys.
If Marlo hasn't been able to enact his vengeance as frequently as before, he's still a dangerous individual. He's trying to stir up dissent in Prop Joe's crew by loudly wondering why Slim or Cheese don't have their own territories, and he has Chris looking up Sergei the Russian, after we saw him tailing Vondas at the end of season four. When the irresistible force (Marlo) meets the immovable object (The Greek), exactly what happens?
Further down the Marlo food chain, we catch up with Michael and Dukie (Namond and Randy are no longer regular characters), Michael having taken over Bodie's role as our corner point of view character, Dukie cleaned up (his clothes practically looked stylish) but sad and out of place as ever. (Interesting to see big Spider and little Kenard rounding out Michael's crew. Spider's older and bigger than Michael but clearly subordinate, while Kenard doesn't seem to have a problem working for the guy who slapped him around late last season.)
Speaking of sad and out of place, Bubbs is once again camping out in his sister's basement, as he did when he briefly got clean late in season one. Because we know and love Bubbs and only see his life from his POV, his sister's stern rules -- locking the door to the basement, kicking him out whenever she's not home -- seem unduly harsh, but she's no doubt been burned many times by his failed attempts to sober up. (As she notes, the last time she let him live there, he pawned half her kitchen.) Bubbs (or Reginald, as I think we learn for the first time) may not be using, but he hasn't replaced the position dope took in his life with anything else. When he's in that basement, he just stares off into space; when he's out in the world, all he can do is keep his head down and avoid the many temptations that await him in his old neighborhoods.
Bubbs has one minor distraction in his life with a menial job selling copies of the Baltimore Sun to passing motorists during rush hour, which makes him an extended member of our newest family, the Sun staff.
Simon and Burns have taken different approaches over the years to introducing their new characters. Season two went heavy on the dockworkers from episode one, while Carcetti and Bunny Colvin took on importance more gradually in season three. The kids of season four got a lot of burn, but with so much going on in this premiere (and 2-3 episodes fewer than normal), the newspaper folk take a decided backseat to the familiar faces.
And yet, damn if I didn't feel like Clark Johnson's beleaguered city editor, Gus Haynes, had been on the show all along by the end of the hour. Some of that's a measure of Johnson's underrated acting talent -- I always argued that he was the second-best actor on "Homicide" by a mile, and that there were ways he was better than Andre Braugher -- but it's also a measure of how well Simon knows and loves the newspaper business, even as he's aghast about what's become of it. (No doubt Burns has similar emotions about the Baltimore PD.) The moment where Gus had me was when he scolded two colleagues for not calling anybody about the fire, the kind of obvious but easy misstep that happens when people get too comfortable with their assigned jobs. It reminded me, as so many of the Gus scenes here and elsewhere did, of Bunny. (There's sort of a parallel in the scene where Bunny issues compasses to his two new patrolmen; know the basics before you can know anything else.)
We see that he's not afraid to call out his two pompous bosses. The clash with the editor in chief over the desegregation story is the flashier one, but I got a big smile on my face when the managing editor complained about getting beat on the city bus story, since they have more resources than the other paper, and Gus didn't miss a beat before saying, "But not a transpo reporter." Between those scenes, his catch of the Fat Face Rick detail (and his generous crediting of the catch to the reporter), and his thinly-veiled "Why don't you go out and find a story?" response to social-climbing Scott's request for a story, I think I may have a little man crush on Gus Haynes right now.
Predictably, I've seen some grousing in the press about the newspaper scenes. Some of it's from people who know the real editors that Simon based Gus' bosses on, and feel he's being unfair. More of it, though, is just from fellow newspaper people who know the business well enough to either point out the minor inaccuracies and exaggerations or to assume this stuff is too inside baseball for non-journos to understand or care about. Admittedly, I'm an insider myself, as well as an unabashed "Wire" fan, but I don't see the newspaper stuff as any more inside or inaccurate than the police stuff, or the street stuff. I'm sure there are police contemporaries of Ed Burns who feel he's being rough with people they both worked with, or that he stretches a detail to make his point, but that's the nature of dramatic storytelling, even great drama like this. (My wife works in hospital administration and nitpicks every minute of "House," "ER," etc. for the mistakes.) Not to speak ill of any fellow critics -- I always hate reviews whose fundamental purpose is to show how much smarter the reviewer is than his or her counterparts -- but I wonder if there's really a problem here, or if there just seems to be one because, for the first time, the subject matter is one that the reviewers know as well as Simon.
Lots of set up here, lots of follow-up to follow in the coming weeks. Some other thoughts on "More With Less":
- It's taken me a while to get used to Steve Earle's version of "Way Down in the Hole," but that's an experience I go through each season. (Oddly, the original Tom Waits version from season two took me the longest to accept.) The main titles themselves, though, may be my favorite of the five. There's such precision to the editing and the way the images flow right into each other -- in one shot, we see newspapers at the plant simultaneously going up and down on different tracks, and in the next we see a newspaper vendor holding up his arms in position to match the plant shot; and the shot of Omar blowing up an SUV is immediately followed by a black cloud of smoke over the city skyline -- in a way that says "everything's connected."
