TV Article

High Wire Act

Behind TV's most acclaimed and entertaining drama -- We look at how ''Wire'' creator David Simon managed to make a hit out of a show that deals with dautning themes like city politics and failed schools

''Roll your window up!'' shouts David Simon as a handful of pint-size mischief makers aim a gusher of water at him. It may be 100 degrees in Baltimore today, but the 46-year-old newspaper reporter-turned-TV producer is too seasoned to let the locals cool him down with an open fire hydrant — at least, not again.

''One of my favorite stories for The Baltimore Sun,'' says Simon, from the backseat of his friend Ed Burns' Volvo SUV, ''was when I was about 25 and I went around with the [Bureau of] Water and Wastewater truck trying to close the hydrants as fast as kids would open them. The kids were like these tiny urchins carrying wrenches as tall as they were.'' Simon, the creator, writer, and exec producer of HBO's The Wire, recalls how the city workers tried to lecture the children about water pressure and conservation, but as soon as the truck pulled off, the hydrants would open again.

''Finally, I got out to interview a couple of kids,'' says Simon with a laugh. ''I went back to the newsroom soaking wet.''

When he suggests to Burns, a retired Baltimore police officer who serves as a producer and writer on The Wire, that they somehow work the incident into a future episode, it makes sense. Simon covered crime and drugs at the Sun for 13 years; together, he and Burns have pooled their considerable career experience into an addictive stealth missile of a drama that critics are crawling over themselves to call the best show on television (see GQ, the San Francisco Chronicle, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, etc.). With its slow-burning narrative, uneasy themes, and characters from across the spectrum of race, age, and class, The Wire certainly looks and feels like nothing else on the small screen.

It premiered in 2002 as a cleverly told yarn about a put-upon police unit chasing a drug kingpin. But over three seasons, The Wire developed into a sprawling examination of municipal decay. Its quality helped lure renowned crime novelists like Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos, who penned poignant episodes about failed institutions — the police department, city government, unions — and the flawed individuals who struggle under them. The show's fourth season (airing Sundays at 10 p.m.) follows four inner-city middle school students on a perilous journey through a financially and politically hamstrung school system. Friends Namond (Julito McCullum), Michael (Tristan Wilds), Randy (Maestro Harrell), and Duquan (Jermaine Crawford) fight for what's left of their childhood in the face of broken homes, street-corner surrogate fathers, and educators more concerned with test scores than teaching kids properly. And that's just part of the story. ''Every viewer has a different take on what this show's about,'' says Simon. ''But for me, I've been building a city and trying to explain why it doesn't work.''

The odds have always been against The Wire. When Simon first approached HBO with the idea for the show in 2000, the cable network was wary of airing anything within that well-trod dominion of the networks: the cop drama. But Simon appealed to HBO's mischievous side. ''David made the very compelling argument,'' says Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, ''that the most challenging and subversive thing that we could do was go right into the networks' backyard.''

Borrowing loosely from a prolonged wiretapping case that Burns had worked in 1984, The Wire's first season firmly established its complex, novelistic style. The dialogue was naturalistic. Heroes and villains — played by a brilliant cast of virtual unknowns — were often indistinguishable. And story lines were never neatly tied up by episode's end. It was, as crime novelist and regular Wire writer Richard Price (Clockers) puts it, ''the un-Law & Order.''

The Wire's roots were about as anti-Hollywood as you can get. Simon had little interest in fiction — certainly not TV fiction — when he took a job at The Baltimore Sun in 1983. For years, the D.C. native worked the police beat, flipping officers into sources and immersing himself in Charm City's crime and drug culture. At a time when Baltimore's murder rate was climbing, Simon became so enamored with the efforts of the city's hard-boiled, suit-and-tie-wearing homicide detectives that in 1988 he took time off from the paper to write a book about them called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

Where Homicide demythologized the heroism of cops, Simon's next book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), which he coauthored with Ed Burns, championed the humanity of Baltimore's addicts and dope dealers. ''My editor on Homicide, John Sterling, had the idea,'' says Simon. ''He said, 'Why don't you just go to a corner in the city [and write about it]?' I think he meant just do a neighborhood story.'' But for Simon, who knew how many of Baltimore's intersections had become open-air drug markets, the word ''corner'' had taken on a different connotation. ''So I picked a drug corner,'' he says.

In 1993, Homicide was developed into the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street by producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana. Although Simon eventually took a gig writing for the show, it wasn't until he helped write and produce the HBO adaptation of The Corner that he really got a taste of how gritty reality could energize small-screen drama. (It also earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Writing, with David Mills.) For The Wire, Simon unspooled all those hours he had logged visiting crime scenes, chatting with heroin users, and soaking up off-color squad-room humor. But when the first season premiered, not everyone appreciated the show's unflinching honesty. Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley soon bristled at the depiction of the rampant drug trade and police corruption. ''The mayor understands the economic impact of The Wire to the city,'' says Hannah Byron, director of Baltimore's Division of Film, TV and Video, who acknowledges that the production brings tens of millions of dollars of revenue into Baltimore. ''But would he prefer that some of the other, more beautiful aspects of the city be portrayed? Yes.''

