Archive for October 2006

Coming Clean

October 31, 2006

Episode 45 spoilers below. For posts on 44, see here, here and here.

Let me begin by saying that #45 was the worst episode of The Wire I’ve ever seen.

no good

Now that I have your attention… I’m serious. 45 was over-the-top preachy, with Prez, Sampson and co. reciting talking points instead of real dialogue in the teachers’ lounge. The moment where the one random teacher started talking about No Child Left Behind really made me want to turn off the television. How does a show that’s so good at making its critique through narrative and character and all the trappings of fiction wind up just spouting politics? And let’s not even talk about Herc. He’s not so much an example of what the show is doing wrong; he’s just so unbelievably bad at being a cop that it’s getting hard to watch. There was a moment when he and Carver were the same, but Carver has become good and Herc has just become the biggest, stupidest, oafiest oaf on the force.

bad cop

But worst of all, on 45, were the kids. You would have thought that Prez’s moment in the classroom of last week never happened for how they were behaving. And not like I expected The Wire to turn into To Sir, With Love and give us an after-school special where now all the kids just love learning and want to go to college, but a little building on his successes would have been nice. It’s so, so frustrating to witness how little they want to learn. I could turn this on Prez and say it’s his fault, but to be fair, it takes a while to become a good teacher. This is one reason why programs like Teach for America are in some way flawed: Unless you’re a real natural, it takes a few years to figure out how to be consistent with kids, how to not give in to them, how to resist the pressure to try something new every other day because you’re looking for an instant solution. And maybe my desire to see the kids turned on to math because of one moment of inspired teaching proves that I’m looking for instant gratification on the show. Maybe it does. But I feel so worn out watching the kids. Don’t they want to learn at all? These are the ones who are still showing up — you would think that they would want to get something out of it. And no, the occasional revelation that Michael does his homework does not satisfy me. Maybe this is realism, maybe I’m just having a hard time accepting The Way It Is. It tires me.

hw

But I have a bigger problem, and it’s that I don’t understand what the show is doing with these kids as voices of social critique. Let me back up a bit: I could listen to String, Avon, Omar, D’Angelo, Bodie challenge the hypocrisy of the police, the state, the education system, all day long. I am endlessly fascinated by the cross-overs between the criminal and the straight worlds. But I do not like being lectured to by a child. When Namond stands up and starts shooting his mouth about how all the adults are hypocrites because they smoke, I just want to give him a spanking and tell him to go play with his pals. And what really frustrates me is that I don’t understand what Simon & co. are doing with those moments: Are these moments for us to realize how naive Namond (and all the kids by extension) are? Are these genuine criticisms of the state? Are these moments an indictment of our previous sympathy for the outlaw elements because they reveal the limits of the game (ie, unlike String, who made decisions and had dignity, Namond is basically gun fodder lying in wait)? What is going on? Normally Colvin cuts Namond down when he starts riding his high horse without a helmet, but the scene just ended, leaving its meaning obscure.

I guess, too, that I’m just getting a little bit sick of watching kids. The Wire has always been a very grown-up show with very grown-up themes. In some way, perhaps, using children as such main players limits the show, even as it extends its reach into the educational system. I want more Omar; I want scenes with De’Londa; I want more Carcetti; I want more Sampson and Prez (at least when they’re not parroting policy memos). I love Dukie, I love Michael (and let me here say that I was obviously wrong when I said that no way had Michael been molested — dude Jumped from Bugs’s dad), I love Randy, I even like kids in real life. I’m just starting to sour on watching them every week — especially when I feel like they’re preaching to me, dropping knowledge that they don’t even have.

“Bleak to a fault?”

October 30, 2006

This goes off of #45. All #44 needs can be addressed by this post. 

As I believe I’ve let on in previous posts, my Season 4 experience has been irrevocably jacked up by spoilers. Although I did my best to avoid anything that smacked of them, one errant click was all it took for me to learn about what’s likely this cycle’s most pivotal event. Since then, I’ve been trying to come to terms with what I’ve lost, and thrashing myself for feeling so diminished. I don’t think H&H would exist were I not the kind of television watcher who thinks himself above mere surprise; anyone who has ever helped a Wire novice get his wings, or gone to see a film for a second time, probably harbors similar feelings. And the truth is, I watched Seasons 1 and 2 after I first got down with 3; knowing that D’Angelo got offed didn’t make it any easier to watch, and it wouldn’t have taken a genius to get that he was a martyr figure from the jump. The same went for Stringer’s demise, which was a cathartic moment despite the Times’s best effort to scoop fiction.

