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For Lehane, it's not TV, it's 'The Wire'

The acclaimed crime novelist brings sensitivity and understanding to the HBO show's writers' room. But don't ask him to do CSI: Anywhere.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published October 1, 2006


When word spread that Mystic River novelist Dennis Lehane was on the writing staff of HBO's gritty crime drama The Wire, the offers poured in.

TV executives all across Tinseltown wanted the guy whose book birthed the movie that cleaned up at the 2004 Oscar ceremony, winning honors for stars Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. Put Lehane's name on any new series, execs figured, and big-time buzz was assured.

But Lehane gave his agent a blunt response: I don't write for television.

"The Wire is the most anti-TV show out there," said Lehane, a 1988 graduate of Eckerd College who teaches there occasionally and lives part-time in Pinellas County. "Creator David Simon's vision is completely uncompromising; it makes almost no concessions to the audience. There's zero wish-fulfillment in it. It's a very scabrous, uncompromising vision. I love it."

For proof, check out Lehane's latest Wire episode, "Refugees." Airing early in the show's triumphant fourth season, it's part of a remarkable run outlining how the failures of Baltimore's biggest institutions sabotage its smallest citizens: poor, at-risk kids.

In seasons past, Simon and his crew documented the bureaucratic absurdities of urban government, police and the drug trade (yes, even selling crack can produce a bureaucracy).

This year, they've added the urban school system, exploring how criminals can be born, bred and tempered by a dangerous home environment, dysfunctional parents and a wider world that couldn't care less about them.

It's a vision Lehane is happy to help make a reality.

"When you write a novel, you're the architect, you're the general contractor, you do everything," said the author, who also wrote a Wire script last season. "When you work in TV, you're the house painter - and man, is that a load off if you share the aesthetic vision of the creator. It's like, 'You want this room colored orange? You got it. Gimme the paint.' "

Simon, who asked Lehane last year to join a "murderer's row" of crime novelists writing the Wire, including Richard Price (Clockers) and George Pelecanos (Hard Revolution), said Lehane brings "a little more than filling in colors" to the gig.

"Dennis' understanding of what's at stake for everyone in his scenes is as careful and ornate as anything I've ever seen," said Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun who also wrote for NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street. "I can go to a guy like that and say, 'Help me with this book we're trying to do on television.' And you don't feel like you're asking the guy to crawl through the sewer for you."

Listen to Lehane, Pelecanos and Simon talk about the writers' room at The Wire and you imagine a storyteller's playground where talented guys (just one of the nine writers listed in HBO's press materials is a woman) bounce off each other in a good-natured - if intense - search for the perfect phrase.

In developing "Refugees," Lehane spent two days in Baltimore for script meetings to pound out the episode's "beats" - turning points essential to advancing the overall story. Once the framework was set, he wrote the episode in two weeks at his St. Petersburg home.

"Everybody on this show thinks they're the best writer here, and we try to prove it every day," said Pelecanos, who helped convince Simon to hire his buddy Lehane years ago. "When I was a kid, I would watch shows like The Twilight Zone and see names like Harlan Ellison or (Ray Bradbury) . . . it was a signal of quality. The novelists deliver good writing."

Critical praise, kicked off by a rave in Entertainment Weekly from another Lehane friend, horror novelist Stephen King, has earned the Wire a fifth and final season next year. But no one is expecting this dense, often depressing series to become a popular hit.

Lehane cites one reason foremost: Too many black characters.

"It's not lost on people here that the best ratings the show ever got was for Season 2, which was also the whitest season," he said. "I don't want to make it about something as simple as tacit racism. America doesn't want to think about ghettoes. They would very much not like to see gang bangers humanized - it's too confusing."

That passion for the underclass, Simon said, is why Lehane fits into the Wire's ethos so well.

"He's writing about the America that is always in danger of being left behind," Simon said. "White working class, black underclass . . . the other America. On (network TV) either poor people are the salt of the earth or contemptible thugs to be hunted down by the Lenny Briscoes and the Andy Sipowiczes of the world."

After years fighting censors on NBC's Homicide, Simon bluntly breaks down the difference between the Wire and network TV shows.

"We're not selling s---," he said. "On NBC, CBS and Fox, the programming is there to help advertisers sell cars and phones and feminine products . . . If Dennis can do something like Shutter Island or Mystic River, he's got no business being in TV unless TV can supply a vehicle where he can do work of that quality."

Still, as the quality of TV everywhere rises, Lehane says he may yet join the dark side: mulling ideas for a TV series of his own.

"Seeing what people go through to create these shows, you've got to question whether you'd want to do it," he said. "But I'm an idea guy . . . so sure, sometimes an idea pops into my head. But I'm hardly convinced it's something I'd want to do yet."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

[Last modified September 29, 2006, 11:09:56]


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