Beauty aside, peeling back layers of the city was exactly what Simon had planned all along. In season 2, he expanded The Wire's setting from the projects to the run-down seaports, introducing disgruntled stevedores and shady European smugglers into his rusting sim city. Season 3 went back to the streets for a sufficient — if shocking — conclusion to the long-running drug investigation. The resolution felt so final, in fact, that HBO was ready to end the show. ''The audience probably would have been satisfied,'' says HBO's Strauss, ''but David Simon is a different kind of creature. He said, 'Wait, I've got more.''' (In fact, Simon has plotted the show out to five seasons — no more, no less. HBO recently picked up the fifth season, which Simon says will include a ''media component.'')

In devising season 4, Simon relied more than ever on his producing partner, Ed Burns. After retiring from the police force, Burns taught school for seven years and gained disturbing insight into the failings of the educational system. He recalls serving as a witness in a case a few years back where three teenagers were on trial for the murders of 12 people. ''I thought to myself, five years ago these kids were sitting in middle school,'' he says. ''Now they're costing the federal government millions of dollars [and] untold grief because no one got to them quick enough and tried to turn them around.'' Season 4 is, in part, an attempt to explain how something like that could happen, following four young protagonists before they've been chewed by the system and spit back out as die-hard ne'er-do-wells.

''I think David and Ed are trying to change what's going on in Baltimore,'' says Tristan Wilds, 17, who plays Michael, an eighth grader caught between a drug-addicted mother and a befuddled school system. Jim True-Frost, who plays detective-turned-schoolteacher Roland ''Prez'' Pryzbylewski, praises Simon for embedding his message so cleverly. ''You can't just read a screed from a podium and have the same effect you'll get with a great story,'' he says. ''You're not going to get the effect you want in terms of raising consciousness — maybe getting people to call their representatives or get involved in some kind of movement.''

Simon, though, quickly shrugs off any social agenda. ''Even when I was a journalist I never thought that good journalism would change social or political policy,'' he says. ''Things are too f---ed-up for that. So the idea that a television show is going to do it is even less probable.'' As far as he's concerned, the war on drugs is already lost, the jobs have left the city for good, reform is a joke, and all that's left to do is tell the stories of the people involved, from the urchins seeking relief from the heat to the politicians looking for bribes from the power-hungry dope dealers. ''Everybody's flawed,'' says Simon. ''Everybody's dipped in sin and vice and foolishness.''

The Wire has never been about one ruthless villain, or one relentless cop, or giving viewers anything that they've come to expect from other dramas. Instead, the show adheres to Baltimore's reality, and that means more than putting noted Baltimoreans like onetime police commissioner Ed Norris or Melvin Williams — the former drug kingpin busted by Burns in 1984 — in recurring roles. It also necessitates a predominantly African-American cast, one that the show's creators readily acknowledge hurts their ratings. (The average viewership for season 3 was 1.5 million per episode.) ''It's not just the farmer in Kansas,'' says Burns. ''It might be the suburbanite in Ohio. But there are people who see that many black faces staring back at them and say, 'This is not my story.''' (It's worth noting that season 2, which employed the largest number of Caucasian actors since the show aired, was also its highest rated.)

It's arguable, however, that it's The Wire's serpentine storytelling — as much as issues of race or class — that scares some viewers off. ''I remember watching the first couple episodes and thinking, This is not making a single concession to me,'' says Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), who began writing for the show in season 3. ''There's no spoon-feeding.'' That's fine for literary minds like Lehane and Price — who thinks ''TV sucks'' but says he would write for The Wire even if it were an opera. ''Listen, most of TV is escapist entertainment,'' says Simon. ''If you don't want to work at all — and by work, I mean think — then there's plenty of TV to accommodate you.''

It's evening in Baltimore. Burns, tired from a long day, heads home. Simon, climbing behind the wheel of his own SUV, opts to drive the long way around the harbor. Cruising over the Francis Scott Key Bridge, he watches the sun dip toward the harbor's giant, rusting cranes. ''They're just so Gothic,'' he says. ''Like these cathedrals of industry.'' Passing within sight of Fort McHenry, he recounts the tale of the writing of ''The Star-Spangled Banner.'' He traces his finger along the flickering map on the car's GPS screen, pinpointing the spot where Key must have sat on the ship, watching in awe as the British fruitlessly bombarded the landmark in 1814. ''You wouldn't know it from the show,'' he says, ''but I really do love this city.''


WIRE WE RIVETED?
A quick look at five of season 4's most intriguing characters

LESTER FREAMON (Clarke Peters)
Wise, patient, and bitter toward the powers that be, this vet detective is committed to catching the crooks, no matter how important they are.

TOMMY CARCETTI (Aidan Gillen)
A mayoral candidate as wily as he is idealistic. He'll need to excel at both: He's running in a majority black city against two black opponents.

SNOOP (Felicia Pearson)
Teamed with her somber partner, Chris, this marble-mouthed, nail-gun-toting hitwoman is all the muscle any drug kingpin needs.

NAMOND BRICE (Julito McCullum)
His dad is doing time for multiple murders, but does this charismatic youngster really have his pop's killer instinct?

RANDY WAGSTAFF (Maestro Harrell)
As industrious as any corner dealer, the affable eighth grader has a caring foster mother and is willing to do anything to keep his nose clean.

Originally posted Sep 15, 2006 Published in issue #898 Sep 22, 2006 Order article reprints
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