`The Wire': A different kind of reality TV

Local facts, fictions merge in a show some love, others condemn

Baltimore ... Or Less

December 19, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

It's nothing new for television shows to borrow real-life plots and players from the cities where they are set. New Yorkers, for instance, have long become accustomed to having their crimes and characters ripped from the headlines by Law & Order.

But Baltimore is a smaller, cozier place. So the appearance, mention or mere characterization of local luminaries on a show like the HBO drama The Wire has proven to be a far more intimate affair - for good and ill.

The show ends its third season tonight, and it's not yet clear if a fourth season will be scheduled. But over the past four months, Baltimore-area audiences have been tickled and prickled by a weekly parade of people and places they know well, including former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, influential pastor Rev. Frank M. Reid III, former drug kingpin Melvin Williams, and convicted felon and former Baltimore police commissioner, Edward T. Norris.

And those are just the most noticeable cameos. There are also real-life Baltimore story lines that only astute locals may perceive. Most noticeable has been the show's white city councilman with sights set on the black mayor's seat. Martin O'Malley circa 1999, anyone?

Fans of the drug war drama - especially Schmoke and Reid - are honored to see themselves, their friends and their city portrayed on The Wire. However, critics - those who believe The Wire offers a narrow, negative image of the city - are indignant that a show billed as fiction is rife with reality.

"David Simon isn't fooling anybody," said Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. "The Wire is more documentary than it is drama."

Simon, the show's creator, called Harris' comment an insult and said The Wire's exploration of the struggles associated with the war on drugs is applicable to any American city.

"It's rooted in the real but it's all mangled up so that it's fiction," Simon said, reiterating an argument he made in The Sun in September. "There are moments when we put our tongue in our cheek and do something that ... references something that is real or topical, if you happen to be from Baltimore."

Municipal `moments'

In case you missed such "moments," here are a few of the most notable, and ironic, ones:

Schmoke portrayed a health commissioner who warns the fictional black mayor that he will be labeled "the most dangerous man in America" for endorsing a rogue cop's effort to legalize drugs. Schmoke would know: That's what he was called for his idea to decriminalize drugs.

"We know the reality on which this fiction is based," said Schmoke.

Reid, who is Schmoke's stepbrother, was immortalized by a character named - what else? - Rev. Frank Reid. The real Reid, who follows the show, well, religiously, was set to portray himself but was sick the day of filming.

His take on The Wire: "I think it's a modern Dante's Divine Comedy, taking us through the hell of urban living, urban politics and showing us, not only hell, but purgatory as well, and a way out. As you talk to people who have lived that life, the writing is right on."

One person who has lived that life is Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams. Once a Baltimore drug kingpin, on The Wire Williams plays a religious man and a voice of moral reason. Meanwhile, the show's drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale, is modeled on him, Williams says.

Williams said he has reformed himself after 26 years in prison and now advises young people to avoid the drug life. He hopes the show sends a similar message.

In one scene, Williams' character is appalled when he surveys an area that a rogue police commander has designated as a free zone for people dealing and doing drugs. In his heyday, of course, Williams would have made a fortune in such a place. (No such zone, both Schmoke and Simon say, ever existed.)

"I enjoyed [that] moment," said Simon, who suggests that Williams must take responsibility for many drug-addicted people in Baltimore. "That was a small, if artificial, bit of penance."

While Williams got his role on The Wire after prison, Norris, the former Baltimore police commissioner, got his before doing his stretch.

Norris is in federal prison for public corruption. But before he was incarcerated, Simon gave him a small role as a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking city cop.

The show also took a shot at departing U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, who prosecuted Norris. DiBiagio is not named, but a Wire character observed that the Maryland U.S. attorney is, to put it kindly, preoccupied with public corruption, a familiar criticism of DiBiagio.

Another, lesser-known public official in the show is Richard Burton, who plays a character named Shamrock, sidekick to fictional drug dealer Stringer Bell. His real-life role: anti-drug crusader for O'Malley's "Believe" campaign. Simon said Burton was cast before the show knew of that connection.

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