Back To School

Almost everybody loves Bubbles, the sweet-natured, street-savvy, and drug-addicted criminal informant from HBO'sThe Wire portrayed by Andre Royo. Bubbles is personable and tragic, a guy who cannily helps police identify suspects for whom they only have street names, a dreamer who squats in abandoned houses and makes money selling white tees from a shopping cart on the city's west side, earning enough to maintain his addiction.

But every time he comes on-screen, in the series' previous three seasons and in the new fourth season--debuting Sept. 10--you're intrinsically aware of one inescapable fact: Bubbles smells. Probably even reeks. If you live in Baltimore--or any other economically depressed American city--you absolutely know he does.

Smell is the least important sense to television--touch and taste might come to mind, but a few seconds in front of a fashion program or cooking show dispels such assumptions--and how such a feat is achieved is a study in miniature of what makes The Wire so impressive: Everything matters in the series' universe, from the characters' names, how they look, what they say (and how they say it), to the music peppering scenes. All these little details combine to lend the series its emotional gravitas and intoxicating allure.

The Wire's world defiantly exists on the small screen, knitting together its ambitious web of themes out of myriad characters and plot lines. No one character dominates its stories. No one setting devours the bulk of screen time. No one story takes precedence over others. The Wire is what it is because of the sum of its writerly parts. "People say that's a problem," says David Simon during a weekday morning interview. "I'm going to go out on a limb here--I don't think that's a problem. I think that's what makes the show great."

Comfortably clad in jeans and a casual shirt, Simon occasionally takes slugs from his to-go cup of coffee while sitting in a conference room at The Wire's writers' office south of Canton. Yes, south of Canton, located in a nondescript office building on one of those streets that jut south off Boston Street.

"I actually think it's what gives it the sprawl, what makes it feel like a real city," he continues. "It makes it feel like the story matters and is about something. You're not being duped into watching self-contained little morality plays or character studies. We really are telling the story of a city as best we can--a city and its attendant problems and the reasons it can't solve its own problems. While it takes some getting used to for the average TV viewer, the scope of the show is what makes it unique, worthwhile, and resonant." He laughs quickly and finally offers, "We're not full of shit."

What The Wire is full of are the observational details that give every iota of its universe the sense of lived-in verisimilitude, fictional stories informed by an ethnographer's eye. Simon's career as a police reporter at The Sun and his subsequent long-form nonfiction forays, 1992's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and 1997's The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, verily inform this process. As do the formidable talents of the show's dream-team writing staff. Back from previous seasons are noted crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price, and Simon's former Sun colleague, editor and political reporter William F. Zorzi. New to this muscular brood are TV veteran Eric Overmyer (Law and Order,Homicide: Life on the Streets) and the great David Mills, a former Washington, D.C., journalist, co-writer of The Cornerminiseries, the brain behind some ofNYPD Blue's best episodes, and, as any music nerd knows, publisher of the ass-flattening zine Uncut Funk.

One writer, though, figures most prominently into season four: Wire co-producer Ed Burns. With the show since its inception and the co-author of both The Corner book and miniseries, Burns has always brought the eyes of a former cop to the material at hand. A 20-year veteran of the Baltimore City Police Department, Burns worked homicide and the sort of long-term cases dramatized in The Wire. And while he may not have Simon's journalism credentials, Burns knows his way around storytelling and the show's refreshingly blunt sense of humor.

"I remember a guy coming into homicide, very nervous and stuff like that, and the phone rang, and somebody turned to him and said, ‘Aren't you going to answer it?'" Burns says during a different interview at the show's writers' office. He's explaining the often uncomfortable reality of moving laterally within a city police department--from, say, narcotics to homicide--that some of the The Wire's regulars endure in season four. This real police officer behind the most atypical so-called cop show on TV doesn't look like what TV says an ex-cop should look like. He comes across more like a loquacious retired humanities professor, able to pull an expansive berth of ideas into his conversational threads. A tall man in his late 50s with neatly trimmed gray hair, Burns' light eyes are courteous and forgiving of naive questions; you suspect he's heard a number of them during his days.

"And the [new] guy said, ‘What do I say?'" he says, continuing the story. "And the guy said, ‘Try saying fucking "Hello."'"

Burns doesn't even pause here, re-creating the matter-of-fact dispassion of a homicide unit. "So you get a lot of sympathy," he says. "It's a club, but you have to gain entry into it. It's a matter of doing a case and being able to go to a scene that's really hideous, and if you read David's Homicide, there's a lot of very good humor there--foxhole humor." Here, a quick smile that suggests homicide humor might even be a bit more gallows. "One thing I really like about The Wire is there's a lot of humor in it. And a lot of humor comes from stress--it's how you get rid of it, you laugh it off."