There’s also the fact that, as we all know, things pretty much always end up shit for everyone involved in our most beloved series. You can count on one hand the number of truly positive outcomes in the program’s history: stripper redeemed, Lester raised from the depths, Daniels as star, Daniels with Perlman, and possibly Jimmy gone soft. Other than that, everything can, and will, go wrong at some point. We don’t know exactly who, how and when, but as elusive internet icon Rocco Chappelle put it in a email, “people are going to die; plots are going to be foiled by incompetence, self-interest, and general chicanery”

While we may not know exactly which Boy of Summer will catch serious misery, or how it will unfold, there’s no mistaking we’re going to get our hearts pulped by season’s end. Spoilers can only hurt us so much, since we know most parties involved are doomed. Cops get fucked, criminals die, anyone with a soul gets crushed. The mechanics of plot and character that land them there, and watching it all so masterfully play out, are the real meat of the matter.

The Wire might not necessarily be predictable, but its utter pessimism and unfaltering belief in institutional tyranny doesn’t leave a lot of breathing room for humanity. At the same time, developing some of the most vivid characters in the history of the moron box puts the invested viewer in near-sadistic situation: share their world, then have it wrung out of you. I can’t help but wonder if plot doesn’t somehow serve to mitigate the anguish, since it allows you to hold out hope until the final, shiftily-delivered punch.

That’s not to downplay the complexity of these real-like situations, or suggest that I ever know what’s coming. But there’s certainly something paradoxical about a program gashed with plot twists that nevertheless operates under a basic fatalistic presumption. Perhaps it’s that we learn about ruin by witnessing various paths to it; on a generic level, all of these stories are the same. What imbues them with meaning, though, is the people behind them, and their fairly futile choices and interpretations.

(Of course, this depends on how much you think The Wire’s invested in the serial structure—“visual novel” would seem to say no—and  whether or not slow-burning can be read as a narrative decision, not a recipe for viewer titillation and agony.)

The arrival of Michael’s abusive stepfather was almost a relief—here was the molester we’d so frequently asked after, and now all of a sudden one of the four kids seemed fast-tracked for disaster. The scenes from next, where we see him reaching out to Marlo, were both stunning and, once you saw them, sadly obvious. Cutty, Prez. . . none of them actually have any power to wrest these teens from the jaws of crisis. The more you see Namond treating his grind like a fluffy rite of passage, right down to employing babies and whining at his mother about “wanting to build,” the more you realize how insulated his life is. Dukie suffers more from neglect than deliberate mistreatment; perhaps suspiciously, Prez has been able to turn him from stinky, world-weary creep to beaming, social creature, albeit one whose development seems a little arrested.

Michael’s stepfather, though, is about the darkest, most chilling kind of creature we’ve yet seen on the show; when a force like this shows up, it makes perfect sense to come running to evil incarnate. Michael doesn’t just need a role model, or encouragement—he’s facing his own version of the devil, and lord knows you fight monstrosity with monstrosity. Of all of the young’uns, Michael has the most advanced understanding of The Game; he’s also pragmatic enough to get that going to Marlo might just be his only guaranteed option

Just in case everyone’s slitting their hands right about now, I hope I’m not the only one who took note of Chris’s choice in footwear:

Back on mines

October 30, 2006

Welcome back, those of you returning after the long Wire hiatus. You can click here, here, and here for our thoughts on #44. For anyone pleasuring themselves in the realm of OnDemand, I’ll have something new and sterling by late afternoon. And people spreading leaked copies around the webs. . . if this blog wanes, you’re the reason why.

Lucky Sevens

October 25, 2006

Be warned: 44 spoilers await. (Count ‘em.)

As jetset pointed out on Monday, 44 contains a very amusing set piece of Prezbo getting the kids interested in math by teaching them, well, the numbers: He notices them playing poker at lunchtime (using pistachioes in lieu of money, although a quarter is placed on the table just to “remind” Michael of the 25 pistachioes he owes) and starts spontaneously schooling them on the odds. Then, with the help of a basement raid, he produces enough dice for the whole class to break up in groups and learn a few things about odds. He sets Dukie up with a computer and the look of joy on Dukie’s face as he manned what I presume are the records of the activity, although he could be busy doing something else, was one of my favorite moments of the whole episode.

dice

Presumably Prez is gonna get spanked for this: He’s gone off the curriculum (smelling trouble, the principal already warned him about this); he’s raided the basement; and, of course, he’s encouraging gambling. Of course I’d say what he’s doing is great — as he put it, and I’m paraphrasing here, If you trick them into having fun, they learn without meaning to. He’s discovering that good teaching means turning your kids’ minds on, putting things in context — and context doesn’t just mean a boring word problem about traveling from Philadelphia to Baltimore, as he tried to do in his first class. And it’s sure better than paying kids to learn, as some have resorted to. Seems to me that paying kids to learn is just one more way to bring the profit motive, corporations, and all that other junk into the classroom. Prez knows that his students aren’t innocent, but he’s not so jaded that he thinks that they won’t be motivated by good times as opposed to greenbacks.

