Tuesday, August 14, 2007

From Street Drugs to the Front Page

I am a crazy-go-nuts fanboy of The Wire, David Simon's HBO series (mostly) about drugs and cops in Baltimore. Since the end of The Sopranos earlier this year, The Wire is the undisputed king of cats in the TV drama universe, albeit a much more purely critical success than a popular one.

This is partly because The Sopranos, despite its indie-movie style and Scorsesean/Bunuelian artistic flourishes, was arguably more of a culmination of traditional entertainment television production than a total revolution within it. The Sopranos was equal parts sitcom and soap opera, and the social commentary and psychodrama grow out of that TV-DNA. The Wire is up to something different -- more like the nineteenth-century novel in some ways (e.g., its social concerns) but in others a more fully twenty-first century creation.

For one thing, it owes more of its fandom to on-demand downloads and DVD repeats than the event-driven episodes of The Sopranos or other successful HBO series. This doesn't seem like an accident. So many of the character and story arcs play out so gradually that they're difficult to follow within a single episode, or even two in a row. The show demands to be watched a disc or even a season at a time. At the same time, every episode has its own unity -- it's just that the unity is more thematic than dramatic, exploring a single idea or set of ideas more often than a single unified action. But the plot never slows down -- virtually everything is significant, and no episode can really stand entirely on its own.

Each season, too, has its own unity. While the first season explored the world of crime from both the side of the criminal and the police, with sympathy but (somehow) without sentiment, each following season adds a new sphere to explore: the worlds of work (a dockworkers' union), politics (a mayoral race), education (a middle school).
The goal -- which I think, so far, has been achieved -- is the most thorough and honest portrayal of contemporary life in an American city ever attempted in narrative fiction.

I recently found this great interview with Simon in Fader -- it's from December, when the fourth season was winding up. It gives a tremendous amount of insight into the creation of the show, and there are even some goodies for diehard fans in there. (News to me: an actor prominent in the third and fourth season as an AME church deacon had a previous life as a major drug dealer called Little Melvin.)

It also gives a great peek at the new world of the fifth (and probably last) season, shooting now -- newspapers. Simon got his start as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, before writing Homicide: Life on the Street, which fellow Baltimorean Barry Levinson turned into a great network drama on NBC, and The Corner, which was also adapted for HBO. And when it comes to newspapers, Simon definitely has a lot to say:

A lot of my disenchantment with institutional America came from what out-of-town ownership did to the newspaper I was at. The Chicago Tribune has just about destroyed The Baltimore Sun.

How so?
The Baltimore Sun, when I first started working there, was family owned and in the mid-’80s it was sold to The LA Times or Times America, which was about as benign a newspaper chain there was at the time. We felt like we had ducked a bullet, but they in turn sold their newspapers to the Chicago Tribune Company. And the Chicago Tribune Company has been sucking the profits and the life out of every one of their out of town papers to prop up their stock price (I don’t think they’re even doing a good job of that). Where once [The Sun’s] newsroom had 500 people covering their city, now it’s got maybe 300. They’ve instituted buyout after buyout, they’ve closed the foreign bureaus, they’ve reduced the Washington bureau by half, they don’t give a shit. All they want is the profit. The civic responsibility of running a viable newspaper, of monitoring the government of Baltimore, of trying to improve the city, of creating an allegiance between the newspaper and the city, they couldn’t give a fuck. They’re in Chicago. And they are despised in Baltimore. There are people in the Able Foundation in Baltimore who are trying to buy the paper back, asking what they will sell it for, and they won’t sell. They’ll suck the last dollar out of the place while they destroy it.

The other Fader interviews are great (it's a four-part series in all); so is this NPR interview with co-creator (and former Baltimore cop/teacher) Ed Burns. But the real thing to do is get your hands on the first four seasons and watch the show. If you have things to get done, you can pace yourself a disc (or season) at a time, but trust me -- you won't regret the time spent.

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