Having viewed all 12 episodes of season four--many twice--rest assured that the show hasn't lost its knife-sharp comic edge. The sardonic, survival-of-the-fittest worldview represented by the show's law-enforcement players, drug-trafficking crews, and politicians remains intoxicatingly alive. Detectives Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) and Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) are still working a wiretap-powered case on a drug organization. With the fall of the Barksdale drug crew at the end of season three, though, up-and-coming dealer Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) controls the city's west-side corners from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Fulton Avenue, aided by his terrifying enforcers Chris Paltrow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson). Proposition Joe (Robert Chew) is still trying to recruit Marlo into the dealer co-op that gets its product from the Greeks of season two. Upstart young white City Councilman Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is still running for mayor against the charismatic African-American incumbent, Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), in a predominantly black city. And stickup man Omar (Michael K. Williams) is, well, still Omar.

The Wire's writing staff deserves serious kudos for the sly story lines they've concocted for these players in the upcoming season--politics comes to the fore, both in terms of how the mayoral election plays out and how it affects the city's day-to-day operations. But all take a bit of a backseat to the story informed by Burns' post-cop career. Burns retired from the force in 1992; the following year he and Simon began their West Baltimore fieldwork that turned into The Corner. And that year Burns also started a job that he soon discovered was even more harrowing than being a homicide detective. He became a middle-school teacher in the Baltimore City Public School System.


SEASON FOUR OF THE WIRE DIVES into the vicissitudes of inner-city public education with the same sober intensity that it devoted to its other explorations of social institutions, be they the drug war (season one), work (two), and city politics (three). It does so through the character of Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), the detective suspended in season three, who starts teaching at a Baltimore middle school in season four. While it's a subject that, at first, reads like a wide veer away from The Wire's core subject matter, it quickly establishes itself over season four's first two episodes as inexplicably intertwined with everything the show has covered to date.

In short, what The Wire achieves with this new season is nothing sort of serial television as urban essay--and it's the most gripping, ambitious season the show has produced to date.

"We wanted to take a look at where the Barksdales came from," Burns says of the new season. "Where do the drug dealers and the drug addicts come from? That brought us to the schools and it brought us to the middle school. That's what shaped the fourth season, the logic of looking back into the young people to see what determines why young kids grow up to be Stringer Bells and Marlos and Chrises."

It's a subject Burns extolled in a May 19, 2004, editorial in The Sun that began, "If you want to know about the corner murderers and their victims in Baltimore, don't ask a cop, ask a teacher." Standing in front of a classroom, Burns witnessed firsthand what turns kids into such young men: institutional neglect. He saw it while teaching social studies at Hamilton Middle School. He saw it while teaching social studies at Baltimore City College. He finally grew frustrated at what passed for education and retired in 2000. He saw how institutional policies and practices effectively withheld generations of young people from the possibilities promised by the greater world at large.

"So many, many kids go through the school system being kicked out of class for fighting, being suspended," Burns says. "And they spend their whole school career that way--and you're talking suspension 16, 30 times a year. You're in the ‘time-out' room. [Teachers say], ‘Don't come to school,' ‘Get out of my classroom,' ‘I never want to see you'--and we call that education. And we're stunned when these middle-school kids are sitting in the Baltimore City courtrooms facing judges going"--he knocks his hand on the table--"‘That's a life sentence.' ‘That's 25 years.'"

Integral to Burns' argument is that institutional education refuses to acknowledge the context of a child's life in his or her education. It's a tension that plays out in season four in the "stoop" and "corner" kids.

"A stoop kid is a traditional kid, he's no different from you or I growing up," Burns says. "His or her mother has a thumb on them and they can't come off the stoop, and their world is oftentimes the church and areas outside the neighborhood. The neighborhood is just where they live. And while they might know their peers in the neighborhood, they're not of their peers.

"Corner kids are the kids that are abandoned by their families. And they pack up, 'round about the age of 3 or 4, and they just sort of run wild.

"If you looked at the ghetto, you would think that an overwhelming number of kids would be corner kids, because of the pressures of the neighborhood," he continues. "In my experience, that's not actually the case. The numbers are not that skewed--and that's a very good thing, because a corner kid is a kid who is an alien. His culture is different than our culture. So therefore, it would be no different than a corner kid and stoop kid walking down a path and they see a rock and the stoop kid picks it up and says, ‘This would be a nice building material,' and the corner kid picks it up and says, ‘This is a hell of a weapon.'"