Numbers, and gambling, have mattered on The Wire for a long time now. Marlo’s and Royce’s poker games this season clearly come to mind. Being good at gambling — knowing the odds — in Marlo’s case is a kind of metaphor for his maturity. He doesn’t usually win at poker; he’s still, in this sense, green. Royce’s card games were a sham, where the interesting bet wasn’t on who’s going to win but on how many more he was going to call before the primary. And then, of course, there’s Cheese. Remember the dog fights? Another gamble. Not to say that this episode in Prez’s class is directly harkening to all these moments, but it’s interesting to think about where the bets lead, how they pay off, who they pay to.

chalkboard

It seems like every time you a class full of black children in the movies or on TV, they’re behaving like caged animals. The Wire argues that the kids’ behavior is largely a matter of who the authority figure is: They settle down for Sampson, but act out for Prez. One of the reasons I liked Half Nelson so much (see it, see it, and not just because, as Shoals pointed out, Donut and Michael are in it) is that it showed black kids as being decent: More or less behaved, not wielding razor blades or knives, rowdy, but no rowdier than your average middle-class white classroom of adolescents. On The Wire the kids are easy to distract and impossible to reach. (We know that they learn in some classes, but we never see those scenes.) I understand that The Wire is offering a realistic depiction of an inner-city classroom, and that it can be really that bad, if not worse, but I still feel like the presentation of young black children as so badly behaved in school reinforces some really terrible stereotypes. I’ve been waiting to see these kids have a moment where they learned something, and that moment finallly arrived.

Seeing the kids get into math because they feel like it matters — like they need it —- of course, more than anything, recalls String educating himself to be a better businessman. The Wire has always been interested in the overlaps between the straight world and the criminal world, how knowledge is trafficked between the two, how their rules and cultures inform each other. And while it’s hard as hell to convince twelve year olds that geometry has any meaning in their lives outside of K-12 (when those of us on the other side can say that it really doesn’t), odds are something small that they can hold on to. Not to get all weepy about it, but maybe they’ll see that the fun of learning something new can carry over even to what you can’t use to pass the time on the corner or to make fifty cents or, one day, to win at Marlo’s table. One class might not change anybody’s life, or the show, which is hurtling ever faster towards its inevitable tragic end, but it does round out the kids’ characters and shows them capable of waking up for a few minutes inside the school. (Also provided a pretty amazing parallel with the “troubled kids” class that Namond is in. I don’t know how anyone else felt about that, but I found it so, so depressing to watch those little boys spew such invective at the teachers — esp. the women. It exhausted me.) I was happy to see Prez finally have a break-through in his class. Watching him this season has been brutal. I think he’s earned it. Of course, the next roll of the dice may not work out so well for him.

crystal ball

Some thoughts on real po-lice

October 24, 2006

                              Ed Norris

I’m not sure how well-known this information is, so I apologize ahead of time if this is less than informative. But, if you didn’t know, Detective Norris, the bald-headed partner of Greggs on the dead witness case who, in episode 43, was temporarily demoted to a beat cop working the election polls, is played by Ed Norris, the former police commissioner of Baltimore, the former chief of the Maryland State Police and, finally, a former federal prisoner. (For a good story about Norris, check out this Baltimore City Paper article — full disclosure: I am a former City Paper intern — the first of two interviews following his release from prison for corruption. This is also a solid, if sentimental, take on Norris’ recent Tampa relocation.)

Norris was a New York transplant, a lateral hire from the NYPD, who came in with the intent of cleaning up Baltimore’s police force. Norris, as I remember, was well-respected — hence, his upward move to the Maryland State Police — and brought with him Comstat, a computerized, statistical analysis of crime and police prevention. In Season Three, I believe that Rawls and Burrell are using the equivalent of Comstat when roasting the various police majors for the underenforcement in their districts. It is also the statistical tool the police use to determine that Bunny Colvin managed to produce unprecedented drops in crime, though without any knowledge about how Colvin actually reduced the crime rate.

The benefits of Comstat have been heralded by Martin O’Malley in his recent gubernatorial run, and the issue of the police being beholden to not only subjective political expectations (e.g. Mayor Royce’s domination of Commissioner Burrell) but also to objective numerical accounting has cropped up in The Wire repeatedly. To wit, the dry-erase board in the homicide office, with its dichromatic scheme of black and red for solved and unsolved murders, respectively, has been a recurring symbol in The Wire, perhaps most prominently in Season Two, when the thirteen “Jane Does” are added to the chagrin of the Landsman and Rawls.

                                         The Taming of Chance

It probably goes without saying, however, that the aforementioned dichotomy between subjective expectations and objective accounting is not so cleanly cut. Rather, political expectations are always informedby statistical observation and, conversely, statistical observation is increasingly frought with political expectations. (The more academic reader might call this a case of “overdetermination.”)

