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Hard lessons for life

In its fourth season, `The Wire' will look at the mean hallways of a Baltimore school.

September 08, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

Baltimore — THE lunchtime hubbub at Edward Tilghman Middle School had reached full din. Students clad in maroon polo shirts chattered and whooped, as the smell of boiled green beans and chicken cutlets wafted through the cafeteria.

A school may seem an incongruous setting for the latest installment of "The Wire." After all, the gritty HBO drama spent its previous three seasons dwelling on the brutal realities of the street drug trade, dockworker corruption and political malfeasance. Its dozens of characters -- cops, addicts, dealers -- showed life in the city through the lens of criminality.

But for the show's creator David Simon, it was obvious that the next institution to come under the program's unflinching gaze had to be the educational system.

"Every year we've been trying to slice off another piece of our mythical Baltimore," he said. "In the end, we hope that when we finish our run we'll have addressed the idea of the American city and where we, urban people, are at this point in time.

"The next logical thing for us was to examine the notion of equality of opportunity. These human beings who are feeding [off of] and serving and being devoured by the only viable industry in these parts of Baltimore -- where were these people coming from?"

The answer offered up in "The Wire's" fourth season, which debuts on Sunday at 10 p.m., is one that is likely to only further exasperate Baltimore officials, who are far from thrilled about having their city portrayed as an emblem of decaying urban America.

This year, the series follows four adolescent boys -- Michael (Tristan Wilds), Namond (Julito McCullum), DuQuan (Jermaine Crawford) and Randy (Maestro Harrell) -- as they try to navigate the druglord-owned streets of West Baltimore and contend with a largely dysfunctional school system often incapable of protecting its charges.

Much of the action takes place inside the middle school, filmed in a shuttered elementary school on the edge of downtown Baltimore. Early in the season, it quickly becomes apparent that the classroom provides no sanctuary from the battles outside.

On this cold spring day, the four young actors were filming a scene in the school hallway, a bustling corridor papered with hand-painted signs that urged "Integrity" and "Courage." As the friends ambled down the hall, ominous glances were thrown their way. A passing student shoved Randy menacingly -- a warning that he had run afoul of the rules of the street.

The chaos inside the school comes as a shock to former detective Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost). This season, he will begin a new career as a middle-school math teacher after leaving the police department after an accidental shooting of a fellow officer in Season 3.

His story line was drawn in part from the experiences of writer and producer Edward Burns, Simon's longtime collaborator, a former Baltimore homicide detective who taught social studies in a middle school for seven years after leaving the police department.

Out of the 200 students Burns instructed in his first year, 13 had been shot -- two of them twice.

"I was in the infantry in Vietnam," he recounted. "I chased escapees and murderers and rapists. I was in homicide. There's nothing like walking into a middle school in a setting like Baltimore."

"The way I think about it is, the kids are going to learn," Burns added. "The question is, where?"

"The Wire" illustrates the inexorable pull of the corner, where the drug dealers whose presence is a way of life are ready with their own form of education.

Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and author of two nonfiction books about policing and the inner city, called the program a "very angry show," one that delves into the somber truth of poverty rarely portrayed on TV.

"Cop shows in particular have no interest in it because it screws with the basic motif of catching the bad guy," he said. "In police procedurals, the people being pursued ... they're really there to validate the morality and the superiority and the intellect and the heroism of the authorities.

"And I think it's basically that culture of storytelling and that simplistic mythology that has given us this incredibly destructive, incredibly wasteful, incredibly tragic drug war. I look at most television and I think, 'This is just propaganda. It's not honest.' "

"The Wire" has its share of police and criminals in its sprawling cast, but deciphering who the heroes are is not easy. James McNulty (Dominic West) is a lifelong cop with a self-destructive streak; Omar (Michael K. Williams) is a ruthless stick-up man with a strict code of ethics. The complex stories that slowly unfold through the series -- inspired in large part by cases Burns worked on as a detective -- demonstrate the parallels of their experiences.

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