To Burns, these diverging paths are laid out for kids early on, such that by the time they reached his middle-school classroom, the chasm separating the stoop kid from the corner kid is too great to breach in the same setting. For the corner kid, the classroom is merely a safe setting to test his mettle at the games he sees played out on the corner. "Lying to teachers, dipping and dodging, denying, making up excuses, all these different kinds of things," Burns says. "And when they think that they're ready, they drop out."

This process enables corner kids to insulate themselves in a single-minded shell of confidence that's impossible for teachers to penetrate by conventional--or even traditionally unconventional--methods. "Remember the Scared Straight thing?" Burns asks. "None of that stuff works because the kid is, at this point, in a different state. And you can't shock them into understanding, ‘You're going the wrong way.' It doesn't make a difference."

This veneer of street knowledge that kids wrap themselves in to survive often proves too difficult to control in the classroom. "A successful teacher, like a successful cop, has to put the onus on themselves," Burns says. "Because once you don't assume the responsibility and then you start blaming the other--the kids in the classroom, the people on the corner--then you become part of the problem. And that is a natural inclination for most teachers and for most cops. And the way to be successful, within the definition of ‘successful' within the Baltimore City Public School System, is to drop everything on the kids."

Even that modest definition of success, though, is a ruse. "You're never successful, that's for sure," Burns says. "If you look at these people from Teach for America, when you see them after, maybe, their first three or four months, they have the same eyes that guys coming from 'Nam used to have. The thousand-yard stare. They're shocked--it's a matter of them surviving."

The past decade--hell, the past summer--of Baltimore City education reporting is littered with depressing stories of poor performance and management at every level of the enterprise. A June 27 Sun story by Sara Neufeld stated that only 38.5 percent of Baltimore's high-school students graduate four years after entering, an abysmal graduation rate beaten, if such is the word, by Detroit's 21.7. A July 19 Sun story by Liz Bowie reported that six Baltimore schools are designated "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. An Aug. 15 Sun story by former City Paper staff writer Gadi Dechter reported on the city school board's June 13 vote to lower the minimum passing grade from 70 to 60. And who can forget the more than $50 million budget deficit disclosed in 2003-'04, a fiscal oversight shadow that still hangs over a system trying to implement multiyear reforms that include some school closings and mergers.

Baltimore has become inured to the shortcomings of its public schools, but even the city's most ardent critics don't view the system as fundamentally impotent as the one Burns describes. Newspaper reports present a flawed but repairable system that can make Burns' impassioned wake-up call sound like hyperbole.

"Listen, to hear all the stories that Ed has and all the things that happened to Ed in seven years [of teaching], if anything we're being generous to the system," Simon says. "Ed would argue too generous."

He laughs. "We all want to believe in that Lake Wobegone moment, that all the kids are above average," Simon continues. "But in believing that, there's an element of denial there, and Ed Burns is not about that kind of self-deceit. He's fought too many losing wars not to be full-throated in his criticisms. Between Vietnam, the drug war, and teaching in city schools, I think he's earned the right to call shit ‘shit.'"


TO DO SO, THOUGH, SIMON, BURNS, AND THE WIRE had to find young performers capable of bringing season four's classrooms to life. "It was sort of putting the show at stake in a lot of ways, because you're basically giving over a season of the show to young unknown actors," Simon says. "They had to be right."

From the first moments you see Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds), Namond Brice (Julito McCullum), Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), and Duquan "Dukie" Weems (Jermaine Crawford) in season four's debut episode, you know The Wire got them right. Whether sitting together on a stoop or trying to snare a pigeon in an alleyway, the four young performers collectively exude the camaraderie of neighborhood boys who grew up together and individually understand the nuances of each other's characters. Michael is a quiet if subtly confident young man, growing up a little too fast because his mother's a junkie and he has to take care of his little brother. Both of Duquan's parents neglect him, selling his clothes for drug money as he goes for days--weeks?--without such basics as food or water. Randy is just a peach; he lives with his foster mother, who keeps him on a short leash, but he still finds a way to make some money selling snacks to the underclassmen. And the colorful Namond is the corner heir apparent, the son of imprisoned Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bay (Hassan Johnson, who only has a handful of scenes this season and hits every one out of the park), who is called upon by his mother to step up and be the man of the house.

These four young performers--found after extensive casting calls regionally and in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago--hit the ground running opposite actors who, in some cases, have spent three seasons with their characters. It took coaching and coaxing to get there.

"One of the problems was getting past this hip-hop world," Burns says. "A lot of the tapes, the readings, were always the exact same readings--the exact same hand motions at the exact same word, stuff like that--because hip-hop is so prevalent the kids are always seeing those things. And our four kids are not hip-hop kids, because when you're down at the bottom there is no hip-hop. Hip-hop grows from the bottom. If you want to see ‘hip-hop,' you go out into the county and watch white boys walk up and down the street. So we had to find kids who were human."

