Arts & Culture

Down To The Wire

Six years after “the best show on TV” began, the man behind the series comes clean about why he did what he did.

"We want to be out of The Wire business," says the mayor of Baltimore, repeating the affirmation that began this call twenty minutes ago, stalling us in the Safeway parking lot on Boston Street.

I am curbside at the grocery, caught between a cup of carryout coffee and an afternoon writer's meeting, cellphone hard against my ear, playing liar's poker with a politician.

"You're telling me a week before we begin shooting," I explain again. "I'm happy to move the show out-of-town for season three, but I can't do it now. You've waited too long to tell me."

Pelecanos stands beside me, listening to half a conversation, staring across the outer harbor toward the production office to which he can't return.

"Look," I offer the mayor, "we've built our sets in the county and the governor's given us our port locations, which are state property. If we don't get permits in the city, we'll do exteriors in Wilmington or Philly and still get the show done."

I am trying to sound as offhand as I can about the possibility, and Pelecanos, knowing better, is smiling now. With our permits held up by the city film office and city agencies refusing cooperation, we've started scouting other cities should it be necessary to relocate. But it would be a huge hit to our budget.

"That's time and money, but if you aren't going to approve the permits, we'll do it if we have to."

At which point, Martin O'Malley pivots away from the issue of permits, declaring himself to be concerned about the city's image above all, about what this damned television show is saying about us, about how it reflects on the city's response to the relentlessness of the drug trade, on…well…his own response to it. On him.

"I've funded a thousand more treatment beds," he says, his voice coming back to me as a hollow echo.

A speaker phone. He is performing for a coterie of aides, no doubt. Or the councilwoman who poked us with that resolution a few months back, the one about countering the image of the city as depicted in television drama. Or some developers, the fellas who keep wailing their jeremiad in the mayor's ear about what these shows are doing to their property values. Who knows who's in the mayor's suite being entertained by this. I only know my own audience is a solitary Greek stoic, his coffee long gone, wilting in a supermarket parking lot because my cellphone can't be trusted to keep its connection in a moving car.

"Where is that in The Wire?"

"Where is what?

"A thousand new treatment beds."

"Treatment beds?"

"Why don't you put how we've funded more beds?"

As a point of exposition? Or should I have the art department order up the actual furniture. I respond cleverly:


"And we've reduced crime," he declares. "Where is that in the show? Our crime is down 30 percent."

It is now a full-bore stump speech, and I am being oversold. So I settle in, sit on the curb and stretch my legs as the mayor lurches into a monologue on the myriad achievements of his remarkable administration. There is a miracle underway in Baltimore. Everyone knows this. The Wire is missing it.

I've spent almost my entire professional life writing about Baltimore's problems. It has not been charming, or decorous or particularly generous.

A car hound, Pelecanos wanders away to admire a parked Benz coupe.

"Why don't you show what we're accomplishing?"

The owner of the Benz shows up with groceries, and Pelecanos looks back across the lot at me mournfully. I give a theatrical shrug of the shoulders and shake my head.

Sorry, George. Gonna be a while.

I don't mean to make fun of Martin O'Malley.

He has his priorities, his ambitions. I confess to my own and they are necessarily very different from anyone whose job description ever included being a cheerleader for a municipality.

Since The Sun hired me twenty-five years ago, I've spent almost my entire professional life writing about Baltimore's problems in newsprint, in books and on film. It has not been charming, or decorous or particularly generous. The best I can say is that it has been sincere.

And as a further point of confession, let me add that I didn't see all of it coming.

I surely didn't expect a work of journalism, a book of narrative non-fiction I wrote about some city homicide detectives, to be sold to an A-list Hollywood director from this city. I couldn't conceive that Barry Levinson's creation would run for seven seasons on NBC. Nor could I have imagined that out-of-town ownership would devour my newspaper, or that the small-trick, tone-deaf sensibilities of new editors would cause me to flee that newspaper for that television production.

