'The Wire' finale is a cop-out for a once-great show

David Simon wrote a brilliant finale for The Wire.

Unfortunately, it was in 2004 at the end of Season 3 - not the 90-minute final episode of the Baltimore-based drama that will air tonight on HBO.Four years ago, series creator Simon wrote a season-ender not knowing whether the cable channel would renew the series, and he pulled off the near-impossible trick of both positioning characters on new paths (should the series be renewed) while delivering profound thematic and emotional closure (should it be canceled). The last scene of Bubbles (Andre Royo) and a drug-addict protege picking through the rubble of Hamsterdam was worthy of playwright Samuel Beckett.

Tonight's finale has poignant and powerful moments, particularly involving the final choices made by Michael Lee ( Tristan Wilds) and Duquan "Dukie" Weems (Jermaine Crawford). A trip Dukie makes back to the school that he and Michael attended last year is almost too sad to bear.

But ultimately nothing in the finale can compare to the soaring eloquence or sociological insight of the last episode of Season 3 - or any number of classroom scenes in Season 4.

I tempered my criticism of the first seven episodes of the series this year in the hope that the final three would redeem a newsroom narrative populated by unconvincing, one-dimensional characters. They are more suited for a medieval morality play than a postmodern prime-time drama that bills itself as a complex novel for television.

It didn't happen. In fact, Simon so forces events in the improbable newspaper story line of an invented serial killer that he does serious damage to the credibility of the police drama.

Instead of the richly detailed, darkly comic, existential sense of police work that fans of the show have come to savor, the Simon-scripted finale has Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and other homicide investigators superficially bouncing from corpse to corpse like characters in a lightweight network crime drama. Think Fox's Bones or the watered-down Law & Order on NBC this year.

The tame way in which McNulty's odyssey ends is a major disappointment - a dramatic cop-out that seems more suited for the Hallmark Channel than HBO.

The decline in the emotional power of the cop-shop story line is best suggested by a wake at Kavanagh's Irish Pub in the finale. I will not spoil what satisfaction the scene might offer some viewers by revealing details, but as I watched, I couldn't help but compare it with the profane, sweaty and gloriously poetic wake written by Dennis Lehane and staged in the third episode of Season 3 for Detective Ray Cole (Robert F. Colesberry).

I suspect Simon was consciously trying to tap the chord of that viewer memory - and then, give it a bit of a twist. But rather than richly resonating and stirring the soul, the wake in the finale primarily serves as a barometer of how far the energy level in the police story had fallen as it was forced to serve a deeply flawed newsroom story.

In my preview of the season, I termed the newsroom scenes the "Achilles heel" of the series. Worse, they became a cancer that grew deeper and deeper into other parts of the drama as the season wore on.

The problems began with the depiction of a newsroom that lacked any sense of the urgent new-media priorities in the real ones today. Worse, from an entertainment standpoint, it was filled with stick figures and former journalists who couldn't act a lick.

And this is in such stark contrast to the series' richly nuanced treatment of larger-than-life gangsters, played by superb actors. Watching the gears turn inside the mind of Jamie Hector's Marlo Stanfield was one of the great pleasures of the series.

The arch-villains - editor James C. Whiting III (Sam Freed), managing editor Thomas Klebanow (David Costabile) and reporter Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) - behave more and more reprehensibly in the finale without viewers getting any sense of their moral reasoning. Whiting and Klebanow go on to commit unpardonable journalistic crimes.

Given the way Simon has identified them in interviews as having been inspired by two real-life newsroom executives who once worked at The Sun, former editor John Carroll and former managing editor Bill Marimow, the term character assassination does not seem too harsh for what he has attempted to do in Season 5 of The Wire.

Embracing the controversial genre of docudrama like never before, Simon has repeatedly blurred fact and fiction this year. Take just the matter of chronology. Simon left the Sun in 1995, and the people on whom he bases his villains are long gone, yet he presents events set in the newsroom as if they are taking place at The Sun today.

Is it any wonder that so little truth has emerged from such a stew?

Writing about The Wire this year has been painful. Not because of any conflict I might have once felt about reviewing scenes set in a highly fictionalized version of the real newspaper for which I have been TV critic the past 18 years, although some readers have suggested that online.

Simon is offering a highly personalized, vendetta-driven mythology of an era that never was at The Sun, and I feel no conflict in pointing out its flaws - as entertainment or purported truth.

But reading through the dozens of pieces I have written since first reporting word of the project in 2001, I have come to understand why it hurt so much to write about The Wire this year - and why I feel sad as I contemplate the end. The pain comes from having invested so much energy, thought, hope and faith for a better brand of television in this series - only to see Simon sacrifice what for four seasons had been a landmark work of art on the altar of getting even with former bosses.

It is, of course, his series, and he has the right to do with it what he wants. But this was one of those rare prime-time programs like All in the Family or Hill Street Blues that could have dramatically changed American TV for the better - had it stayed on track and gone out on top with an audience of even respectable size.

There is a reason the ratings so declined this winter, with audiences of only about half a million viewers on some Sundays. Although HBO believes more viewers are watching On Demand, the cable channel says it can't yet quantify the numbers. Either way, it seems as if The Wire has been abandoned by all but its hardcore fans as Simon replaced a wise and moving exploration of life in Baltimore City schools with a hollow newspaper rant that had all the universality of a home movie.

Where were the newsroom characters that should have been created to fill the emotional void left by the departures of Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), Namond Brice (Julito McCullum), Marcia Donnelly (Tootsie Duvall) or Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom)?

Augustus "Gus" Haynes, the ethical city editor played by Clark Johnson, was a character well worth rooting for. But he was only goodness and light - not a multidimensional, flawed hero like, say, Andy Sipowicz ( Dennis Franz) on the ABC cop drama NYPD Blue that you could believe in.

For all the complex social issues that The Wire so brilliantly explored during its first four seasons, the ultimate story line for the series is a remarkably simple one to write: Epic series laid low by creator's own hand.

What distinguished The Wire from every other series on television over the years was its heightened sense of anger and righteous moral outrage. Simon's greatness came from his ability to channel anger into art like no one else in the business.

But this year, as the series moved into a fictionalized version of his old newsroom, the anger seemed to control Simon. The Wire lost its heart and its way.