Baltimore returns to prime time tonight, and it does so on the most prestigious stage in American television: Sunday nights on HBO, the home of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. The news is that The Wire, a 13-week series about life on both sides of a major drug investigation in the Baltimore housing projects, deserves to breathe that rarefied air.
Like those two dramas, The Wire might be an acquired taste for viewers who warm to innovative programming slowly. But those who stick with the show for two or three episodes are going to find themselves caring about people with whom they may never have imagined becoming acquainted.
For some viewers, though, the biggest reward will spring from the way the show speaks to widespread feelings - anger, disillusionment, unease - about the workplace or other once-trusted institutions in their own lives. Like The Sopranos, which is as much about what capitalism can do to the middle-aged American male as it is the mob, The Wire is as much about what modern-day institutions can do to all of us as it is the government's so-called war on drugs.
The pilot for The Wire starts out looking like a traditional police drama - specifically, Homicide: Life on the Street. That's not surprising since The Wire's creator is David Simon, author of the book upon which Homicide was based and a writer-producer for the NBC series. Furthermore, Clark Johnson, who played Detective Meldrick Lewis on Homicide, is the director of tonight's debut episode.
A well-crafted opening to a television drama is like an overture to a musical. To succeed, it must, however fleetingly, sound the major themes and melody of the piece, as well as suggesting its continuing sensibility. Tonight's opening is a great one.
The camera starts in tight focus on a stream of blood on a city street at night. The blood is given a blue strobe-light effect by the flashing lights of police cars parked around it. The blood leads to the lifeless body of a teen-ager.
Nearby on the stoop of a boarded-up rowhouse, sit Baltimore homicide detective James McNulty (Dominic West) and a young man from the neighborhood. Both look straight ahead at the murder scene while talking:
"So, the boy's name is what?" McNulty asks.
"Snot," the young man next to him replies.
"You call the guy Snot?" McNulty asks as if he can't believe his ears.
"Snot Boogie. Yeah.
"Snot Boogie? He like the name?" the detective says.
"Snot Boogie. This kid whose mama went to the trouble to christen him Omar Isiah Betts. You know, he forgets his jacket, so his nose starts running. And some [expletive] instead of giving him a Kleenex, he calls him Snot. And so he's Snot forever. It doesn't seem fair."
At first, there's no response. Then the young man says, "Life just be that way, I guess."
There's no guessing about it: Don't look for fairness, honesty or hard work duly rewarded anywhere in the world of The Wire.
Yin and yang
Now McNulty says, "So, who shot Snot?" And, in a moment reminiscent of Homicide in which the dialogue suddenly turns from darkly comic to definitely cosmic, the scene ends with the clear understanding that Simon's new series isn't only about life in the streets of this bombed-out, Beirut-like corner of Baltimore; it's about society in post-Enron America.
Though this opening scene and that of the pilot for Homicide - which featured Lewis (Johnson) and his partner in a similar discussion as they searched a late-night murder scene for clues - share similarities, what matters most are their differences. In Homicide, two detectives, both on the side of the angels, struggled to serve justice and social order. In The Wire, a detective and a criminal, both soldiers in a meaningless war, share a moment of understanding about life in the trenches. Here lie the yin and yang of the series.
After the opening credits, we meet McNulty's counterpoint on the other side of the law, a mid-level dealer named D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) who is on trial for killing a man in a housing project. The event that sets the 13-week story in motion comes when Barksdale is acquitted after an eyewitness recants her testimony.
After the trial, McNulty tells the judge that the case blew up in his courtroom because the police mishandled it and that Barksdale is part of a large and brutal drug operation that intimidates or kills anyone who gets in its way. The judge tears into McNulty's supervisors, and they in turn tear into McNulty for going outside the chain of command. But the police administrators also launch an investigation - using the word loosely - into the drug operation in an attempt to placate the judge. In part, the title is a reference to methods of surveillance used in that investigation.
Promise and flaws
The pilot does an effective job of placing most of the players on the chessboard. But, with the exception of the opening scene, this first episode is not perfect. At times, it assumes an insider's sense of city government as it sketches the bureaucracy within which McNulty works. And in the drug dealers' world, the use of dialect and slang make it difficult to catch the nuances of what is being said.
Some viewers may bristle at the idea of Simon, a white writer, creating this sort of dialogue for African-American characters.
I would remind those viewers, though, of The Corner, Simon's landmark HBO miniseries, in which he reversed 50 years of television stereotyping by refusing to demonize African-American members of the drug world. It was as if he wrote the first western through the eyes of Native Americans instead of the settlers or cavalry. But Simon co-wrote The Corner miniseries with an African-American partner, David Mills. Simon has solo credit on this screenplay. (He shares story credit with former Baltimore police detective Edward Burns.)
In the first five episodes of The Wire, there also are problems with how women are portrayed. The few female characters in the series, such as Det. Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), are defined almost exclusively by their jobs or sexuality. Overall, the combination of flaw and innovation is enough to give me pause in predicting how large an audience the series will ultimately find.
But I'm rooting for The Wire - not because it is produced in Baltimore and creates local jobs, but because of how high it tries to reach.
This week I screened an HBO documentary produced by Barbara Kopple, one of America's great nonfiction filmmakers. Titled American Standoff, the documentary tells the story of the continuing Teamsters' strike of Overnite Transportation.
In the film, a 26-year veteran of the firm whose family has worked for Overnite for three generations explains his sense of despair and betrayal when Union Pacific took over the company and started downsizing. As I listened to this man, I went from sadness to anger not just over his plight, but also at my entire generation for somehow losing the world of trust and security that our fathers knew in the American workplace.
That is the sociology and those are the emotions to which The Wire speaks. That is what makes it so worthy of Sunday nights on HBO.
One to watch, What: The Wire.
When: Tonight at 10.
In brief: Two sides of Baltimore's drug war open a window on life in post-Enron America.