Even after finding four human kids, though, began the difficult task of preparing the actors for their roles. They had to study characters' analyses that the writing staff prepared for themand figure out a way to be natural and loose during group scenes, to "act" like kids. They had to learn how to fit into the vocal rhythm of the show and find a comfortable physicality for the role since, being teenagers, so much of what their performance entails is nonverbal, conveyed in head postures, facial expressions, and body language.

The task of workshopping the roles with the four actors fell to Burns and a familiar Wireface, actor Robert Chew, who plays the indelible Proposition Joe in the series. Since 1993, Chew has worked with the youth theater program at Baltimore's Arena Players, the United States' oldest still-active African-American community theater company; he's currently its music director. And Chew saw his job as to help the actors find their roles inside themselves.

"If it's not real, it's not believable--that's my main motto with children," Chew says over the phone. Out of his Prop Joe character, Chew has a comforting, musical voice--not the gravelly baritone that promised, "You fuck with me, I'll kill your whole family," in season one. "I try to bring out what they know, not what they think they ought to do or what they see in television but, ‘How do you feel about it? What would you do?'"

Throughout shooting, the process involved sitting down with the young actors and reading through the latest script and letting the young men ask questions about the how and why of their characters. And sometimes, it took a little prodding.

"The hardest character to sell was Michael," Burns says. "There are looks that you see on the street of kids that you know are dangerous, who have this capacity--and the capacity is not to get angry. And we only saw one kid in maybe 500 takes who actually demonstrated that--unfortunately, he was a corner kid and couldn't act a lick."

All four actors deliver rich performances, but Tristan Wilds' portrayal of Michael is truly something to behold. In a series that values subtlety and doing more with less in its actors, Wilds emerges as a standout player in a role that may have fewer lines than anybody else featured in every episode this year. It's a performance that makes his journey over the entire season fascinating and unforgettable.

"Tristan had to find Michael as an actor," Chew says. "Michael really has a lot to do with looks and hardly any dialogue, a character who is sheltered and quiet, and he knows he has to take care of his little brother, so he's slowly building up inside. And Tristan just knew how to get there without having any experience in that matter at all--he has a great family, I met his father and his brothers. But he just really did his homework. He would ask, ‘What's this guy like?' And I would tell him, ‘Think of a time bomb. Think of steam getting kept up.' And every day he would just come to rehearsal and get closer to and closer to that."

Simon--who cherubically admits, "I'm really enamored of those kids, and not just because they're kids. I don't want to sound patronizing, but they were so generous and good-hearted about the project"--remembers when Burns finally saw Michael in Tristan Wilds during casting. "Ed did something with him," he says. "Ed said, ‘I want you to look at me when I say something to you. Give me a look.'"

Burns was basically running through a confrontation from episode two but winging it a little bit. "He was looking to see if there was enough gravitas in Tristan," Simon says. "And in this instance it's Ed just insulting the shit out of this kid, and Tristan gave him a look that was sufficient. And Ed just turned and said, ‘He'll work.'"


THE ABOVE SCENARIO MIGHT SOUND EXTRANEOUSLY SEVERE, but it wasn't an effort to extract something as artificial as method realism. Burns was aiming for an emotional honesty that it is integral to season four's entire purpose. Education is already a hot topic in state politics, but no matter who wins on Nov. 7 the losers will be the students on their way to Baltimore city schools that are more than likely ill-equipped and -prepared to educate them sufficiently to compete in today's world.

"For Ed, this was his chance to say, ‘I taught in this system for seven years, I loved a lot of these kids, and it was frustrating to see how many of them were being consigned to no future,'" Simon says. "The big theme that we say about the school system is they're not even telling themselves the truth about the extent and the nature of the problem. Being honest about what you're doing and what you're not achieving, and what's possible and what's not possible given your resources and your standing, that's like the first of the 12 steps. First you got to admit you have a problem. And when you're bullshitting test scores and you're teaching the test and you play horseshit about what ‘proficient' means and you're pretending to teach and they're pretending to learn, that's already the first barrier preventing you from solving anything."

The egregious fact here is that it doesn't have to be so--and it's not strictly a matter of funding. Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), the Western District police commander who was ousted after implementing the "Hamsterdam" free zones in season three, returns in season four as an adviser to an educational research team that enters the middle school and forms smaller class groups with the most problematic kids--the corner kids--to focus on their specific classrooms needs.

