By Lee Gardner
Baltimoreans who venture beyond the I-695 beltway always know it’s coming. We meet someone from another city, or another country. They find out we’re from Baltimore, and after a suitably polite length of get-to-know-you chat, they bring up the award-winning HBO series The Wire.
And really, it’s okay. There are worse things than being linked with one of the best television series ever made. But is Baltimore really like The Wire? It’s a complicated question to answer.
It would be handy if we could all pull out our cell phones or laptops and host an impromptu screening of Charm City, Marilyn Ness’s Independent Lens documentary, to provide a somewhat fuller picture of some of our hometown challenges.
But despite grousing from local politicians during the series’ run, The Wire got it right—mostly.
Take the very first minutes of the opening episode, wherein an African American man talks at length to a Baltimore Police detective about the murder of a man named nicknamed Snot Boogie. They’re sitting on the white marble steps of a rowhouse—accurate. The police lights and yellow police tape—accurate. British actor Dominic West’s Bawlmer accent—no so much, but not everyone in Baltimore has one. Co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns spent time as a Baltimore Sun crime reporter and a Baltimore Police detective, respectively, so they know both the city’s cops and streets far better than most. Snot Boogie is based on an actual person and his fate.
But in Baltimore, where “Stop Snitchin’” is as familiar a phrase as “Go, O’s,” it still seems a little off to watch a black man talking to a white cop about a murder out in the open. It’s tough to imagine the real-life East Baltimoreans of Charm City doing the same—even though Clayton Guyton, “Mr. C,” the grizzled community activist at the heart of the film, rails against the fear of being branded a snitch. [As seen in clip below:]
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the series’ view of Baltimore, season by season.
Season 1: “all in the game”
West Baltimore, as seen in The Wire, generally rings true. It is predominantly African American, predominantly lower-income, and largely bereft of opportunity for young black men, for whom the most obvious future lies in the booming street trade in heroin and cocaine. The pagers everyone carries marked the series as a period piece, even during its first run, but Baltimoreans of a certain vintage can also date it by the high-rise housing projects CGI-ed into some scenes—most were torn down more than 20 years ago, before the series filmed.
Charismatic drug moguls such as Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell were based in part on real people, including “Little Melvin” Williams (more on him later). Omar Little, the charismatic stickup man/anti-hero supreme, likewise drew from several actual Baltimoreans. The dysfunctional police department and its hapless response to the drug game is fairly accurate, sadly. The tough, scuffling lives of young dealers on the corners are, too—getting in the game isn’t a path to immediate riches any more than making a latte makes you the president of Starbucks.
Charm City was filmed largely around Rose Street in East Baltimore, but it captures a world similar to that of The Wire in many ways. Generational poverty and lack of opportunity have taken their toll on the communities and their residents, and gun violence is commonplace. The city has maintained one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country for decades, and most of the victims are African American men. As burly anti-violence mediator Alex Long marvels in Charm City, if that many white people were killed, the city would declare a state of emergency. (Ness also spends time with several members of Baltimore City Police, especially young African American patrolman Eric Winston, who help humanize a force typically seen as oppressive outsiders.)
Meanwhile, on more trivial details, like what Baltimoreans eat, The Wire is always dead on. When West’s Jimmy McNulty needs to convince a couple of uniformed officers to do him a favor, he brings them beer and crab cakes. But not just any crab cakes—Faidley’s crab cakes, because that’s how you bribe someone. And when drug enforcer Wee-Bay says he’ll confess to a few more murders if someone will bring him another pit beef (the city’s indigenous barbecue variant) with extra horseradish, it might be the most Baltimore thing ever.
Season 2: Labor Unions and Human Trafficking
Baltimore does indeed boast a long history as a busy port, and the docks have suffered a long decline as cargo traffic slowed to a low ebb in recent decades. At this point in the series, Simon and Burns are preaching, calling out the shame, tragedy, and punishing effects of the city’s industrial decline on its ordinary stiffs, black and white.
That said, no shipping container full of dead Eastern European girls has ever showed up on the docks. On sinister Greeks—this writer can’t speak to it. The show is after all a cop drama, at some level. But the fact that the investigation that gives the season its narrative motor starts off with a petty feud involving a parochial police commander and a stained-glass window in a church seems utterly plausible.
Season 3: Local Politics
This is where it gets really fun for locals, because politics. Despite disavowals from the show’s creators, young white ambitious City Councilmember Thomas Carcetti is clearly a fictional simulacrum for young white ambitious former City Councilmember Martin O’Malley. Carcetti wins the mayor’s race in a predominantly black city thanks to a black vote split in part by his close colleague, an African American councilmember, which is precisely what happened when O’Malley won the Democratic primary for mayor in 1999. O’Malley went on to serve two terms as governor and make a brief run for president in 2016. The uncanny parallels certainly make Carcetti’s kvetching and sleeping around more fun to watch. (Irish actor Aidan “Littlefinger” Gillen, who plays Carcetti, makes Dominic West’s accent sound pretty good.)