The Wire, unsurprisingly, captures this confluence fully. For instance, one effect of statistical enumeration of crimes is the fact that politicans and the press can more easily establish the effectiveness of law enforcement through the following inverse relationship: when the crime rate is greater, we can assume that the police’s performance is of a lower quality. Hence, in The Wire, the mayor constantly pressures the police force’s upper management and, by exenstion, upper management constantly pressures the force’s middle management (they call this the chain of command) to keep the number of reported crimes down. In Season Three, Officer Burrell complains of Royce’s impossible demand to keep the murder rate below 270 for the year, a number that is strangely rigid and, apparently, meaningful. With the advent of more specific and detailed statistical reporting, a police force like Baltimore’s is no longer expected to simply reduce crime, but to reduce it to, and beyond, certain levels. In other words, the political expectations for a police department have become more exacting, with less room for error.

On the other hand, the measurement of crime is always affected by politics. The inclusion of certain crimes at the expense of others — that is, the choice of which crimes are reflected in a city’s homicide rate — must always be recognized as a conscious political decision, one which, the cynic presumes, has certain benefits for whatever person or party is currently in power. Additionally, the contents of a crime rate can be just as arbitrarily chosen by jurisdictional lines. For instance, in Season Two, when the shipping container is found to contain a baker’s dozen of dead prostitutes, the decision to include those deaths in Baltimore City’s, and not in the neighboring county’s, jurisdiction lacks any fundamentally meaningful or principled rationale. Rather, it reflects the rather random lines of county soveriegnty — and, of course, the meddlings of one police officer, McNulty, with too much time on his hands — which are always drawn by political actors.

                    Gerrymander

It will be interesting to see what happens when Marlo’s bodies start popping up in the Westside on the newly-minted mayor’s watch. How those bodies, once reduced to statistical numbers, affect city politics, and how Baltimore’s politics will alter the accounting of those bodies, should, I hope, be an interesting sidebar about how “real po-lice” operate in Charm City.

Chessie

October 23, 2006

Well the week lapse really puts into high relief the oddness of HBO’s machinations and the On-Demand mess they have created. If you want to see our commentary on Episode #43 please look here, there, and yonder. For some extra tidbits and our more thematic discussions please see this and that. Plus check out our interview with David Simon. Continue below for some words on #44.

modern times

This week the wheels of the show’s narrative machine were switched, it seems, into the next gear, bringing various characters into contact with one another (Daniels and Carcetti is a pretty rich one, while Randy and Herc seems like a disaster waiting to happen), and slowly evolving the larger story line for our heroes, the children. Randy’s truth-telling being mishandled by the hot-headed Herc is frustrating just for how bungling the police can be, while Bunk’s ire-inducing persona messed that whole subplot of finding Lex and his killer even further. Namond again showed himself unprepared for the struggle of the game, while Michael stayed relatively quiet, though his excellent homework was something to note. Carcetti’s do-gooderness was shown in his observations of the police ComSat meeting, his admiration for Daniels both on the podium and out on the field not going unnoticed, though the impossibility of his raising Daniels to Commander was seemingly made clear. Cutty further redeemed himself, which is good because he is one of my favorites, although stepping into the fray between Sharrod and Namond seemed ill-thought-out, as Michael curtly opined. It was hard to tell whether Michael’s scowl at the end of Cutty’s awkward apology for sleeping with his charges’ mothers was a show of grudging respect or further suspicion. Bunny’s classroom seems fairly hopeless, a point pounded home when the sociologist called the mess “fascinating.” Meanwhile, Prez finally figured out a way to trick his students into learning, and his discovery of the updated textbooks and a computer held resonance with McNulty’s discovery of snooping equipment mouldering in the supply stacks of the police department.

olmos

Above all, I think the heartbreak of this week was in watching Bubbles, who I think too often is reduced to a one-note good-hearted-yet-tragic character, transformed into a complex and caring figure fighting from the bottom but encountering unending roadblocks. His concern for Sharrod is doubly touching when we recall that Bubbles has a child of his own that his addiction and his poverty have disallowed him from knowing. Not only that, but Sharrod’s companionship provided Bubbles with a sense of purpose in teaching, mentoring, and frankly in making more money. Of course the one time Sharrod should have aided Bubbles, he shrank back and watched his would-be caretaker take a beating.

One wonders how Bubbles got along for so long running his little business without attracting the attentions of the sort of thief he’s now got shadowing him all the time. Worse still, Sharrod is not only slangin but also using, which breaks a Crack Commandment (never get high on your own supply), and stirs up images of Cutty’s unpleasant and abortive re-entry into the game, not to mention the addictions of Wallace and D’Angelo, none of which ended well for those characters. Seeing Bubbles in his ill-fitting jacket and tie talking to the school’s principal is all the more difficult because it seems as though, despite his altruism toward Sharrod, he no longer harbors any desire to get back into rehab or give up using. The marks on his face are permanent. One wonders too why he has not sought to reach out to his ally on the police force in Greggs, but more about her in a moment.