When I wrote a second work of narrative journalism, I certainly didn't expect that, too, to become grist for television drama. Who makes a TV show about life on a drug corner? At what point, when I began that book project in 1993, was I supposed to anticipate the rise of HBO and the possibility of telling a darker, more honest story on American television?

The Wire, I admit, was not quite so clueless. By then, I'd been granted some sense of what was now possible for the medium of television. I could calculate just how much of my own reporting, of Ed Burns' experiences, of the research of real-world novelists such as George Pelecanos or Richard Price or Dennis Lehane might be pulled through the keyhole of premium cable. At that point, we felt we knew a few things that mattered to us, things we needed to say, and incredibly, here was the chance to say them.

Shit got good to us, as they say over westside. So, yeah, we went for it, and having done so, the best we can say for ourselves now is that our intentions were without the guile and calculation of people seeking to simply offend.

We live here. Or most of us do. And those who don't live in Baltimore have spent years writing with commitment about places that are contending with the same problems as this city. Price has his Jersey City; Lehane, his Dorchester; Pelecanos, his Northeast D.C.

If indifferent to the calculations of real estate speculators, civic boosters and politicians looking toward higher office, we are nonetheless fascinated by the other America, the one that usually gets left behind in all the storytelling, never mind the usual political and economic abandonment. That fascination is, if not therapeutic—no story ever constitutes a cure and any writer who claims such is either hack or charlatan—then at least diagnostic. The impulse is not so much to entertain as to inform, and perhaps, to provoke an argument or two.

But The Wire wasn't designed to shove Baltimore's nose into it. Give or take an inside joke or two, these were stories relevant to any number of forgotten places in post-industrial America. The problems depicted are profound, complex and national.

So why Baltimore?

Why not some generic rust-belt location, never named or hinted at? Why not some vague, unspecific Hill-Street-Blues neighborhood: The Heights or The Hill or The Put-Name-Here Housing Project?

Well, it's subtle. But by choosing to tell our story in Baltimore and by showing fealty to the details of Baltimore, we reduce by some meaningful amount the artifice. We create an additional, though tacit argument on behalf of the stories themselves.

No, Omar isn't real. But if he were, it would be in Baltimore where his name would ring out. No, Bubbles is not real. But if he were, it would be in Baltimore where he would cling to fragile humanity. And no, Carcetti is not real. But if he were mayor of an American city, it could well be Baltimore, where precise pressures and counter-pressures would be brought to bear on him.

By choosing a real city, we declare that the economic forces, the political dynamic, the class, cultural and racial boundaries are all that much more real, that they do exist in Baltimore and, therefore, they exist elsewhere in urban America.

The corresponding cost to Baltimore was tangible and understood: We put our town's shit in the street. And for that and that alone we ask apology for the premeditated trespass:

Sorry for that. Really—no sarcasm here—we acknowledge the affront and now at the end, we have the nerve to ask your indulgence.

And further, we admit that the benefits of telling stories in a real city are in no way tangible. Not as tangible as someone's property values, or the number of convention bookings, or whatever else it is we are supposed to have impaired.

The Wire wasn't designed to shove Baltimore's nose into it. The problems depicted are profound, complex, and national. so why Baltimore?

Will viewers be more moved by a story that's more realistic? Will they find the tale more credible, more essential to their view of the world? Will they be inclined to consider problems and their response to problems in a new way? I don't know. It's nice to think a story might have a positive effect on anything.

But saying such things about any form of storytelling—let alone television—sounds pompous and self-serving. And to people who focus on the fact that the people who make The Wire get paid for making a television show rooted in the underclass, it all comes off as ridiculously abstract, maybe even hypocritical.

The poor are still with us. The drug trade endures. The schools, police department, and political leadership are a morass of fraudulent claims, juked stats and naked ambition. Nothing changes and I got paid. We all get paid for making the movie.

