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Viceland trades on Michael K. Williams' Omar persona in sensationalistic 'Black Market'

Michael K. Williams, who portrayed Omar in HBO's "The Wire," hosts "Black Market" on Viceland. The new show, premiering July 5, 2016, focuses on society's underground economy and those who are forced to deal in it. David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun critic, takes a look. (Christopher T. Assaf/The Baltimore Sun)

We've been down this TV road before: unidentified men in masks and hoods pointing guns at the camera and saying "the system" is to blame for the crimes they commit.

Two summers ago, it was National Geographic Channel's "Drugs, Inc.: The High Wire," which purported to be a backstage look at drug trafficking in Baltimore. Heavy on images of danger and woefully light on verified facts and ID's, it was instead an exercise in sensationalistic reality TV masquerading as journalism.

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And now comes the series "Black Market" on Viceland featuring Michael K. Williams, who played the outlaw Omar on "The Wire," as a correspondent and guide into underground economies. First up at 10 p.m. Tuesday: carjackers in New Jersey.

I dislike this reality series so much it has nearly turned me off altogether to the Viceland channel, which I celebrated when it debuted in February.

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For those not familiar with Viceland, it is a cable initiative from Vice, a global media operation that aims to be the single most important source of news, information and entertainment for millennials.

"Our goal," Williams tells viewers in the opening episode of his new series, "is simply to show the world a window as to why people do the things they do — where that desperation comes from. As they say, when the system fails you, you create your own system."

If "Black Market" is representative of the kind of window to social reality Viceland is going to be for millennials, they might want to consider another channel if they don't want to be one of the most uninformed and media-exploited generations in American history.

"The carjacking situation in Newark, it's sad," Williams says directly to the camera at the start of the half-hour show. "It's sad when people feel like society has pushed them into such a corner that this is the only way out: to just hold people up at gunpoint."

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The camera follows Williams onto the nighttime streets of Newark as he approaches an apartment building, enters, climbs some steps and knocks on a door. As the door opens, viewers see a room filled with men in masks, some of them armed. There's a close-up of a machine gun.

After he gives his greetings of handshakes and hugs to the men in hoods and masks, Williams says, "We're talking about what's going on the streets of Newark right now: carjacking. Why has this become a means of survival?

"The don't want to give us jobs, so [expletive] it," one man says.

"We gonna do what we gotta do," says another.

"The money out here is [expletive] up. It ain't what it used to be," adds a third. "And if you can get a 2014 or 2015 X5 [BMW] or 2015 Porsche, and it takes 5 minutes to make 10 stacks, why not?" (Stack is slang for $1,000).

There is no way to know how authentic these people are or aren't — they are not identified in any way. All their voices are distorted into growly tones.

As with the National Geographic production, we are asked to trust the producers that the people depicted as criminals really are what they present themselves to be — and that what they are saying is true.

But if they really are criminals, shouldn't there be some acknowledgment of the ethics of protecting their identities? And if they commit these kinds of crimes, why should I believe anything they say?

I know those are the questions of a journalist, and journalism is not what "Black Market" is actually about, even though Williams describes his role in the first episode as "going after a story." Instead, it's about giving viewers the fake sense they are hanging with Williams — or better yet, Omar, on some of the meaner streets of urban America. The series attempts to exploit not just Williams' celebrity, but the energy and appeal of the epic character he played on "The Wire."

The framing and shadowy photography of Williams at night instantly evokes Omar. But the producers aren't leaving anything to chance with just imagery and symbolism. They hit viewers over the head with references to Omar and "The Wire" through Williams' narration five minutes into the piece.

In talking about the "anger and pain" on the streets of Newark, Williams says, "I know a little about that."

"In the second or third season of 'The Wire' when it appeared I had all the money and fame in the world, I was actually broke, because I was spending all my money on buffoonery," he says in voiceover. "Mike went from being corny Mike to cool-ass Omar, and the lines in my head got blurred. I was never more [expletive] in my head than when I landed here."

Williams says he needed a place "to hide," and people in Newark gave him that.

"They created a safe haven for me with all the danger, all the carjackings, all the murder and mayhem," he says.

Williams goes on to tell viewers that he started learning to love" himself during that time at Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, N.J..

He's shown speaking to the members of the church, telling them that he brought the cameras to show that this is where he "became a man."

While the press material from Viceland promises that Williams will share "his own experiences with addiction, crime and poverty" throughout the four-episode series, the sharing in this first one is not very specific.

As he says he spent all his money on buffoonery, the image shown is a tight shot of an unidentified man's upper torso covered in tattoos. Not to be sarcastic about it, but is he saying he spent all his money on tattoos? I don't think so.

A few seconds later, there is an image of two men smoking something and blowing the smoke toward the camera. Is that what he spent his money on? If so, why not show that with the word buffoonery? And why not be clear about what they are smoking?

It's all ambiguity and suggestion, almost nothing concrete and factual. And that's the opposite of journalism and biography.

Any serious piece of television that raises the issues Williams and his producers do in "Black Market" should answer those kinds of questions. Otherwise, the celebrity biography element is merely tease — nothing more than a hipper version of "Access Hollywood" or "Entertainment Tonight." And that doesn't exactly fit Vice's PR image of edgy, global, in-the-know TV for millennials.

You watch this and you know nothing about Williams except the public narrative he wants to spin.

Maybe I wouldn't be so critical of "Black Market" if I had not just seen a powerful piece on "Frontline" about the struggle to reform police in Newark. The cameras in "Policing the Police" captured members of a gang unit slamming a young man to the pavement and handcuffing him when they had no need to do so.

Jelani Cobb, the correspondent, had video of that bad stop and he questioned several layers of police and city officials about it. And he was nothing but specific — the opposite of the vague, hip, all-suggestion-and-no-substance storytelling in "Black Market." The "Frontline" report tells viewers that the gang unit was subsequently charged with a range of illegal acts and has since been disbanded.

That's the way you report on crime and serve your audience and community rather than exploiting them.

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"I wanted to find out why so many dudes in this city are so desperate they would shove a gun in your face and steal your car," Williams tells viewers.

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"Black Market" offers the easy answer: Carjackers steal cars at gunpoint because the system is messed up and it is the only way they can survive.

But if that's true, what about the guy in the mask who says he can make $10,000 in five minutes, and asks, "So, why not?"

That's not about survival, that's making serious money without serious labor. Another masked man who identifies himself as a "carjacker with sympathy" says he's not "trying to take nobody's life" — he's "just trying to get it the easy way."

"Black Market" promises to take viewers inside the culture of carjackers. But instead it goes the easy way with flashy video, hollow answers, a heavy dose of celebrity — and no deeper understanding of a very serious problem.

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

"Black Market" premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on Viceland.

Comcast in Baltimore carries Viceland on channels 876 HD and 116 SD. It is also carried on DISH (121), DTV (271), AT&T (257) and Verizon (127).

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