The “bad cop” who harasses Bubbles when he is asking for help keeps showing up at the wrong time for everyone, and I wonder what his function is meant to be. He abuses, steals, and mishandles seemingly every encounter he has, always looking for the little guy (literally, when dealing with the kids, and figuratively, in harassing the hapless Bubbles) merely to push around and assert authority. The boneheads Carcetti rides around with for a night, as well as Herc, also display aspects of ineptitude and waste-of-time police nonsense (Herc seems unconcerned with solving crimes in the face of covering his ass), but this “bad cop” figure shows the worst aspects all the time. We know good police like McNulty are out there using their heads, but it seems like the deck is stacked against real police efficiency and intelligent work, despite the hopes of Carcetti and the singular, intense strategies of people like Daniels.

copland

If there was a “good cop” this episode, it was Greggs, whose stellar casework and scene investigation made for a thrilling discovery scene while proving that she can handle homicides as well as the veterans. Her one-woman raid on that house where the target-practicing-accidental-witness-murderer resided also provided a moment of real heart-pounding anxiety. I thought immediately of her previous disastrous brush with criminals while on her own, but it showed her courage has not diminished. Her character this season is an odd mish-mash. For most of the season she has been a pawn in the witness dust-up, getting mired in police and city politics while she could have been solving cases. Now she has cleared the witness case, but she doesn’t seem involved particularly in any of the larger narratives of the season. I wonder if she will develop a larger role as the season progresses, or if she’ll remain present, but unimportant to the big picture. It seems a shame to string her along merely for continuity’s sake, when she could be an active participant in the larger story. Perhaps Bubbles will reach out to her for help. He certainly needs someone to rely on.

Getting It Together

October 23, 2006

Today’s been a slow day around HH headquarters, but we’re getting it together. In the meantime, I invite those of you who have not been entertained by this clip to get with it.

I also encourage you all to read Laura Lippman’s wonderful essay on Baltimore books on Salon today. I haven’t read any of the books she mentions, but if any of you have, I’d love to hear more.

And yes, we’ll be getting with episode 44 soon. Patience, children. Patience.

catnap

Like Cars In Reverse Ya’all Better Back Up

October 18, 2006

In the hallway of the school where much of this season’s action takes place, there is a large mural celebrating the namesake of the school. In an interview on the HBO website Vincent Peranio describes its significance thusly:

“Edward J. Tilghman was the Baltimore police chief who let David Simon hang out, which led to the book Homicide, which started this whole thing. The original of this mural was about Booker T. Washington; we got a photo of the real Tilghman from his widow and painted him in.”

tilghman

The past is prologue, as my high school history teacher used to drill into our heads. So much of what happens on The Wire, from major plotlines to background details like that mural of Tilghman, comes from a vision of Baltimore that is far deeper than what the drug game looks like now. It is a vision forged over the past thirty years, which provides an intriguing confluence of reporting on the tragedy of the inner city of today with a history of the inner city for the past thirty years. What I’m getting at, then, is the ways in which The Wire handles time, both in terms of its own five-season arc and in terms of the connections between its stories and the real histories behind them.

There is plenty to know in terms of links between the show and it’s real-life inspirations, from Ed Burns’ time innovating wiretaps with the Baltimore Police Department in the mid-’80s to his primary quarry, “Little” Melvin Williams, a legendary drug kingpin who provided plenty of material and personality to be spread among Stringer, Avon, Prop Joe and others throughout the series. Even Bubbles comes from a real police informant, and the list goes on and on.

This will all certainly find its way into books, and much of the information already resides in Rafael Alvarez’s The Wire: Truth Be Told. What interests me more here is the concept that the stories and techniques covered by the series may be in some ways historical, which is to say in some form outdated, and how that turns around and informs its critique on the current state of Baltimore, the drug world, and the underclass in America. This is not to take anything away from the massive amounts of research, neighborhood outreach, and intelligent updating of certain narratives that goes on for the series. Yet I think that at its heart the show is telling vintage tales dressed up in the clothing of today, and that this provides some excellent information on the motivations to tell these stories in the first place.

romeo

In this way, though The Wire presents a collapsed vision of Baltimore’s recent history, it speaks to the realities of today with that perspective in hand. These things happened, and that is how we got to where we are. But also, these things happened, and they keep happening over and over again, and will continue to do so until something radically shifts in the way things are run in this country.

To give just one concrete (forgive the pun) example: the towers. When shooting scenes for the first season that took place in the towers, the show’s producers had to make due with retirement homes outside downtown Baltimore, because even before the series began shooting, as David Simon pointed out in a Q&A on the HBO site, the “Lexington Terrace, Murphy Homes, Lafayette Courts and Flag House high-rises were leveled.” In this way the show provides a kind of cultural archaeology, sifting through the rubble that all too quickly gets buried, built upon and forgotten as the city moves forward. Yet in that rubble are the seeds for what will come next, and the lessons that have yet to be fully learned.

indywarehouse
More fascinating tidbits from set designer Vincent Peranio here.

