HBO's The Corner is landmark television -- a film that will stun those who haven't seen it, a social document that future generations will study for its remarkable sociology. I can think of no modern-day miniseries more worthy of being preserved, and that's why it's especially nice that HBO is now offering it on DVD.
The Corner turns the TV police drama on its head, showing us the world from the point of view of the very people that series like NYPD Blue and even Homicide: Life on the Street have helped teach us to despise -- the denizens of the drug world in cities like Baltimore. And it does so with an eloquence that will make some viewers care about that world in ways they never thought possible.
Make sure to start your viewing on the first episode with the segment titled "Gary's World"; that's where the HBO film, which is based on the non-fiction book of the same title by David Simon and former police detective Edward Burns, begins. Reminiscent of an Edward R. Murrow documentary, the opening shows Charles Dutton, who directed the miniseries, standing on a bombed-out Baltimore street corner speaking directly to the camera.
"I'm Charles S. Dutton. Last summer, I came back here to Baltimore, Md., to film a story about life on the corner," he begins.
"I grew up and hung out on a corner just like this one, not too far from here, a corner like thousands of others across the country," continues Dutton, whose personal journey from jail (the Maryland State Penitentiary for killing a man in a fight) to Yale (graduate study at the Yale School of Drama), and then Broadway to Hollywood has been chronicled many times in these pages.
The opening moves from documentary to docudrama as we meet Gary McCullough, played with an exquisite vulnerability by T.K. Carter (A Rage in Harlem), one of the three people at the center of the film. In the hellish cauldron of death and drugs at the corner of Monroe and Fayette, 34-year-old McCullough is the character most like us -- the mainly middle-class audience that subscribes to HBO.
Before his addiction to heroin, which started four years earlier, McCullough was a hardworking solid citizen and promising young entrepreneur holding down a day job as a supervisor at Bethlehem Steel and a night job as a security guard. He also had his own small company that rehabbed rowhouses, as well as a stock portfolio that he had managed to run up to $150,000 through a series of smart choices.
McCullough is an intelligent, decent and sensitive man whom you could easily imagine running a legitimate business instead of chasing an increasingly elusive heroin high seven days a week. But he's going down, down, down as we meet him, and his lingering sense of decency only makes him that much less likely to survive on the corner.
The other two major stories in the series belong to Fran Boyd, McCullough's estranged wife, and DeAndre McCullough, their 15-year-old son. Boyd, played by Khandi Alexander (ER), is also a junkie. DeAndre, played by Sean Nelson (The Wood), is an up-and-coming "corner boy," out on the street selling vials of cocaine and learning the game from a supplier named Bugsy. He's also acquiring a taste for what he sells.
With its focus on these three, The Corner is very much a family drama. But that is just one of several familiar television narratives it ultimately subverts; this isn't The Waltons. America had never seen this kind of family on TV before.