- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

BALTIMORE — David Simon calls his new HBO series "a visual novel," which is good news for enthusiasts of intelligent, ambitious television and bad news for fans of the cops-and-crooks genre.

"The Wire" is only nominally about Baltimore detectives' protracted investigation of a drug organization in the city's west-side housing projects it's also a conduit for Mr. Simon's exploration of what he sees as the futility of the drug war and the pervasiveness of corporate culture.

In Mr. Simon's view, the police department and the drug gang are dysfunctional corporations that treat their employees as expendable. They exist only to sustain themselves.

His two protagonists homicide detective James McNulty (Dominic West) and midlevel drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) are frustrated middlemen whose iconoclasm puts them at odds with their bosses.

"McNulty's working for Enron, and so is D'Angelo Barksdale," Mr. Simon says during a location shoot on West Baltimore's notoriously violent Pennsylvania Avenue.

"What we're trying to do is a TV show that is masquerading as a cop show, but it's really about what happens when a policy goes awry and bureaucracies become entrenched," says Mr. Simon, creator and executive producer of "The Wire." "The police bureaucracy is fixed and permanent, and the drug bureaucracy equally so, and they both treat their middle management the same."

The 13-episode series, which kicked off Friday with three back-to-back episodes and will run every Sunday at 10 p.m., opens with McNulty sitting in on Barksdale's murder trial. The young killer walks free after his cohorts intimidate witnesses. Afterward, for motives that remain unclear, McNulty spills his guts to the trial judge about the drug gang run by Barksdale's uncle, Avon, and the 10 murders it has committed without a conviction.

The confession creates a whirlwind of shakedowns and finger-pointing within the police department, and McNulty is banished to the narcotics unit to try to bring a case against the Barksdale crew and placate the judge. The department, however, clearly isn't committed to the kind of investigation with wiretaps and sophisticated surveillance that would net any major arrests.

Meanwhile, Barksdale is banished by his uncle to a low-rise housing project, where he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the violence necessary to sustain the drug trade.

Mr. Simon, a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun and the creator of "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Corner," says he returned to the streets of Baltimore all three series are shot entirely on location because there were aspects of the police department and the drug war he hadn't yet explored.

"I've tried to take away the element of the heroic and see what's left. Because these cops are now behaving the way I know cops in Baltimore behave," Mr. Simon says. "This is the department I covered in all its dysfunctional glory, where everybody was careerist and where nobody lost their pension by failing to do police work."

The show's comprehensive look at a drug organization comes largely from Edward Burns, Mr. Simon's co-writer, who was a Baltimore detective for 20 years and specialized in the kind of protracted investigations that "The Wire" dramatizes investigations that, in the end, did little to change the culture of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"Whatever damage that the drugs themselves haven't done to these neighborhoods, the war against them has managed to do," Mr. Simon says. "It's impaired the police department, it's alienated whole subcultures of Americans, and it's solved nothing."

Very little is disguised in "The Wire," from the blighted locations full of vacant lots and gutted, boarded-up row houses to the back stabbing and dishonesty in the police department's glassy downtown headquarters.

In this show, a cop tries to fall down a staircase intentionally to give himself a career-ending injury a shortcut to his pension. Prepubescent drug runners move the day's stash from apartment to apartment in a public-housing courtyard only to have it stolen at gunpoint by a man who makes his living robbing dealers.

The grittiness extends to the actors, most of whom don't have Hollywood looks except, perhaps, for Mr. West as McNulty.

"I wish Dominic looked like more of a schlub," Mr. Simon says with more sincerity than sarcasm. "That would be helpful for verisimilitude. He does look a little good for Baltimore. But we took him for what he brought to the role, and we said we'll work around the fact that he seems to be kind of attractive."

Mr. West, a native of Sheffield, England, is starring in his first series after a run of supporting roles in films including "28 Days" and "Rock Star." During a chat in his trailer, he's self-effacing about his uneasiness playing a Baltimore detective and his attempts to lick the American accent. His relaxed, naturalistic screen persona "is either motivated by fear or ignorance," he says.

"It's a long shot for me, this one. It's a dream for an actor to do something that's completely alien, and this really is completely alien to me," Mr. West says.

Not so to Mr. Simon. He's showing the world as he sees it, and he makes no apologies about using a TV drama to explore widespread political and social malaise. For that reason, "The Wire" will likely have to work harder to build an audience than HBO's breakout hits "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under."

Mr. Simon hopes his audience will be patient. "We can't pay viewers off with an arrest or a victory or a solidifying sense of accomplishment every episode," he says. "We're after something different, and hopefully the payoff is much more resonant and much more meaningful."

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