In a gritty West Baltimore neighborhood, in a courtyard where broken glass competes with tufts of grass for space, a teen-age boy sits quietly in a chair, peering intently at a small toy in his hand, oblivious to the rest of the world. Without warning, an empty whiskey bottle is hurled at the wall behind him, shattering within inches of his ear and jolting him out of his trance. A few yards away, another, older youth screams at him to pay attention, cursing in the epithet-filled street language not taught in schools.
The younger kid is supposed to be a lookout. The older kid is one of the neighborhood's most notorious drug dealers, and the reason he's upset is that some rivals have been trespassing on his turf. His lookout's inattention speaks volumes about how that could happen.
It's a scene that could be acted out any day in any number of drug-infested areas of Baltimore. Only this one ends when someone yells "Cut!" The boy in the chair, an actor, gets up and starts wiping the fake blood off his face, and the director -- who looks amazingly like one of the detectives from Homicide: Life on the Street -- walks over and envelops the kid in a big bear hug. Then they do the scene all over again -- except for the part where the bottle gets thrown; no one wants young actor Michael Jordan to go through that again.
Both sides of the law
Once again, writer-producer David Simon is using the gritty streets of Baltimore as the setting for a TV series. But the bleak realities of Charm City that have come to life in Simon's previous TV ventures, Homicide and The Corner, are just the tip of the iceberg in The Wire, set to make its debut on HBO next month. This time, the jaundiced drug sellers and jaded cops are just the backdrop for a world writ much larger than the streets of Baltimore. This time, Simon says, he's focusing on a wider and, in some ways, more disturbing, cultural malady -- a world where institutions have become more important than the people in them.
Simon promises The Wire -- which, over the course of 13 weeks, will follow one case from beginning to end -- will bring something new to the crime-show genre.
"This is a drama masquerading as a cop show," he says. "I'm not interested in making a cop show. We're interested in using police work for verisimilitude, we're fascinated by police work. But I'm totally uninterested in a cop show."
Simon and his associates are loathe to reveal too much about the series; no one wants to see their thunder get stolen, see their plots unfold on some other show or be sprayed across the Internet. But here are the basics: The series will split its time roughly down the middle, focusing on law enforcement half the time, law avoidance the other half. For the first season, the narcotics and homicide squads of the Baltimore Police Department are working together on bringing down an especially notorious drug kingpin, but it's an open question whether they really want to get him and his operation off the streets, or simply make enough noise to keep the press busy and their supervisors smiling.
The case involves lots of surveillance and numerous wiretaps -- hence, the series' name. But it also refers to the tightrope people on both sides of the law walk, trying to keep the bosses satisfied.
It's a world Simon, 41, has come to learn intimately, first as a longtime reporter for The Sun, then while building himself an enviable resume among the scribes of TV land. His first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, formed the basis of the much-lauded, six-year NBC series, for which he served as both writer and, eventually, producer. His second book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, was turned into an HBO miniseries that he also wrote and executive-produced -- and for which he won an Emmy.
The bigger questions
This go-round, it turns out, Simon is interested in themes more societal, having more to do with the world we all live in than the one corner of that world populated by cops, criminals and the courts.
The Wire, he says, is about how allegiance to a cause or loyalty to an organization means little anymore, about how institutions -- and this proves as true of the cops as of the crooks -- no longer look out for their own, but are interested only in the bottom line.
It's about emphasizing the whats over the hows, about police departments worrying more about justifying their budgets -- making lots of arrests -- than stopping crime, about inner-city neighborhoods where drug pushers ply their craft with little thought of the destruction they are promoting.
"I'm more interested in what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself in this society," he explains, "and how you expose yourself if, for a minute, you think you're anything other than a hired gun.
"You're dealing with institutions that are committed to surviving as institutions, and validating themselves as institutions, as opposed to validating any of the individuals who are committed to them.
"In my father's day," Simon continues, his cynicism level rising, "everybody went to work and got the gold watch after 30 years, and they took care of you, and you got a pension. Anybody who buys into any institution in this country now, almost up to your own family -- you can almost trust your own family -- but every institution larger than your own family will betray you at some level."
Carolyn Strauss, HBO's senior vice president of programming, says it was Simon's determination to step outside the boundaries of the conventional cop show that persuaded her network to commit to The Wire -- and to program the show as part of its blockbuster Sunday night lineup, which already includes Oz, The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, critical favorites all.
