HBO’s ‘The Wire’ Explores Troubled Side of Baltimore

January 2, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown reports on the HBO series "The Wire," which looks at the troubled streets of Baltimore through an unusual lens, and talks to creator David Simon about his attempt to break the traditional "cop show" genre.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the troubled streets of one American city, as seen through a very special lens. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: The cop show is one of the great chestnuts of American television, but “The Wire” is a genre-buster, a cop show unlike any other. It’s a television program that aims for the texture and pacing of a novel…

LARRY GILLIARD, JR., Actor, “D’Angelo Barksdale”: I swear to God, I was courtside for eight months, and I was freer in jail than I was at home.

JEFFREY BROWN: … entertainment that is also an angry provocation. Set and shot largely on the streets of Baltimore, the HBO series is one of the most critically acclaimed on television.

JD WILLIAMS, Actor, “Bodie”: This must be one of them contrapment things.

DEIRDRE LOVEJOY, Actress, “Rhonda Pearlman”: You mean entrapment?

DOMINIC WEST, Actor, “Jimmy McNulty”: Kid’s got a point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last August, we spent a day on the set and talked to series creator David Simon, who’s clear that his show was intended to be different.

DAVID SIMON, Creator, HBO’s “The Wire”: Most of the drama and certainly all of the comedy that exists on American television exists to comfort the comfortable, and mock the afflicted on some level, and to appease our sense that things are working and that this way of doing business as we are in the world is viable.

And I come from the world of journalism. And Mencken said that newspapers and journalism are there to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Simon covered the violence and despair of the crack cocaine drug wars fought out on his city’s streets in the 1980s.

His 1991 book “Homicide,” a non-fiction, insider account of a year with Baltimore detectives, became the basis for the NBC program of the same name. It was here, as a producer and writer of more than 100 episodes, that Simon got his first taste of television.

A second book, “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood,” was co-written with Ed Burns, a former Baltimore detective and teacher. It became an HBO miniseries.

Jarringly realistic

JEFFREY BROWN: On "The Wire," Simon is again working with Burns, again exploring Baltimore, where he still lives, and again trying to re-invent the traditional cop show.

DAVID SIMON: We were never interested in what a cop show is interested in. An American police procedural, by and large, exists to validate the authority and meaning -- personal existential meaning -- of the cops.

The people they're pursuing, they are to be punished in the end before the last commercial break. The bad guy is supposed to be caught. And "The Wire" doesn't have any interest in good and evil on that level.

JEFFREY BROWN: On this show, most everyone is flawed and compromised in some fashion: cops, politicians, local citizens, and drug dealers alike.

DOMINIC WEST: It's interested in people's humanity. And, therefore, nobody is all good and nobody is all bad. So you see, you know, the good and bad in everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don't sound like you're from Baltimore.

DOMINIC WEST: No, I'm from the U.K. I'm from Yorkshire in England.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dominic West adapts a Baltimore accent to play Detective Jimmy McNulty...

DOMINIC WEST: I'll pay you 50 cents on the dollar against my tab.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... who battles his own superiors and drug kingpins, like Marlo Stanfield, played by Jamie Hector.

Did you grow up watching cop shows?

JAMIE HECTOR, Actor, "Marlo Stanfield": "Homicide," "Law and Order," "NYPD Blue."

JEFFREY BROWN: So is this different?

JAMIE HECTOR: This is different. This is more gritty. This is more realistic. You know, when I walk down the street, police officers, as well as cats on the street, they always tell me, listen, this is the realest that they've ever seen.

DOMINIC WEST: I go into the 'hood and everyone goes, "Hey, McNulty!" And then you get stopped by -- well, you don't get stopped by the police, but police come up, and have come up a lot and say it's great, you know, "You get it right."

As I directed one of the episodes here, and I -- we had a guy who had been shot at close range with a shotgun. And then the makeup people came over and said, you know, "Is this how you want him to look?" And I go, "I don't know. I don't know what people look like"...

JEFFREY BROWN: You've never seen somebody...

