The crusader behind “The Wire.” - by Margaret Talbot
On a muggy August afternoon in Baltimore, trash scuttled down Guilford Avenue, the breeze smelling like rain and asphalt. It was the last week of shooting for the fifth and final season of the HBO drama “The Wire,” and the crew was filming a scene in front of a boarded-up elementary school. Cast members had been joined by forty or so day players—mostly kids from the neighborhood. Earlier, the episode’s director, Clark Johnson, had been giving some of the kids the chance to say “Cut!,” and they’d bellowed it like drunks at a surprise party. Now, when Johnson yelled “Cut,” the kids swarmed around a video monitor to look at themselves in the last shot, pointing and laughing. “He just said it was good,” one kid complained. “Why we gotta do it again?” Johnson, who was wearing what he called his “lucky cowboy hat,” stepped away to talk to one of the professional actors. Another man—a bald white guy, unprepossessing in jeans and a T-shirt—remained by the monitor, and he answered the kids: “Hey. He’s the director. You don’t believe him? He kinda, sorta knows what he’s doin’.” The bald guy was David Simon, the show’s creator: a former Baltimore Sun reporter who figured that he’d spend his life at a newspaper, a print journalist who has forged an improbable career in television without ever leaving Baltimore. The kids listened politely to Simon and ran back to their places.
Each season of “The Wire” has focussed, with sociological precision, on a different facet of Baltimore. The previous season featured a story line about the city’s anarchic schools, told partly through the character of Roland (Prez) Pryzbylewski, a young cop turned schoolteacher. Simon recalled, “On the first day, the kids were all cutting up and yelling. It was like the first day of school. You know how they kicked the shit out of Pryzbylewski emotionally on the show? The kids were doing the same to the assistant directors. One poor A.D. was, like, ‘Please! This is too fuckin’ meta.’ By the end of the year, we had a good crew of young actors, but in the beginning it was, as we say in Baltimore, like herding pigeons.” While Simon was telling this story, Jermaine Crawford, a fourteen-year-old who joined the cast last season, came over to hug him. The scene being filmed would mark the final appearance of Crawford, whose character, Dukie, comes from a family in which all the adults are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Much of the new season, which will begin airing in January, will take place at a downsizing newspaper called the Baltimore Sun. Johnson, back at the monitor, began teasing Simon for giving so many of his old Sun colleagues small parts on the show. Among the dozens of people who have recurrent parts or cameos are Simon’s former editor, Rebecca Corbett, now an editor at the Times; the former Sun political reporter Bill Zorzi, now a writer for “The Wire”; Steve Luxenberg, the editor who first hired Simon as a reporter at the Sun; and Simon’s wife, Laura Lippman, a crime novelist who used to be a Sun reporter.
“It was like a frat house the other day, with all your newspaper pals around here,” Johnson told Simon. “What, you think somebody in Iowa’s gonna be watching and go, ‘Look, honey, it’s Bill Zorzi!’?” Warming to his riff, he added, “You ever try playing off these people who’ve never acted before? Somebody yells ‘Action,’ and they stand here like this”—he made a blank fish face.
Johnson is an actor as well as a director. He played a detective on “Homicide,” the NBC cop series based on Simon’s 1991 book by the same name, about murder in Baltimore, and in the new season of “The Wire” he plays Gus Haynes, a city editor who tries to hold the line against dwindling coverage, buyouts, and pseudo-news. In the season opener, Haynes provides a bitingly funny introduction to newsroom culture. He complains about a photographer who invariably gooses the poignancy of fire scenes by positioning a charred doll somewhere amid the debris. (“I can see that cheatin’ motherfucker now, with his fucking harem of dolls, pouring lighter fluid on each one,” Haynes fumes.) And he patiently explains to a junior reporter one of those house rules which arbiters of newspaper style cling to with fierce persnicketiness: a building can be “evacuated,” he instructs, but you cannot evacuate people. “To evacuate a person is to give that person an enema,” one of the old-timers chimes in. “At the Baltimore Sun, God still resides in the details.”
The Sun allowed its name to be used on “The Wire,” but stipulated that no current employees could appear in it; the newspaper’s offices have been re-created on the show’s hulking soundstage outside the city. This arrangement suited Simon fine—he bitterly accepted a buyout offer from the paper in 1995, feeling that it was squandering talent under new management. “The Wire,” Simon often says, is a show about how contemporary American society—and, particularly, “raw, unencumbered capitalism”—devalues human beings. He told me, “Every single moment on the planet, from here on out, human beings are worth less. We are in a post-industrial age. We don’t need as many of us as we once did. So, if the first season was about devaluing the cops who knew their beats and the corner boys slinging drugs, then the second was about devaluing the longshoremen and their labor, the third about people who wanted to make changes in the city, and the fourth was about kids who were being prepared, badly, for an economy that no longer really needs them. And the fifth? It’s about the people who are supposed to be monitoring all this and sounding the alarm—the journalists. The newsroom I worked in had four hundred and fifty people. Now it’s got three hundred. Management says, ‘We have to do more with less.’ That’s the bullshit of bean counters who care only about the bottom line. You do less with less.”
Some of the dialogue from the fifth season is taken word for word from the Sun’s newsroom. Simon recalled, “There was this writer, Carl, who every day would eat the same thing for lunch: cottage cheese. One day, somebody walked by and saw him staring down into his cottage cheese, poking it with a spoon and saying to himself, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck.’ That’s in there.”