"We actually did that at Hamilton," Burns says. "We did it for two years. We had two teams of teachers--myself and my team of teachers worked with the acclimated kids. And we had another set of teachers who were, quote, ‘older and more experienced,' who worked with the unacclimated kids. Stoop kids, corner kids."

According to Burns, the corner kids' teachers did no preparation and "basically got slaughtered." The other classes? "In the two years that we had our kids we had dramatic turnarounds as far as scores--300 percent raises in our MSPAP scores," he says of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. "Hamilton usually sent two or three kids a year to magnet schools. We sent 104 kids. It was tremendous. It was dramatic. And then [the district] shut the program down, and I left and went to teach at City College, and then the principal left and it was like, that was it."

Over the course of season four you watch True-Frost's Prez slowly begin to recognize the same organizational ineptitude in the school district as he saw in the police force: protocol over thinking, what works over what's right, the small-mindedness of top-down management. It's the same story all over again.

"In every single season of The Wire there is an obliviousness to the problem that is the first failure of an institution," Simon says. "It's people fucking around with the fine tuning when the thing is on fire. You saw it at the port--the work itself is dying. The classroom is dying. Police work is dying. And the neighborhood is dying. And now the problem is such a totality that we're at least in position where we can start contemplating a solution. But every institution is self-preserved, and everybody has their own ambitions in those institutions."

In the final episode of season four, a character delivers a monologue that lucidly illustrates this idea of living the lie of the American dream, a condition to which anybody--whether he or she be a drug dealer, worker, police officer, politician, or teacher--can relate: "When shit goes bad and there's hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like them little bitches on the chessboard."

It's during these quietly profound moments, which would mean nothing to a viewer who hasn't invested time and effort in watching the show, that the cumulative power of The Wirehits you like a ton of bricks. It is in these intricately plotted but understatedly dramatized scenes--and season four is lousy with them--that the show transcends the trappings of genre.The Wire has turned Baltimore into a palpable place in popular consciousness, an entity as alive as Saul Bellow's Chicago, Martin Amis' London, or James Ellroy's Los Angeles. It's a city with a place in a monolithic piece of fiction that can't be reined in by the medium that carries it, and this season should finally be the one that makes critics finally stop dismissingThe Wire as a "cop show."

"They will," Simon says. "They'll call it ‘gritty and complex.' I said this out at [the Television Critics Association summer press tour], I said, ‘If you guys would just stop calling us gritty and complex. Would that we be gritless and simple we'd be fine.' Because it's just shorthand for saying there are some scary Negroes and they don't explain everything that they're doing to you right away [in the show]. It's like, come on. The Sopranos is complex. Deadwood is extremely complex. Calling something complex is another word for saying it's not for idiots. Anything worth watching in drama is complex."

He sounds anxious because The Wire's season five--and season four ends on a note thatrequires a concluding season--exists only on paper now. HBO has yet to say whether it will be commissioning a fifth season or not. At the moment Simon remains optimistic--critics' responses to season four have thus far been positive and sales of the season three DVDs strong--but the show has never drawn the kinds of ratings of The Sopranos or Sex and the City, HBO's signature zeitgeist shows. (It's worth noting that The Wire is the only HBO drama that hasn't followed The Sopranos on the station's Sunday night lineup.) But at this point Simon has done everything he can to get there. This season's episodes are written, shot, and edited. The press screeners are sent out. The station's marketing plan is unfolding. The publicity interviews are transcribed. All that's left is to wait and see how HBO executives respond to the critics' and viewers' responses.

And right now, HBO is being very vague about the future of the show. "Well, you know, the reason to do [season five] for us is if we can really find the best place to put it so we can support it and schedule it and market it in all the right ways," says Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, over the phone from Los Angeles. "So if we can figure all that out, because we have a lot of commitments upcoming, then we would certainly like to do that."

When HBO is going to figure that out, though--midseason or at its end--she isn't saying. "You know what, I think as soon as we can make [the decision], we will," Strauss says. "But there are a lot of pieces in play right now. We're just juggling all those pieces and looking to figure it all out. And obviously, David is an incredibly important part of the HBO family, and we want to keep that all working as well as we can."

And so, Simon, Burns, and The Wire wait to find out if they get to see their story through to the end that they envision for it. "I've always said the purpose of serial storytelling on TV should not be to maintain the serial at all costs," Simon says. "Say what you got to say with the universe you've created and get out. Go to another universe. So if HBO doesn't want to do it, I'll have to do it as a prose novel or fucking stand out on Charles Street and act it out. Pantomime. I don't know--but I've got to do something. Where we have this thing planned out to, the ending of this thing as we see it, informs all the other seasons. I have to finish it. We've spent too much time working on this--and I don't want more than that."

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