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HBO's 'The Wire': Thoroughly engaging, if not 'entertaining'

The Wire begins its second season as the atypical cop show, where good and evil aren't clear, where crimes can't always be solved in 60 minutes. In other words, great TV.

Published June 1, 2003

Will they get it?

"This is one of those shows where God is in the details," said Simon, 42, speaking over the telephone from his Baltimore production office. "We didn't want to get lost in it all . . . but if you're going to ask for 12 hours from someone's life (to watch your show), you'd better deliver. I know there are some people, they turn on the show and they're expecting some (typical) cop show and they're infuriated. But the shows to me are not slow, they're just paced in a different way."

These days, network TV is drowning in dramas about law enforcement. Most are action-packed - built around a crime that can be wrapped up in an hour, which makes for perfect rerunning in syndication.

But Simon's series is pointedly, almost perversely not about the things that make network TV police dramas succeed.

Likable characters? The ostensible hero, Baltimore police detective Jimmy McNulty (Aussie actor Dominic West) is a brash, divorced cop with a drinking problem who once sent his own children to shadow a suspect drug dealer in a shopping mall.

Moral cops dispensing justice? The reason the department formed the task force featured in the first installment of The Wire was because a judge got angry at a dealer who ruined cases in his courtroom. This season's task force forms because a venal police major feels humiliated by the size of a labor leader's gift to his church.

Stories that wrap up in a single episode? It took seven episodes last season for cops to install the wiretaps that give the show its title. This year, it takes eight.

"You know what the thing is about that wiretap?" said Simon, an energetic, ponytailed man who seems to delight in playing the anti-Hollywood producer in interviews. "You saw how much work they did to get it. It was earned . . . (and) nothing on TV is earned anymore."

Last season, The Wire debuted with a story about McNulty getting a judge pal to force the police department to investigate one of Baltimore's biggest drug dealers. But when the money trail began to lead toward top politicians, the case was shut down and McNulty was sent to patrol Baltimore's coast on a police boat.

Tonight, McNulty stumbles on another jackpot when 13 dead women are found inside the hidden compartment of a tractor-trailer rig loaded off a boat that sailed into Baltimore from overseas. At first, McNulty uses water currents and forensic evidence to prove the women died in Baltimore - just so he can mess up his boss' record of solving murders.

But later, his cop's soul is stirred by the effort to identify a woman whose body will be provided to medical students for testing, then incinerated and dumped in a nameless grave unless police can identify her.

One scene that sums up the difference between The Wire and other cop shows: when a crowd of officers gathers from different agencies to see the bodies, and nobody wants to take on the case.

So much for crusaders like Jack Klugman's Quincy or David Caruso's recycled NYPD Blue hero on CSI: Miami. To these jaded cops, this stone-cold "whodunit" wouldn't do anything but jack up their clearance rates.

Whenever critics rush to compare his series to the FX network's surprise hit The Shield - starring Emmy winner Michael Chiklis as a ruthless supercop ruling a crime-ridden precinct - Simon points to such scenes as evidence that the two darkly explicit series actually have very different aims.

"(The Shield's) theme is, "What would happen if somebody were bigger than the institution he serves?' Our show is the opposite . . . the institution is always bigger," said Simon, a former Baltimore Sun police reporter whose 1992 book inspired NBC's series Homicide: Life on the Street. He drafted partner and former Baltimore police detective Ed Burns to help him create The Wire.

"I'm trapped by the fact that I came out of journalism and Ed Burns came out of the police department," he added. "The reality we experienced is not one where a lot of human beings walk around bigger than the institutions. It's entirely possible that all of the hardware that I'm supposed to have in my head about how to make an entertaining cop show just isn't there."

Simon left the Sun in 1995, frustrated by what he saw as editors' drive to address "that guy with the 2.4-car garage and the 3.2 kids." To him, that brought a focus on middle-class concerns that resisted stories humanizing junkies, drug dealers and street people - marginalizing those already stuck on the margins of society.

His first book with Burns was 1998's The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, a warts-and-all look at the lives of junkies in Baltimore's worst areas. Made into a groundbreaking miniseries for HBO in 2000, The Corner connected Simon to a TV outlet that wouldn't demand happy endings at an MTV-fast pace.

"Go back and look at the first few chapters of Moby Dick . . . You don't even get on the deck of the Pequod until Chapter 5," he said, laughing. "Much of episodic television has been the visual equivalent of really good short story writing. I think HBO, because they show these things four or five times a week and have no commercials, (is) at the point where we can start doing something different."

If last year's season was about the futility of the drug war, then this year's Wire focuses more on the vanishing working class.

Simon delved into the world of Baltimore's dock workers, where competition from Virginia ports and automation have devastated the work force. With young guys lucky to snag one or two days of work a week, the temptation to steal or smuggle runs high. (Third Watch's Chris Bauer is especially good as waterfront union leader Frank Sobotka, who illegally amasses cash to push city officials into starting a construction project that might save the union.)

Then a container with 13 dead women shows up and pushes the world of police, political influence and waterfront labor into a messy collision.

"Whenever the economy shrugs and throws off people it doesn't need, the underground economy finds a place for them," Simon noted. "You start seeing the intersection between the drug culture and the lack of meaningful work."

And this environment, which features mostly white, working-class criminals, also answers the lament that nearly all the lawbreakers in The Wire's first season were black.

"We were very conscious of the fact that some white viewers may have felt a little bit smug about (the first season's criminals)," said Simon, who had initially planned to base his second season on a whole new raft of characters, but found last year's dealers so compelling, he kept them in the mix.

"What was historically denied to young black men in Baltimore is now being denied to a certain percentage of the young white population," he added. "Now, the drug culture is crossing those (race) boundaries."

It's a complex narrative that encompasses characters such as Det. Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), the lesbian detective who has taken a desk job to satisfy a life partner who fears for her safety; Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), the focused commander whose success last season got him assigned to a basement evidence storage unit; Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), the college economics student who is a ruthless second-in-command to incarcerated drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris).

HBO hasn't yet said anything about a third season, but Simon is already percolating with ideas - hoping to explore how reformers might tackle both the drug trade and the police bureaucracy.

"I think this show is entertaining, but we're not trying to entertain," he said. "Our attitude is, HBO gave us 12 hours . . . a rare . . . gift to tell a story. The last thing we should do is just make a show to entertain."

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