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The end of 'The Wire'

And with that — a whiskey fueled wake for a living policeman to the tune of The Pogues' "The Body of an American" — the greatest television show ever came to an end Sunday night.

Watching the final minutes of HBO's "The Wire" was like watching a family member's EKG begin the inevitable slow wind-down to flatline.

There will be those who will say that "The Sopranos" represented TV's finest hour.

And they would be wrong.

Others will tell you "M*A*S*H" was the boob tube's masterpiece.

They, too, would be wrong.

Yet some might argue "Deadwood" was the small screen's magnum opus. And, yes, they would be wrong, though just barely.

In fact, I'll stack "The Wire" up against any television show or feature film released within the past 20 years.

For those who don't know, and apparently there's a ton of you — Sunday's finale logged in a paltry 1.1 million sets of eyes, compared to "The Sopranos" finale's 11.9 million tally — "The Wire" concerns itself with a group of flawed Baltimore cops tasked with bringing down a cold, calculating drug empire known as the Barksdale gang.

But what it was really about was how institutions have continually failed our inner cities, and in effect crippled America for the foreseeable future.

These crumbling institutions, as chronicled over five brilliant seasons, included the police, the district attorney's office, the mayor's office, the workers' unions, the schools and, hitting close to home for this humble reporter, the daily newspaper.

Series creator David Simon, himself a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is responsible for two of my favorite nonfiction books: "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" and "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood."

The guy is relentless in his approach to illuminating society's problems with his pen. Imagine watching me squirm as he leveled his guns at me this past season.

Much has been made of Simon's critique of the newspaper in the final season. Not surprisingly, journalists get a little defensive when put under the microscope.

Simon's theory is corporate ownership's gutting of newsrooms has left papers with little to do but argue for their own continued existence instead of breaking and explaining hard news.

That's all fine. Most media critics will tell you outside ownership is bad news all the way around. Simon, however, takes it one step further by saying that newsrooms have done little to earn a new lease on life.

This is evidenced by the wise old-school city editor Gus Haynes' futile efforts to out a hotshot reporter's unethical methods. These methods, making up quotes and sources in connection with a fake serial killer, lead to splashy headlines that sell papers but do little to serve the public's trust.

For his part, Haynes is busted down a few ranks and the reporter is handed a Pulitzer Prize.

But as the gang bangers have said from season one: It's all in the game.

What has struck me most about the criticisms directed at the newspaper story arc is how petty they have become.

The real Baltimore Sun claims Simon is settling old scores by denigrating the paper. It is made obvious in the first episode that the fictional Sun is a stand-in for any once-great metro paper, from the Dallas Morning News to the Los Angeles Times, that has withered under personnel cuts, declining readership and middling talent cut from outdated journalism schools.

Writers from the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post claim the corporate leaders in "The Wire" are too evil and therefore unbelievable.

However, this past week MediaNews Group Chief Executive Officer Dean Singleton informed several unfortunate San Jose Mercury News staffers that the paper had no place for them anymore.

His method of delivery: If you get a phone call by 10 a.m. then come into work. If not, don't bother. See you in the unemployment line.

Had Simon put that in "The Wire" I'm sure the peanut gallery would've cried foul. It's almost as if the major media has come to apologize for its draconian masters. A sure sign of a truly beaten slave.

To be sure, the Sun storyline lacks the dynamics of the cops/robbers/city hall characters, all forever etched into my heart.

Detective Jimmy McNulty. Avon Barksdale. Bubbles. "Stringer" Bell. Frank Sobotka. Sen. Clay Davis. "Dukie" Weems. Detective "Bunk" Moreland. And who can forget Omar Little. You'll not be forgotten as long as this columnist has an unlimited supply of paper and ink at his disposal.

When it comes down to it, "The Wire" envelopes us in the way only the best of novels can. It takes its time building a setting through which the characters' actions, however horrible or pathetic they may be, put light to serious problems outside your front door.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.