- The credits also feature that kaleidoscope of targets from season's past -- Wallace dead, D'Angelo on the phone, Avon's mug shot, Sobotka's union card photo (or was that his mug shot, too?), surveillance of Bodie, and Wee-Bey's mug shot -- one of many reminders of all that's come before. Between that, the various lines that echo previous lines, the upcoming cameos by former characters, and even the scenes that echo stuff from Simon's "Homicide" book (and the series) like the lie detector/copy machine gag (which Munch and Bolander did in season one of the NBC show), there's a sense that Simon is saying goodbye to his fictional Baltimore once and for all.
- Since, at this writing, HBO.com hasn't gotten around to expanding the cast and crew list to add all the newspaper people, here's a quick rundown, with actor names where I have them for IMDb purposes: besides Gus, Tom Klebanow (David Costabile, aka Mel's husband from "Flight of the Conchords") is the managing editor with the rolled up shirtsleeves who first throws out the "more with less" concept; James Whiting (Sam Freed) is the patrician editor-in-chief who shoots down the desegregation story at his buddy's request; Alma Guitierrez (Michelle Paress) is the junior crime reporter who gets sent to Fat Face Rick's club; Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) is the general assignment reporter looking to move on up to the Times or Post; Jeff Price is the goateed City Hall reporter who didn't catch the Fat Face Rick thing in the Council minutes; Roger Twigg is the senior police reporter, the guy who says he wants to know what it's like to work at a real newspaper; Jay Spry is the bearded rewrite guy who explains the exact meaning of "evacuate"; and Bill Zorzi ("Wire" writer Zorzi, playing himself) is the federal court reporter, who asks Alma how the Fat Face Rick story broke. As with the kids last year, or Marlo's crew in season three, or the dockworkers in season two, give it a few episodes, and eventually you'll know 'em all about as well as I do.
- One other cool Gus moment, and something I didn't fully understand until the second time I watched the episode: while on the phone with the lovely and detestable Neresse Campbell, he uses an old trick of quoting a higher dollar figure than they had in hand, and her non-denial told him there were more contributions to be tracked down.
- For me, the biggest laugh of the episode was the revelation that Herc was now employed by Maury Levy, the sleazy but effective ex-lawyer of the Barksdale/Bell crew. Of course that's where Herc would land. (That scene also finally got around to explaining Herc's Noo Yawk accent on a show where everybody else at least makes an effort -- even if it's a doomed one, like Dominic West's unconvincing Bawlmer accent -- to seem local.)
- Bad as Tommy has turned out to be -- and State's Attorney Bond, for that matter, who doesn't care about the bodies investigation so long as he gets his Clay Davis trophy -- the one I truly hate is Tommy's chief of staff, Michael Steintorf, the one who's been pushing the governor's race the entire time. If Norman were the first voice whispering in Tommy's ear before he went to bed and when he woke up, instead of just the token "truth to power" employee who's there to make Tommy feel better about himself, do you think the city would be in as sorry a state as it is? Then again, Steintorf wasn't in the room when Tommy burned bridges with the U.S. Attorney, so maybe he really is the bad guy. Maybe Shakespeare had it slightly wrong; the first thing we should do is kill all the politicians.
- There have been some complaints that neither Ronnie nor Daniels recognized Chris -- the chief suspect in the very investigation they were discussing with Bond -- when he asked for directions. It's a bit of a stretch, in that I'm sure one or both of them has seen his picture up on the MCU cork board, but I can buy it in that context. If you're Pearlman or Daniels, caught up in a heated, dire exchange about the fate of your biggest investigation, would you even notice that the soft-spoken man asking for directions was your chief suspect, or would he blur into any random citizen who's a little lost?
- Another "It's all connected" moment: Monell, the suspect from the opening scene who got to eat the McDonald's food, was one of the two boys who bribed Randy to stand watch at the boy's room while they had some fun with a girl, one of the first links in the long chain that led to Randy's sad fate. I don't want to say more about that scene just yet because I know what's coming, but know that, like all the previous season openers, it tells you all you need to know about what this year is about.
- Carver's line, "In the real world, they pay professionals; that's why they call them 'pros'" reminded me a lot of his line from the pilot about how the drug war is misnamed, because "Wars end."
- Lots of echoes of lines even within the episode. Both Rawls and Templeton dismiss the bodies as last year's news. Both Twigg and McNulty wonder what it would be like to work in a real version of their chosen profession. Last year, there were a lot of cop/teacher parallels. Look for more reporter/cop parallels to come.
So, with all of that having been said, what did everybody else think?