UPDATE: Was directed by H&H-ers ChristyCash and WilliamDonaldRipken to a fascinating piece in the New York Times concerning race in city politics. Newark and Baltimore aren’t so different really.

If that’s all there is then there’s no point for me

October 17, 2006

As 44 isn’t up on On Demand yet, we’re taking it easy on the up-to-the-minute-analysis; besides, I’ve heard rumors of spoilers lurking in the comments on some of these posts, so I’m not taking my chances reading them. (People, I have the entire season and I am stringing it out watching each episode as they go up on On Demand, an act of self-control probably unparalleled in human history — or at least in my young life.)

fetters

First, and obviously, big thank you to Shoals and to David Simon for agreeing to be interviewed. That was awesome.

Second, opening up the vaults. It’s Tuesday, it’s getting darker earlier, it’s rainy, and presumably we’re not discussing new developments… so I thought we could reach back, back in our minds, all the way back. I’m taking you on a journey to Season 2. Season 2 which, as you will all recall, featured The Death of Work, the local, some dead prostitutes (big shout-out to the ladies of Season 2!) and one very memorable Greek who was not even Greek.

greek

So let’s talk about Ziggy — because Ziggy, as has been mentioned here, has a resonance with Namond. Not like they’re parallels or anything — far from it. But they share a certain recklessness, a certain propensity to perhaps clad ducks in diamond collars.

Ziggy was a heartbreaking character, largely because the gap between who he was and who he wanted to be was so vast. More than anything he longed for acceptance from the older guys, he longed them to see him as a man — something that he could never be, because in that world, work confers masculinity and there is never enough work to go around. So Ziggy performed tricks to get attention, acting out, eventually sealing his own fate. Getting mixed up in the game is not, as Namond’s unease with his first package shows us, for boys. The game makes men out of boys, but only if there is a man in there to begin with. At least this is the narrative.

navy

So Ziggy, in a way, failed in life — ie, died — because he failed at “being a man.” There are lots of ways to be a man on The Wire that don’t involve manual labor, but they all involve a certain toughness. We could debate endlessly what toughness means on The Wire – and I hope we do — but I’d like to start by saying it involves a certain not-caring of what others think. Ziggy, because he cares so deeply, is doomed from the start. McNulty, Bunny, String and Avon, Marlo — these are all clearly masculine figures who play by their own rules. The idea of toughness also makes Omar fascinating — his homosexuality is totally effaced, and in a sense, forgiven, by virtue of his toughness. (Also, of course, because he exists not only outside the law, but outside of reality).

Jumping back to this season, the idea of manliness is definitely being played out at the gym — Cutty’s a womanizer, he’s also cut (Cutty from the cut, with that great line about how if you take care of your body, it takes care of you). And certainly De’Londa is pushing Nay to live up to a certain ideal of masculinity personified by Wee-Bay — one that seems to involve a lot more cohering to authority and organization than the outlaw masculinity of an Omar or a McNulty, but one that is “redeemed” by its reliance on violence. There aren’t really wimps this season like Ziggy was — there are kids who are sweet and vulnerable, like Dukie, and Randy, in different ways. (I ask again, why are Randy, Nay, Dukie and Michael friends? I guess the only answer would be “history” but they seem like a very unlikely crew.) But we’re certainly seeing some growing pains as boys try to figure out how to be young men.

For The City: David Simon Q&A

October 15, 2006

No spoilers today. Those seeking #43 talk should click here, here, and here, but not before experiencing our exclusive Q&A with David Simon himself. I emailed him seven brief questions about the program’s interaction with the community and lo, he sent back several thousand words worth of prime Wire insight and information. Out of deference, we’re presenting his responses uncut and image-free; we’ll return to our usual screaming on Tuesday.

Bethlehem Shoals: What’s the dynamic between the show’s production and the neighborhoods it’s filmed in?

David Simon: It’s relatively comfortable at this point.

That’s a testament not only to the practice and behavior of The Wire crew, but of the folks who worked on Homicide and The Corner earlier—some of whom are the same folks.

Generally, Homicide didn’t do a lot of shooting in the heart of the East or West Baltimore ghettos, hewing more closely to the Fells Point and Canton areas. But the idea that there was a television show being routinely filmed in Baltimore allowed people to get comfortable with the ordinariness of the enterprise. By the end of Homicide’s seven-year run, it was possible for Andre Braugher to sit in The Grind on Thames Street and enjoy a cup of coffee and his morning paper without being bothered for a solitary autograph. We Baltimorons are very much affected by the chip on our shoulder; sandwiched between New York and Washington and vulnerable to all kinds of inferiority complexes, the last thing we want to do is go all fanmag on some actors.

