Monday, May 05, 2008

As David Simon of "The Wire" collects his Drum Major for Justice Award, he'll know it's worthwhile when I burble, "Gosh, I'm a really big fan," at him


In David Simon's landmark HBO series The Wire, Baltimore Sun City Editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) talks to three of his reporters, Mike Fletcher (Brandon Young), Alma Gutierrez (Michelle Paress), and the infamous M. Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy), an ambitious young man who refuses to let mere facts, which are not only dreary but tedious to gather, stand in the way of his fast-track career path.

Okay, it's an odd name: the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. I expect that every first conversation everyone has with anyone associated with the Brooklyn-based progressive think tank begins with, or at least includes, the question, "So what's the deal with the name?"

But DMI does terrific work, producing usefully down-to-earth, solidly grounded studies of economic-based issues that affect our everyday lives, always accompanied by carefully considered, thorough research--with a special emphasis on urban living (meaning cities--you know, those densely populated places that disappear as if by magic during presidential campaigns, except of course when cash-starved candidates sneak into them to shake their money trees). Howie and I are both fans, and were happy to be included on the Blogger Host Committee for DMI's annual benefit, scheduled for later this month, before it even occurred to me to check out the link for the benefit I'd been given.

I knew the bash was Tuesday evening, May 20, at Cipriani 23, Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street in Manhattan. Beyond that, not being exactly what you'd call a habitué of the banquet circuit, I wasn't giving the event itself much thought. Then I checked out the benefit link, and that changed in a hurry.

There are three winners of 2008 Drum Major for Justice Awards, and I'm afraid I'm going to give unfairly short shrift to two of them:

* Melissa Mark-Viverito, an energetic longtime community activist and labor organizer who is now a member of the New York City Council. She's being honored--

for outstanding work on behalf of her diverse urban district and city-dwellers nationwide,


* Steve Phillips, a longtime education reformer and civil-rights and employment-discrimination lawyer who founded, "a statewide social justice organization working with community organizations and activists to build political power in California." He's being honored--

for his work to advance a progressive agenda in California.

I'm sure they're both committed, productive individuals whose accomplishments make them richly deserving of this honor. I am looking forward to learning more about and from them.

But the other honoree is:

* David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who burst into the world of big-time network TV when his nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, his gritty account of life on the city's drug-infested streets, was turned into the great 1993-99 NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street by one of my favorite film directors, Barry Levinson (another Baltiimorean) and writing-producing partners Paul Attanasio and Tom Fontana. Simon then applied the TV smarts he acquired working on Homicide as a writer and producer when he turned his later book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood into the HBO series The Corner. And that, of course, set the stage for The Wire, of which Simon was (as Wikipedia puts it) "the creator, show runner, executive producer and head writer."

(The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood was written with Ed Burns, who would be a key collaborator on The Wire, and again on Simon's new HBO project, a seven-hour miniseries adaptation of Rolling Stone writer Evan Wright's Generation Kill, his account of being embedded with Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, scheduled to air in July.)

The Wire may have had the most remarkable word of mouth of any TV project I'm aware of, including The Sopranos. As far as I can tell, there are two categories of people: those who didn't see the show, and those who regard it as one of the great achievements in television.

My experience with the show was a little strange. I watched the first couple of episodes, none too carefully, and found myself already way behind in keeping track of the characters and plots. And I didn't feel terribly compelled to catch up. I let it go. Over the next few years I kept hearing about The Wire, though. Not enough to make me watch. After all, if I'd been unable to keep up after a couple of episodes, what were my chances of getting caught up at that late stage? But enough to make me curious, and steadily curiouser.

Finally, as the fifth and final season approached, I was hearing such remarkable things about the series from such serious people that I took the plunge. I caught reruns of the last episodes of the fourth season as HBO was running up to the new-season premiere, and became familiar enough with the characters and plot to be prepared for the final sprint.