But hey, then mark us down as incompetent if it was about the money. Because if the dollars were really the point then The Wire would have had more women with longer legs and larger breasts, and there would have been a car chase or two, and shit would've blown up in a real good fireball in every episode.

Instead of aiming for mass appeal and spinoffs, zeitgeist and action figures, we constructed a show that confounded and abused casual viewers and struggled to grow its audience. As conceived, The Wire required annual feats of genuflection and groveling to be renewed by cable execs as dismayed by the ratings as they were impressed by critical notices.

So before settling on greed as our deadly sin of choice, think again.

Pride, dawg. Pride and maybe sloth, if you've seen me dress. But pride, above all, is the deal breaker here.

Which brings us back to the Safeway lot, where Pelecanos, now counting parking spaces in his head, is beginning to wonder how bad he needs this gig.

I am still sprawled on the curb. And my cellphone hums as the Mayor of Baltimore drones about having fixed the police department, citing a moderate reduction in murders off the previous year's total. I know I should let it go.

"That's kind of like a fat man going on a diet," I blurt out. "I mean, going three hundred murders down to two seventy, two eighty is the equivalent of giving up French fries. The first ten pounds are easy."

Which only brings more hyperbole. Eventually, the mayor is telling me that he's doing everything possible to win the drug war. Wait, he goes further. He is winning the drug war, one corner at a time.

"Mr. Mayor, you are not going to get me to concede that the drug war is anything more than a fraud. I wrote a book about it, you might recall, and though I don't imagine you've read it…"

Shut up, Simon, you asshole. Just let it go.

"I know what it says," O'Malley offers.

"Well then you know I'm not buying into the drug war."

"Well, we have to do something," he counters. "We can't just sit here and do nothing in these neighborhoods."

The good voice in my head, the cheek-turning voice of pious humility, has me hesitate. The bad voice—he starts arranging words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs.

"Not really, Mr. Mayor," the bad voice says. "Do nothing for the next three or four years and you might actually do a little less damage. And I say this considering the fact that you'll soon be running for governor, which means you're already running on the argument that you've reduced crime dramatically in Baltimore, which means that when the modest declines aren't enough, you'll bang on your police commissioner so hard he'll up and quit. And the half-baked choices, hacks and sycophants you use to replace him? When they can't drop the numbers honestly, then the word is gonna go out to the district commanders, to the shift lieutenants, to the sector sergeants: Crime will go down. Yes, it will. And the knives and handguns are gonna disappear from robbery reports, just as the agg assaults are going to be reclassified into common assaults and crime will definitely go down, so much so that perhaps a few might marvel that you are claiming huge declines in overall crime while the murder rate stays high, that there is no logic to such, that God help us if ambitious politicians ever figure out how to hide the bodies…"

He doesn't hang up. I keep shouting.

"Do nothing and at least we won't be pretending there aren't fundamental disconnects between the school system and the children we pretend to teach, that we aren't teaching the youngest ones to give us a politically gratifying rise in the mandated test scores, while the older ones—too hard to reach, too aware of their real place in this world—show no such improvement on their journey out of the system as suspensions or dropouts . . . .

"Do nothing at all and . . . "

Except I didn't really say any of that. Not a word. Five years ago, on that grocery parking lot, I didn't think half of what I do now. On that day, I admit, what I most remember is looking across the asphalt at Pelecanos. Bored beyond description, he glared at me as if there were horns on my head. So for once I did what does not come naturally: I gave up on the argument and offered some vague platitude I hoped might end the call.

"I'm sure you're doing what you think is best," I said.

Not quite the truth. But it wasn't much of a lie either.

A lot of people have taken to calling The Wire art. I like that, of course. It's very gratifying for an ex-newspaperman to be writing a television show and to have it referenced as art or literature. No lies here; I definitely soak that shit up. Who wouldn't?

But in truth I'm not sure if the work isn't merely journalism.

