Breaking Down The Wire

We Interrogate a Wire Writer
Talking television.
Oct. 30 2006 6:20 AM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Alex,

This week, we have the pleasure of asking some questions of David Mills, one of the writers (this season's Episode 2) * who has been a key part of the series from the beginning. But first, this week's episode … 
 
If Episode 4 was something of a "building blocks" show—laying the foundation and framing future set pieces—Episode 5 compellingly moved the various stories forward. Things are looking more desperate for Mayor Royce's primary campaign. His chief opponent, Carcetti, seems to be blessed by police department bungling, inside leaks, and a shrewd ability to say the right thing at the right time. Marlo is almost Carcetti's drug-world mirror: He's unwilling to play by the established rules—drug cartel rules—while he hatches an appalling plan for revenge against Omar. (Though by episode's end, Fat Man may be making headway, bringing him into the fold. But don't bet the farm on it.) And Prez is starting to find his footing at school through his own version of tough love.
 
That is, of course, the barest of summaries. I continue to marvel at the series' ability to keep numerous storylines going simultaneously and plot out organic connections between them. If the series stumbled at all, it was during Season 2. I admired the longshoreman story, the way it captured a mostly white tale of working-class desperation that leads to corruption and crime. (It reminded me of a terrific but demanding nine-hour Chinese documentary, Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks, about the decline of an aging industrial city in the wake of modernization.) But the longshoreman story felt largely disconnected from the story we'd become so, well, addicted to: Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and their West Baltimore drug ring. Whenever those scenes came on, I found myself sitting up a little straighter in anticipation. But by the end, the second season had paid off and introduced Baltimore politics into the drama, which would pay real dividends in Season 3. That third season was a tour de force for me, the single best to date for my money. It was effortlessly complex in its plotting and introduced new and vivid characters like Carcetti, Royce, Marlo, and the wonderful West Baltimore Maj. Colvin. Perhaps most importantly of all, it dramatized a near-philosophical inquiry into the legalization of drugs. Yet, it did so without pulling punches or simplifying the social and moral questions. (It was so much more insightful and challenging than the overrated and politically reactionary movie Traffic.)
 
This year, as we've noted before, The Wire ventures deeper into politics and adds schools to its list of institutions complexly wrought. Yes, certain major characters have receded. (McNulty springs immediately to mind, though I have a suspicion he will re-emerge as some juicy piece of the plot.) But to an impressive degree, the series has managed to add new characters while continuing to maintain our connection to the originals. This is something that The Sopranos has always struggled with; the first year was so brilliant and complete, it was like they had to start over and retool the series.
 
But, here's David. Because this is being conducted via e-mail, I invite David to use these questions as a springboard for whatever he wants to write about the series.
 
1) I know you are a former journalist. For all its realism and verisimilitude, The Wire is fiction—classic novelistic fiction. Do you distinguish real differences between a fiction approach to story and a nonfiction approach? (Besides the obvious so-called truth vs. so-called fiction. And I'd love to hear Alex weigh in on this one.)
 
2) You've worked in network commercial television (NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Streets, among others) and on commercial-free HBO. Talk about the differences between the two from the standpoint of story.
 
3) David Mamet once said he doesn't deal with "character arcs" because people don't really change. Talk about how The Wire deals with character, both within a season and season to season? Do you have a favorite character in the series?
 
4) You've been following (and contributing) to the conversation in Slate about white artists and black stories. Is this something that the creative team has openly wrestled with during the writing and production of the series? What role, if any, do the actors play in lending realism to the series? To the dialogue? In other words, how much of what we see is on the page before shooting begins?

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Steve

*Correction, Oct. 16, 2006: An earlier version of this article misidentified David Mills as a writer and director for The Wire. He wrote Episode 2 this season. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

Steve James is the director of Hoop Dreamsand Stevie.

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