BALTIMORE — “The Wire” is only nominally about Baltimore detectives’ protracted investigation of a drug gang in the city’s west side housing projects — it’s also a conduit for David Simon’s exploration of the futility of the drug war and the pervasiveness of corporate culture.
In Simon’s view, the police department and the drug organization are dysfunctional corporations that treat their employees as expendable and have lost touch with the public they serve, existing just to sustain themselves; and 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,” Simon, the show’s creator and executive producer, said during a location shoot on 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,” said Simon. “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 (whose fifth episode airs Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT) kicked off with McNulty sitting in on Barksdale’s murder trial. The young killer walked free after his cohorts intimidated witnesses. Afterward, for motives that remain unclear, McNulty spilled 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. But the department 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.
Simon, a former police reporter for The (Baltimore) Sun, previously worked on two other Baltimore-based TV shows — “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Corner.” But he wanted to return to the streets of Baltimore because there were aspects of the police department and the drug war he hadn’t yet explored.
“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,” Simon said.
The show’s comprehensive look at a drug organization comes largely from Edward Burns, 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 city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“Whatever damage that the drugs themselves haven’t done to these neighborhoods, the war against them has managed to do,” Simon said. “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 downtown headquarters.
The grittiness extends to the actors, most of whom don’t have Hollywood looks — except, perhaps, for West as McNulty.
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.
“It’s a dream for an actor to do something that’s completely alien, and this really is completely alien to me,” West said.
Not so for Simon. He’s showing the world as he sees it, and 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.”
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 said. “We’re after something different, and hopefully the payoff is much more resonant and much more meaningful.”