Not journalism in the sense that it is true; The Wire is most assuredly fiction. But we have stolen liberally, shamelessly from a city we know, from people who we reported on, policed, taught, hated, loved and humored. We have fulfilled the first law of not embarrassing ourselves as storytellers by writing only what we honestly think we know. With no more authority than our standing as an ex-cop and schoolteacher, a couple ex-newspapermen, a handful of novelists and a playwright or two, we have done our best to create a facsimile of post-industrial urban America.

What gives us the right? Seriously, who died and gave us 60 hours on HBO to say these things about a real city? Well, what is it that gives anyone the right?

By what outrageous fortune does the [Chicago] Tribune Company own a subsidiary in this city and through it publish a daily account of what it feels to be relevant and fair? By what absurdity does John Waters exalt the twists and perversities of this bizarre town? By what totalitarian triumph of personal reminiscence does Barry Levinson conjure the Baltimore of his youth and render it as our collective past? Who has appointed Anne Tyler to define the lives of Roland Park, or Robert Ward to depict the hard times of an out-of-work Dundalk steelworker, or Laura Lippman [ Ed. note: Lippman is Simon's wife] to embrace so much local iconography with each literary murder? Storytelling is rooted in arrogance: Here. Look at me, I've got a story to tell. Pay attention to me.

At its core, what bothers some about The Wire is not so much the content as the medium itself. Speak to these same arguments and themes as a newspaper series, magazine article or novel and no one raises an eyebrow. I know this precisely, having written one book that rendered Baltimore's violence as a mass-production phenomenon, and a second that despaired over the disconnect between our drug policies and the diaspora of addiction so fundamental to our city. Until the film crews arrived, eyebrows definitely went unraised.

But graft those same themes to a television drama and subvert an entertainment medium so that people are rooting for a dope fiend, for a stickup boy, for a drug dealer—and do so in a way that renders the other America as worthy of drama as any other locale? Now you've got people asking about the propriety and utility of simply telling a story.

I get it. I understand that no one expects to watch a television show and be treated to an argument on what ails urban America. I admit that in making The Wire and depicting Baltimore, we took advantage of how thin a membrane can exist between fact and fiction. But for those still genuinely concerned about what Baltimore may have suffered as a result, allow one last consideration:

Gambol freely among American television's many humorous constructs, each living room populated by foolish, lumpy husbands and their smart, attractive and long-suffering mates, their precocious children, their farcical moments. Range further to what passes for drama to find angry, righteous white men beating down men of color inside interrogation rooms or shooting them down in the streets as a thin blue line between us and disorder. Admire the doctors and lawyers, and super-powered heroes whose every dramatized day is an affirmation of their extraordinary, validated lives. Stare without end at the faces of those who are soon to be ascendant as America's next idol, top model, iron chef. Regard for a moment the television universe as a reflection of who it is we actually wish ourselves to be . . .

Is it too much for the other America to see itself reflected in one television drama, to have—amid all the wealth and beauty and self-gratification—a single viewing experience to call their own, a solitary drama that addresses itself to their world? The Wire is the one continuing series set in the shadowland of the ghetto, in the America that we have discarded politically, economically, and emotionally. Are we saying, that for the sake of Baltimore's civic image, that it's one drama too many?

I'm writing this in Maputo, the battered capital of Mozambique, where HBO is filming a miniseries about the war in Iraq. Baltimore can double for many notable locations, but Mesopotamia is not one of them. So the business of filming this project went to Africa, and for the first time, I am not filming at home.

And yes, everything is cheaper here; cheaper and in many ways easier. Having suffered through a decades-long civil war, having their economy and infrastructure in shambles, folks here are unbothered by the idea their capital is doubling for a bomb-cratered, strife-torn Baghdad. Vanities are not pricked by the sight of make-believe Marines in rented humvees patrolling broken streets in pursuit of make-believe fedayeen.