Baltimoreans also note fictional ambitious black City Council President Nerese Campbell bearing a strong resemblance to ambitious former City Council President Sheila Dixon. In the show, Campbell is a tough political infighter resentful of Carcetti barging ahead of “his turn” at leadership. Dixon succeeded O’Malley as mayor before being forced to resign in 2010 after being convicted of theft and embezzlement.
Glad-handing state Rep. Clay Davis may not be so obviously based on a particular Baltimore politician, but recent events have validated his casual corruption and matter-of-course shakedowns. State Sen. Nathaniel Oaks resigned in 2018 after being convicted of fraud and bribery. And Catherine Pugh, the current mayor, is under fire for allegedly dunning local companies and organizations with business before state and city government into spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy thousands of copies of her Healthy Holly children’s book series. It’s a story that even Simon and Burns couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make up.
One of the areas where Charm City and The Wire coincide most closely concerns their depictions of city government effectively ignoring or actively failing the residents of West and East Baltimore. The Wire takes you inside City Hall and its power squabbles and venal dysfunction. Charm City illustrates that it might as well be on the moon as far as most Rose Street residents are concerned. As Long puts it at one point, “Ain’t nobody gonna help us, man. We’ve got to help each other.”
There never was a real “Hamsterdam” police-led de facto drug-legalization experiment, or at least no such situation has ever been made public. But Kurt Schmoke, mayor from 1988 through 1999, entertained the idea of fighting the drug war in Baltimore by decriminalizing narcotics. He appears in a couple of episodes in this season, playing a public-health official.
Remember Little Melvin? He takes up a recurring role this season and next, playing the Deacon, a churchman who’s seen it all.
[Here’s Little Melvin in a scene from the subsequent season:]
Season 4: Public Schools
Burns also spent time as a teacher, and you can detect the metallic whir of his axe grinding when The Wire turns its attention to the city’s public schools. The ongoing narrative adds a quartet of West Baltimore teens and goes inside the fictional Tilghman Middle, which is just as radically segregated and under-resourced as many actual Baltimore public schools.
Over the course of the season, three of the four teenagers slip into their respective fates: the drug game, addiction, and a group home. Only one “escapes” to a stable middle-class life. Charm City makes those outcomes seem a little reductive by comparison. Getting tied up in the drug game isn’t a life sentence, and neither is addiction. The real-life Alex Long, for example, is candid about a past arrest, but he clearly has not let that define him or his life.
Drug enforcers entombing bodies in vacant rowhouses was never a thing. When the characters Chris Partlow and Snoop figure out if a new drug slinger is a member of a crew moving in from New York by asking him who did “Jiggle It,” a local hit in the ‘00s, it might be the second most Baltimore thing ever. (The correct answer is Young Leek.)
You know the assistant principal at Tilghman? She’s played by local actress Tootsie Duvall. She has a good Baltimore accent.
Season 5: Journalism
The series wraps up with perhaps its least successful season, possibly because of a truncated schedule, and possibly because of a cockamamie plot line about McNulty inventing a serial killer to get police brass to sign off on the overtime needed to close the series’ big case. Did not happen. It is a TV show, after all.
The final season’s storyline detours through the newsroom of the beleaguered Baltimore Sun, David Simon’s former stomping grounds. Anyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom can tell you that he captures it pretty well. When the city editor starts awake one night and drives to the office due to the dawning realization of a possible mistake in a story intruding on his sleep? Been there. Simon and Burns even give several former Sun journalists cameos, including mystery author Laura Lippman, Simon’s wife.
Simon does more than a little grinding too. An ambitious reporter (played by actor/writer/director Tom McCarthy) with a penchant for fabrication is rumored to have been based on at least one former Sun scribe. And Simon and Burns gave one raging-a-hole police lieutenant the surname Marimow—just like a former Sun editor from the time Simon worked there.
More Right Than Wrong (But Charm City Even More So)
The Wire dramatizes, and even glamorizes, some of the realities of Baltimore. But it gets more right than wrong. Behind Simon and Burns’ Balzac-for-broadcast fiction, however, lies a more mundane world of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Baltimoreans with more ordinary problems—people and communities trying to get by, and maybe get somewhere, in spite of the many systems that continue to fail them. Charm City gets them right.
Lee Gardner was formerly the editor of Baltimore City Paper (R.I.P.) and has written about movies on and off for almost 30 years. He co-produces the Essential Tremors podcast.