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‘The Wire’ connects on economic strife

Marketplace Staff Jan 4, 2008

‘The Wire’ connects on economic strife

Marketplace Staff Jan 4, 2008


Bob Moon: Life after “The Sopranos” hasn’t exactly been bada-bing for HBO, but it’s been okay.

Looks like all those people who might have dropped their subscriptions after “The Sopranos” left the air decided to stick around.

HBO’s crime drama, “The Wire,” kicks off its final season on Sunday night.

Commentator Michael Schaffer says, for a police show, The Wire has an awfully good grasp of economics.

Michael Schaffer: In the first scene from the new season of “The Wire,” a West Baltimore drug dealer is complaining about the costs of wholesale. Just pay your people less, the local kingpin tells him.

One scene later, city cops are also grousing about money. Thanks to a city budget crisis, they’re not getting overtime and can’t even get their rattletrap police cars repaired.

And just a couple of scenes after that, the media types who are supposed to watchdog both cops and robbers are gossiping about cutbacks. When their editor complains that they got scooped on a story about bus service reductions, he’s reminded that they haven’t had a transportation reporter since the last round of buyouts. So things are tough all over.

Welcome to the world of “The Wire,” the panoramic HBO series that enters its fifth and final season Sunday night.

Starting with an ambitious west-side drug dealer and the detectives trying to bring him down, “The Wire” has sprawled in a way that looks a lot like a city’s own map.

Over the years, its plotlines have encompassed Baltimore’s struggling dockyards, its gentrifying real estate market, its crumbling schools and its Byzantine political scene. This season draws in yet another endangered civic institution: the daily newspaper, in this case the Baltimore Sun, which happens to be series creator David Simon’s alma mater.

But as much as it’s an exercise in social portraiture, “The Wire” is also a show about economics. Specifically, it’s about an old industrial city navigating the new economy.

One minute, Marlo Stanfield is out to secure an independent supply line for his drug empire. The next, the Sun’s trying to use a shrinking staff to cover the bodies in Marlo’s wake. And then it’s on to Mayor Thomas Carcetti, who’s desperate to squeeze enough money from the tax base to stop, or at least solve, some of those killings. It’s a reminder that all of us live in the same complex economy.

Like the stickup man Omar said, “Money ain’t got no owners. Only spenders.” The dramatic part, in the real-world economy as in the HBO show’s gripping drama, is the scramble over just who gets to do that spending.

Moon: Michael Schaffer is working on a book about another realm of the economy: pets. He lives in Philadelphia.

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