With The Corner, though, we began the process of learning to shoot film in the neighborhoods that were truly struggling, the places where these stories are actually rooted. There was some trial and error to that—but all in all it went remarkably well because of the temperament of most of the Baltimore crew, the nature of the story we were trying to tell, and ultimately, the credibility of Charles Dutton, who, of course, came up in East Baltimore and is widely admired in those neighborhoods. Hardly a day of filming went past when someone from Dutton’s past would roll up on him for an embrace and some conversation. Sometimes those moments were warm and heartfelt for Roc, but on other occasions—when it was clear that people from his past were struggling with life on the corners—it was agonizing for him. In any event, he handled it beautifully and he projected to those neighborhoods what was obvious from the work he did on The Corner: this was going to be a story genuinely and carefully rendered.

With The Wire we have continued to film in the same template as The Corner. We are careful to remember that we are guests in every neighborhood and we leave our sets a little better—and certainly no worse—than we find them. We are an inconvenience for a day or two parking-wise and to the occasional pedestrian, perhaps, but then we move on. Our locations people make contact with neighborhood leaders and we try, at points, to direct some of our resources to neighborhood projects, particularly those involving children. As an overall effort, The Corner and The Wire have raised more than $500,000 for the Ella Thompson Fund of the Parks & People Foundation of Baltimore, which augments the limited rec programming by city government and sponsors programming for inner-city neighborhoods.

Occasionally, we have an awkward moment. There are folks who do not appreciate the show and do not wish us to settle on their street. There are people who feel the entire enterprise is parasitic. And although we have consciously utilized residents of these neighborhoods as speaking-role actors and background in various episodes, and in some cases taken on interested residents, hiring and training them as crew, there is always a sense that we are outsiders. Most of the membership of the Baltimore locals—which are drawn from the region as a whole—is white. And though we are always trying to improve on that, and always giving some preference to African-American union members, we are, in effect, whiter than we wish we were.

On The Corner—a limited-run series—Dutton had the gravitas to demand that HBO bring in more black crew members from out-of-state to darken the complexion of the enterprise, and we producers were, in fact, tacitly delighted that he did so; he threw his weight nicely and to good effect. In our own conversations with HBO, we told execs that Dutton had a point and should be taken quite seriously. But of course, HBO agreed to the additional housing and travel and per diem costs on a limited, six-episode basis. To do such a thing on a continuing show—and one with limited profitability from HBO’s perspective—is problematic. So we have endeavored to encourage more minority participation in the Baltimore-Washington locals and we give preference where we can. To the extent that residents of these neighborhoods see crewmembers and continuing cast and realize that they were their friends and neighbors, we gain credibility. To the extent they feel that we are outsiders, with little continuing interest in their city, we lose credibility. So this matters to us and we do our best with it.

Lastly, we get a lot of basic fan response from some residents, most of them younger: “Hey, it’s Omar. Omar! Come rob me, yo!” or “Yo, Bubbles. You try the pink tops? Shit is a bomb, yo.”

From those close to the game, I suppose, we gain a certain allegiance for even trying to tell a story that is so intimate to them.

BS: Do bystanders ever offer advice? Advice about authenticity?

DS: Occasionally, but this show is pretty well-researched and we go onto set knowing what we are going after. More often, what we get are walk-up encounters with people who have some sense of a character or an event or some casework of Ed’s that we used in the previous plotting. Especially when we film on the Westside. Seems like someone is always coming up and introducing themselves and explaining their own past involvement with the real, and how they remembered whatever phone code or murder scenario or player we used as a reference point. Sometimes, when we can, we honor such survivors with a cameo or two.

BS: Has anyone ever gotten involved with the show by just wandering onto the set?

DS: As above. The answer is yes, particularly with regard to background. Often times, casting will send us local SAG actors for background who, well, do not look as though they should be on a corner in West Baltimore. And when that happens, Nina or one of the A.D.’s runs around offering a day’s pay to folks round the way, asking them to fill a scene. Sometimes, someone who works background for a scene will ask if they can continue working with the show. We always say yes and have them fill out casting info. We always call them back. When they continue to show up, we continue to use them and then, when appropriate to the script, we give them a chance to read for speaking lines. And we hire those who audition well. In some cases, if the acting (or their true-to-life look) is strong enough, we put them in continuing roles and sponsor them for SAG. We have taken some fines from the local, too, because of our pursuit of the real. Obviously, the union is more interested in their existing membership getting the work, regardless of the credibility of the casting.