And I have to say, it was one of my great televiewing experiences, with the series' remarkably precise and powerful dramatization of the local drug lords and their pervasive corrupting influence on their neighborhoods; the neighborhood folk who scratch out existences in their orbit; the city criminal-justice establishment (both police and prosecutors) and its top-level political hierarchy; and, most fascinating to me, a fictional version of Simon's own alma mater, the Baltimore Sun. Simon gave us what seemed to me an eerily believable representation of the process whereby an overweeningly ambitious but lazy and fact-indifferent reporter can hornswoggle a set of pompously self-satisfied but pathetically gullible top-echelon editors.

Clark Johnson--a Homicide veteran, of course--in addition to directing a bunch of Wire episodes did a bang-up job in the sweetheart role of City Editor Gus Haynes, perhaps the only wholly sympathetic character I saw in Season Five. Gus's old-fashioned dogged journalistic creed, shared by a sprinkling of similarly uncompromised denizens of the city room (which is under intense and growing morale-crushing pressure from the paper's relentless waves of staff cutbacks), tries to resist but is ultimately mowed down by the phony reporter. (The twittish higher-ups are played with repellent persuasiveness by David Costabile, as Managing Editor Klebanow, and Sam Freed, as Executive Editor Whiting. But then, the whole massive cast is uniformly sensational.)

One nice thing about television is that, at least for shows that make it to and stay on the air for at least a while, they never disappear, thanks to all those thousands of cable channels desperate for programming, and of course the ubiquitous DVD. I've found Wire reruns running on BET, and I'm sure they'll be turning up elsewhere, including HBO itself. Of course the earlier seasons are out on DVD, and no doubt we'll soon have a "complete" package.

Buffalo (New York) Mayor Byron Brown will be on hand to present Simon's Drum Major Award, which, by the way, is being given--

for deftly exploring the realities of America's neglected cities.

I suppose not everyone at the shindig will be in awe of David Simon. For example, the friend I'm going with doesn't own a TV. There's really no point trying to explain to him the state I'm in anticipating the big moment when I get to shake Simon's hand and say something timelessly clever, like, oh, "Gosh, I'm a really big fan." Let's hope there aren't going to be any video cameras.

(A couple of years ago Howie got me into the annual fund-raising shindig of People for the American Way, of which he's a board member, and I went kind of nuts imagining what I could say when I met PFAW founder Norman Lear, of whom I'm in unmitigated awe, both for his remarkable TV producing career and for his outspoken, unabashed liberal advocacy. Perhaps I was lucky to be spared my "Gosh, I'm a really big fan" moment--I never did get to meet Norman.)

The DMI benefit link includes all the info about the event, including the attendant auction and ticket information.


I feel rotten about my characterization of City Editor Gus Haynes as "the only wholly sympathetic character" I encountered in The Wire Season Five. Unfortunately I still don't know how to put it better. Gus for me is the most something character, but I don't quite know how to put a finger on what.

In fact, though, there are lots of enormously sympathetic characters among the victims of hopelessness in the Baltimore streets, like poor Bubbles (Andre Royo, above), trying so hard to escape his drug addiction, and of course all those all-but-doomed kids. I guess the difference between them and Gus Haynes is that Gus has resisted corruption as a matter of choice--he had realistic alternatives.

Even among the other "have" characters, there are altogether admirable ones, like Assistant State's Attorney Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy) among the prosecutors and Detective "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce) among the cops. While so many of the people around them are compromising themselves or simply taking the easy way out, they achieve near-heroic status.

One of the amazing things about The Wire is the astounding number of characters created in genuine depth. And fortunately, among all the monsters and go-alongs there are a good number of "good guys" we can root for. They may be outmanned, but they keep putting up their best fight.

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At 12:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abolutely Incredible series!

The greatest lesson of this show, IMO, is that every decision made in our communities, be it good or bad, is related to all of us in some way. We are complicit just by LIVING amongst these people. That said, we have a responsibility beyond ourselves to DO THE RIGHT THING.

At 12:58 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Wow! Nicely said, Anon. Thanks!


At 2:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vey nice and interesting blog you have there are very few blogs which are descriptive like your blog.I like the wire episodes


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