And true, there is safety in playing stand-in to someone else's problems. No one will watch Generation Kill and say to themselves that Maputo needs to embrace urban renewal. But even if we were depicting the betrayals and Cold War gamesmanship that were Mozambique's particular tragedy, I don't sense anyone here would interpose.

In a country where unemployment is over 40 percent and too many people live at the margins within endless squatter camps, the issue of jobs is paramount. A discussion of the film industry's psychic burden on the civic image would be, well, absurd.

On the other end of the spectrum is, say, New York, where no amount of depicted tragedy, crime and corruption can in any way affect the city's self-image. Every season, NBC's Law & Order franchise alone murders more people in Manhattan than are actually slain in that borough and no one cares in the slightest.

It remains for second-tier, First-World cities like Baltimore to fret about image and substance, to worry the calculation between the facts on the ground and civic pride, between film industry cash and tourism dollars. In Baltimore, we're secure enough to care about what we have, insecure enough to know it is not nearly so good as we claim. We recognize our own dirty laundry when it's out there on the line.

On the other side of the ledger is the Baltimore film industry, fledgling and vulnerable, threatened by the give-backs offered by many other states that are luring film projects and crew jobs away. This is infuriating. After all this hard work, Baltimore deserves loyalty from the Hollywood studios, but of course, loyalty is not the means by which capital routes itself.

But going forward, the economics are what they are. I've never been a forceful proponent of incentive programs to lure or maintain any industry; whether it's a professional sports franchise or an auto assembly line, such programs seem to be little more than extortion. And it's unseemly that something as profitable as the film industry should be so treated. Yet once Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Louisiana have started the stampede, there's little for anyone to do but run with the steers.

Homicide, The Corner, and The Wire together brought $300 million in film budgets to Baltimore. And maybe it's fair to claim that a bit more than half of that money—less the salaries of out-of-town actors and directors—stayed in town to circulate. The money, at least, is very real, and the state film commission is quick to cite it in any debate over the relative merits of having a film industry.

But Maryland doesn't have to have a film industry; lots of places don't. And it is also fair to acknowledge that I have no way to gauge what sort of damage was actually done to Maryland tourism as a result of these shows. Neither does anyone else.

Much was made of a $500,000 consultant's report that cited the negative imagery of these shows as damaging to Baltimore's reputation, but actually, no one in any of the focus groups cited the television dramas at any point. The assertion amounted to a single phrase in the report that is, I am told by the consultants, attributable to the concerns of a local developer, who expressed himself at one meeting.

So maybe we didn't do much damage at all. Or maybe the damage done exceeded the benefit. I hope, in retrospect, for the best, of course, but confess again that money and image never mattered to us. We lived by another premise entirely.

Were the stories worth the telling?

And the measure of that came to me on the night when, six episodes into the first season, I went to the FOP lodge and laid cash on the bar, waiting for the police gathered to tell me what they thought of our depiction of a lost drug war and bureaucratic dysfunction. Although I expected the worst, I didn't buy another round that night.

Or when I was eating in Locust Point and a waitress told me she knew Ziggy Sobotka was loosely based on Pinkie Bannon. Or the days spent on set in West and East Baltimore, when Omar or Bubbles or Bunk emerged from a trailer to be swamped by neighborhood folk who would repeat their best lines to them, or tell them how real their journeys seemed, or pose with them for photographs.

For us, this is the validation that matters, the standard by which we judge ourselves, and by which we were, for the most part, judged by other Baltimoreans. In 15 years of filming here, I can count on one hand the number of encounters with everyday folk that were hostile or adverse to our storytelling.

Seriously, who died and gave us sixty hours on HBO to say these things about a real city?

And admittedly, we do not travel light. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes manage to block traffic, to monopolize parking, to make people wait long minutes to simply walk down a sidewalk or enter a building when a camera is rolling.

At our best, we are a mild pain in the ass. And going forward, I have to say that if you happen to see me in a bar and recognition provokes your approach, I will be remiss, if, upon being informed of exactly where and when we ruined one of your days, I do not make amends through the purchase of at least a beer.