DOMINIC WEST: And some guy who wasn't even a principal player, he comes over and he goes, "Nah, nah, you'd have more blood there." And I go, "Listen to him."

FRANKIE FAISON, Actor, "Ervin Burrell": Commissioner wants raids citywide.

'Building a city' within the show

JEFFREY BROWN: But David Simon has more on his mind than just getting cops and criminals right. Each season, the show has expanded to focus on a different aspect of urban life. The drug wars were featured in season one.

FRANKIE FAISON: The commissioner wants to send a message, Lieutenant. You make sure you and your people do everything possible to see that it is heard.

JEFFREY BROWN: Season two saw a focus on the loss of blue-collar jobs. It was politics and bureaucracy in season three, and in season four the focus was on the education system.

Simon says that he and his writers, who include well-known novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price, have been building a city, year by year, and showing how institutions are failing their citizens.

DAVID SIMON: In this city, if you're black and male, your chance of being employed is 50 percent. One out of every two adult black males in Baltimore is unemployed.

What that tells me is there are two different Americas. And the other America that's doing fine, that's a separate country entirely from the America of "The Wire."

The other America has a lot of TV shows. They can watch all of them. The fun part of "The Wire" has been giving the other America its TV show for once.

JEFFREY BROWN: Actor Andre Royo, who plays the addict and sometimes police snitch Bubbles, is familiar with such places.

ANDRE ROYO, Actor, "Bubbles": I'm from the Bronx. I'm from New York. And I thought I knew my way around most 'hoods and most ghetto areas. But Baltimore had a certain depressive atmosphere about it, where it felt like people just were not caring. It just was, "This is what it is, and we're going to live with it."

We can't answer all the questions. I don't even think we try to. I think we try to just put it out there for thought.

And I think people are thinking about it more, and I think people will understand that all the pieces matter, and they all take responsibility in trying to help a community flourish instead of, you know, self-destruct.

Official Baltimore reaction 'mixed'

JEFFREY BROWN: For official Baltimore, of course, accepting "The Wire" has been a bit more complicated, enjoying the attention, perhaps, and the economic benefits of having the production here, but seeing an often bleak portrait of a dysfunctional city.

Mayor Sheila Dixon.

MAYOR SHEILA DIXON, Baltimore: Now, I have some mixed impressions of "The Wire." Some people have the perception from outside of the city that this is what the entire city looks like, and it doesn't. It's a small fraction of an environment here in the city. And you can't get away from that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reservations aside, Dixon and other prominent citizens have been willing to make cameo appearances.

MAYOR SHEILA DIXON: Well, you know, I think that it reflects not only just in Baltimore; it's a culture across this country, where you have drug dealing and you have crime. And this is not only just here. It's all over.

It gives you a perspective to work on how to resolve some of the struggles and the systemic issues that this shows.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the final season, David Simon has come full circle. The focus this time is on the media. Like so many newspapers, Simon's former employer, the Baltimore Sun, has seen deep budget cuts and layoffs. Simon has no doubt that this bottom line mentality is bad for his and other cities.

DAVID SIMON: Naturally, the last question you have to ask is, if this is what the American city was at the millennium, if these are its attendant problems, if this is the reason they couldn't even address or solve their problems as a culture, what were we paying attention to?

What were we -- you know, who was addressing themselves to it? That Jeffersonian quote about he'd rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers? He's about to get his nightmare.

Final curtain approaches

JEFFREY BROWN: Simon says he and his team mapped out a city-building series of several years from the beginning. But given the realities of TV, they had no idea it would last this long.

As for the actors, as Andre Royo says, their stay on the show was always tenuous.

ANDRE ROYO: This type of show, you never know how long you're going to be around. I mean, anybody can get shot or anybody can O.D. at any moment. I think every actor on the show reads each script very gingerly, and we all...

JEFFREY BROWN: You never know when it might be your last?

ANDRE ROYO: We never know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as "The Wire" returns for its fifth and final season, the actors finally know who makes it to the end. The rest of us are about to find out.