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.