Yet throughout it all, we have been more than tolerated and our trespasses, as unending as they were, have been forgiven. And it's in this that our gratitude is limitless and unequivocal.

Baltimore has been kind and generous to host our storytelling, more so than any other city might have dared. This city has proven, if nothing else, that it is open to the pursuit of problematic truths at a time when the country as a whole seems hellbent on avoiding such. As a local here, I share a secret pride in this.

Which brings us back to the relevant sin.

Because a better man than me, a bigger man, a man more acquainted with impulses noble and magnanimous—he might leave well enough alone. Such a man would say his thank you, seek forgiveness for his affronts and find the door before giving any further cause for offense.

But for having stood on that parking lot for 40 minutes being harangued by a politician, I am still too much the newspaperman, too infatuated with my own independent voice to let it be.

What kind of person would rate that single, angry confrontation over all the benign encounters with so many other Baltimoreans? What sort of asshole clings to the one moment where his right to tell a story was questioned, rather than focus on the hundreds of hours of television that were broadcast without interference? Who carries a grudge better than me?

Truth is, after a few hostile shots over our bow, Martin O'Malley became reserved and non-confrontational. His city agencies issued their permits and behaved professionally ever after. The big developers ended their whisper campaign, the city council went back to doing whatever it actually does.

But Christ, I can't resist telling the end of the tale:

"I will move the show before season three," I tell the mayor on that parking lot, going as far as I dare given the show's finances. "And you can explain to the world how Baltimore became the first American city to ever banish a television production because of its content."

People will understand, he argues back. The Wire is too harsh.

"In Los Angeles, they won't. You'll be in the trades for this and you'll be pulling the plug on the industry in Maryland. Now, Mr. Mayor, you don't have to have a film industry here…"

"That's right. We don't," he interrupts.

"…but if you want one, then enough of this bullshit with the council sponsoring resolutions critical of the show, or with you holding up permits because you don't like our story. You can't play that. No one can. You can hate the show personally—you can even say you hate it personally—but you can't have government deciding what stories it will and will not tolerate. You do that and the work will go elsewhere—all of the work, not just the stories you don't like."

I then remind him of the lunch we had at Sotto Sopra a month before I turned in the pilot script to HBO. The city had two bites of this apple— Homicide and The Corner, I told him on that occasion, so if you want me to do this new show elsewhere, I certainly can. And the next project suitable for Baltimore, I'll come back here no problem.

"No," the new-minted mayor told me at that lunch, confident in his ability to achieve every goal, to reduce the murder rate by nearly half, to fix a moribund police department, to bring miracles to Baltimore. "Do it here. We're proud of the shows."

I recount all of that and wait.

"We want to be out of The Wire business," he says again.

"No problem. I can move to Philadelphia next year," I counter.

"And then it'll be a story about Philadelphia?"

No, I explain, incredulous. We've already shot the first season. They were Baltimore cops chasing Baltimore drug dealers. There's no way we can change the setting for season two: "The chance to do that was when we had lunch, remember?" Pelecanos returns with a repeat coffee in his hand.

"Well," says O'Malley, after a pause, "we'll reconsider your request for permits." Then he hangs up.

I pocket the cellphone and exhale loudly.

"Well?" says Pelecanos.

A better man than myself would keep the confidence of that call, would allow an adversary the chance to back away from an absurd, embarrassing negotiation. A smarter man, certainly, would worry about some future gubernatorial petulance threatening some future film project; he would contemplate just how threatened the local film industry will be without a state incentive program and how essential the governor's support is. A smart fellow like that would be more calculating and solicitous with possible patrons and allies, more of a politician, for lack of a better word. He's someone, if you think on it, who would not write The Wire. At his best and worst moments, he'd be a shameless, heedless, prideful sonofabitch.

"We're not moving," I tell Pelecanos. "That guy just blinked."