"He laid out a vision of a television show where the main characters were policemen, but that in very subtle ways distinguished itself from a standard network cop show," she says. "It's really a dual-perspective show. You're seeing the police side of things, and you're also seeing the pursued's side of the equation."
Shooting a scene
Here on this warm April day, in a courtyard of the McCullough Homes housing project, a few dozen actors and crew members are trying to commit that vision to video. They're filming episode five, titled "A Little Slow, A Little Late," and they'll spend the next five hours working on a scene -- centered on the shattered bottle -- that lasts roughly three minutes.
"Let's take our time with that bottle bit," the director shouts after one take. The familiar-looking director is Clark Johnson, who starred as Detective Meldrick Lewis on Homicide. Three years after that show left the air, he's returned to Baltimore to direct.
"It's hilarious," the Philadelphia-born Johnson jokes of his return to Charm City. "I feel like the Barry Levinson of my people."
On the set, a weather-beaten orange sofa sits in the middle of the courtyard. It's the central meeting place for D'Angelo Barksdale (Baltimore-born actor Larry Gilliard Jr.) and his posse. D'Angelo is nephew and lieutenant to little-seen drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). That means he's the man when it comes to the area's drug trade, as well as one of the centerpieces of the cops' investigation. He's also starting to develop something of a conscience, which doesn't bode well for his job security.
Over and over again, Johnson has Gilliard and his fellow actors act out the dialogue leading up to and away from the bottle-throwing. Sometimes overhead noise spoils a shot (like when a police helicopter flies nearby). Occasionally, a muffed line forces everyone to start over. But more often than not, it's Johnson's desire to shoot things from another angle, or have his actors read their lines a little differently, that's responsible.
"Bring it way down," Johnson says after one particularly vitriolic reading. "We're not going anywhere with it."
Ed Burns, Simon's co-writer on The Corner (the book), penned the script for this episode. During filming, he sits in a director's chair, following the action in his script and occasionally jotting down notes and possible revisions.
Burns is a former homicide detective who became a public school teacher before settling on writing as a new career.
"We want to go beyond the two facades," Burns says of the world he, Simon and the other writers (including Rafael Alvarez, another former Sun reporter) are crafting for the show. "We want to go beyond the cop facade, and we want to go beyond that vague criminal facade. There's two parallel universes running here, but there are connections between the two. The good guys are not pure good, and some of the bad guys are not pure bad.
"You don't want this to be a cop show," he says, repeating the company line. "This is not a cop show. This is about a world."
Johnson, finally finding a minute to talk during a break in the filming, echoes the notion that The Wire will somehow be different from what people have experienced. But maybe not that different.
"People who are fans of the genre, people who were fans of Homicide, are going to tune in," he predicts, tugging on his black baseball cap. "It's all about wiretapping, it's all about deceit, it's all about things not being what they seem to be. ... It's a thoughtful cop drama."
A message for the city
Gilliard, who grew up on the city's west side before leaving for New York at age 17 ("I'm older than that now," he says when asked his age), says he's disturbed at the picture The Wire paints of his hometown -- though it's a picture he says pretty accurately reflects what he sees on his frequent return visits here.
"I'm feeling like there's no place to go but up," he says outside of his dressing-room trailer. "I think things are going to get better here in the city fast. I go through the neighborhoods where I grew up, and I remember when they were thriving communities, everybody lived in a house. Now I go through, and I see a lot of abandoned houses. It's just really sad."
Gilliard's optimism may be baseless, but he thinks The Wire just might make a difference. Some of the people responsible for creating the sort of drug-infested hells that plague too many urban neighborhoods -- is it too much to hope they might feel something akin to embarrassment when they see themselves portrayed on the small screen?
"I know the guys in the game, I talk to them," he says of the real-life counterparts of the character he plays. "I can't wait for this show to come on, so they can see. ... Not that they don't know what's going on, but they can get another take on it. There's a message in there to be learned."
Predictably, Simon's ambitions are more scaled down.
"If the show works, you start out wondering if the cops who initiated this 13-part investigation are going to catch the bad guys," he says. "And somewhere along the line, you're not sure the bad guys are totally as bad as you thought they were, you're not sure the good guys are as good as you thought they were.
"What's more, you don't care whether they catch them," he says. "You just want everyone not to get hurt any more."