As to crew, it’s trickier because hiring someone as a production assistant means that they have to be punctual and endure the travails of a working set, with long hours and all the attendant aggravations of an entry-level journey through a long day’s hell of filming. A lot of people wash out of the gig—not just neighborhood people with limited work experience, but people in general. The first few rungs on the film-industry ladder are the hardest ones. But one story I should tell: many years ago, I wrote half of an episode for the fourth season of Homicide, which we filmed in the then-still-standing Lexington Terrace towers. A young kid, 12 or 13 years, followed us around in the December cold and stood behind the monitors, making friends with Kathy Bates, the director. She began letting him call a cut or a roll or two. Then she asked him a few questions about authenticity. He kept showing up. And the next season, at other locations around the city, we would encounter him routinely. Soon it became clear that he was calling the production office to get our call times and locations. When he was old enough to pass labor laws, I hired him as a P.A. on The Corner. Today, he works as a wardrobe coordinator on The Wire. I remember that my co-writer of that original Homicide episode, Anya Epstein, said to me once, long ago: “Wouldn’t it be great if when DaJuan [Prince] grows up, he gets a job and has a career in movies.” I shook my head, a true cynic, and told her that this was Baltimore and it just doesn’t work that way. Anya, darling, my apologies. . .

BS: This season, Robert Chew is serving as the acting coach for Felicia Pearson and the teens. Has he worked with anyone in the past, and did you see him doing this when he was first cast?

DS: No, we knew that Robert worked with a local theatre troupe, and from more limited work on Homicide and The Corner, we knew he was a smart, elegant actor. But as to his mentoring abilities we young actors we were unaware. As The Wire progressed, however, Robert’s theatre group began providing more and more talent for the show (Rashad Orange as Sherrod is a notable example) and so it was natural, after the young actors from this season were cast, to involve Robert in the scenework that took place as a routine part of prep. Not to take anything away from Maestro, Jermaine, Tristan, Julito and the other kids—they are wonderful talents—but Robert really helped them to focus on their characterizations and the nature of the story they were telling.

BS: When it comes to “traditional” actors, do you seek out those with some Baltimore/Maryland connection? If so, how’s this different from using Pearson, Jay Landsman, or, to some degree, Anwan Glover?

DS: No, we don’t look for the Baltimore when hiring actors for major roles. It is hard enough finding the right people for certain parts when casting the widest possible net and too much is stake to worry about whether someone’s accent will sound Baltimore, or whether they know how to pronounce Bentalou Street. The first job is to cast an actor who can convey the totality of the character with all possible range and credibility.

If we find out that the best possible actor has a Baltimore connection—James Ransome as Ziggy Sobotka grew up here and had the Balwmerspeak nailed—then, yes, we tell them to put on the Bawlmer. We love it when we can be authentic to the local, but it can never become the priority.

Best local (Balt-Wash-tidewater) accents in the show: Snoop, Lamar, Prop Joe, Poot, Slim Charles on the one side of town. Lieutenant Mello, Marcia Donnelly (“three in math, an’ four in syence”), Ziggy on the other.

Funny story about the accent: Eric Overmyer worked on an NBC show called Days And Nights of Molly Dodd several years ago and the actor John Glover played her cousin from Baltimore. Being from here, I am told, Glover elected to play the accent. NBC got much mail: “Love the show. But what’s up with her cousin from Baltimore. Is he retarded or something?”

With supporting cast, we want as much of the cast to come from Baltimore-Washington as possible for a variety of reasons: Yes, it leavens the project to have local faces, accents and credibility. Yes, it is fun to run some inside jokes among the cameos (Kurt Schmoke as city health commissioner, Melvin Williams as The Deacon, the Rev. Frank Reid as the Rev. Reid Franklin). But also, we can’t afford to bring the entire cast from New York, L.A. and London. We have to lean hard on Pat Moran and local casting to fill the show.

BS: I doubt I’m the only person who’s been thinking about The Boys of Baraka throughout this season. How did some of those kids end up in the show, and what did Richard Keyser do when he worked on the set?

DS: They came through the casting office in the usual manner. We were unaware of the Baraka project at the time we made our choices and saw the movie only at a later point. A marvelous documentary, though.

What did Richard do? You mean, other than what he was supposed to do? As far as I know, he didn’t light anyone on fire or beat up a Teamster. But maybe word just didn’t get back to me.

Note from Shoals: I’d read somewhere that Richard worked on the set as well as appearing in the show. I was fishing for a story like the one about DaJuan T. Prince related earlier.

BS: Unrelated, and out of personal curiosity: do you see sports (in particular basketball) fitting into The Wire‘s urban tapestry?

DS: Hoops are elemental in this city. Football somewhat present, and baseball not at all, sadly. Boxing is big. We have hit on boxing and we used basketball somewhat in first season. We could use it more, but organized basketball—even at a rec league level—is, of course, an effort to stage. And you need actors who can play, of course (I must note that Wood Harris really can dunk; man has some game). Easier to fill a boxing gym than the bleachers at Dunbar, if you catch my drift.

Thanks. And thanks for hosting such an intelligent website. We’ll try to keep worthy of all the commentary.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.