Breaking Down The Wire

Urine As a Weapon of Mass Destruction
Talking television.
Sept. 18 2006 12:05 PM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Alex,

Wow. That's quite a story about your young friend. I, too, was haunted by the end of Episode 1. (The Wire is truly inspired at openings and closings.) From Season 1 on, the series has been brilliant at showing many sides to complex characters, be they cops, drug dealers, or, yes, even politicians. Randy and his gang may be budding drug runners and car thieves, but they are still just boys who look forward to the coming school year for the same reason boys everywhere do—to check out the girls' "developments," break out new clothes, and, I'm guessing, find some measure of safe haven from the streets. From the vantage point of boys, urine-filled balloons are the perfect retaliatory WMD.

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At the risk of gushing like a schoolgirl myself, there is so much that The Wire gets right about the world it inhabits. It's also funny as hell. And like The Sopranos, that humor is grounded in the real, in the ironically biting and funny juxtapositions that life deals the characters. In Episode 1, Simon and company contrast the middle-school teachers' orientation with a police station briefing on terrorism prevention—both of which are hilariously divorced from reality. Or, in the second episode, there's the funny and chilling visit to the prison where young ponytailed Namond gets a lesson in the drug-trade work ethic from his father. Or how about after Carcetti finishes his uninspired speech at the senior citizens home? The only question he gets is, "Is the Salisbury steak for lunch today, or is they doing tacos?"

Carcetti, by the way, is less perplexing to me, perhaps because I followed his development as a character in Season 3. His portrayal strikes me as one of the truest of a candidate I have seen, precisely because he seems so torn between a desire for reform and his Machiavellian pursuit of power. With Carcetti and all the primary characters in this series, we are consistently asked to reconsider who they are at their core. The Wire's DNA will not allow for easy answers or black-and-white depictions.

Whenever I watch, I'm reminded of the time we filmed Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams playing ball on the West Side playground near his home. Suddenly his father, Bo, showed up, strung out on drugs, looking like he hadn't eaten in a week. He'd been gone from the Agee home for a few months, "ripping and running the streets from the police," as he would later tell us. But on this day, he wanted to play a little basketball with his son. Arthur was both happy to see him and embarrassed by him. And when Bo went to the other side of the playground to score, in full view of us and his son, Arthur motioned to his father to come back. Bo got his crack and moved on. We glimpsed in that single moment the love and anger, wounded pride, and painful disappointment that would characterize much of their relationship in the years that followed. (Tragically, Bo was murdered a year ago.)

I have repeatedly discovered as a documentary filmmaker what you, Alex, so brilliantly captured in There Are No Children Here: There's no substitute for putting in the time it takes to really get past seeing people as mere symbols—be they symbols of good or bad, or the powerful or desperate. This is what David Simon and his team have done now for four years.

Steve James is the director of Hoop Dreamsand Stevie.