Schools Are a Crime on 'The Wire'

After 20 years as a Baltimore homicide detective, Ed Burns took on a second career, teaching social studies for seven years in the same city where he used to carry a badge. Now in his latest incarnation, as a writer and producer for HBO's Baltimore-based urban crime drama "The Wire," all these divergent paths have become one.

On Sunday, Sept. 10, "The Wire" launches its 13-episode fourth season, still centered on the mean streets of West Baltimore, populated by cops, addicts, dealers (or "corner boys"), would-be kingpins and ordinary folk just trying to get through the day. Also running these streets are kids of middle-school age and younger, who are in constant danger of becoming just another cog in the drug machine.

"If anything," Burns says, "our depiction of an inner-city school system, its problems and its unwillingness to fully address those problems, is a very generous one."

While the cops from the first three seasons of "The Wire" deal with the uncertain future of their wiretapping investigation in the wake of the collapse of the Barksdale drug empire -- and the rise of the new empire of Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) -- retired police Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom) is coping with life after the force. Last season, his police career ended after a failed experiment to sequester drug trafficking in an abandoned, protected area of the city, nicknamed "Hamsterdam."

Colvin is hired to participate in an academic study about how social and educational intervention can turn middle-school kids away from the corner, beginning with a class made up of some of the most disruptive and high-risk youngsters.

Playing pals caught in the middle of all this at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School are Jermaine Crawford as neglected DuQuan; Maestro Harrell as bright Randy; Julito McCullum as cocky Namond, son of a jailed drug-war soldier; and Tristan Wilds as troubled but quiet Michael.

At the same time, in the same school, former cop Roland "Prez" Pryzbyleski (Jim True-Frost), who is also off the force after his mistaken-identity shooting of a fellow officer, starts his new career as a math teacher, where the first challenge is to get his rambunctious students to just acknowledge his presence.

As to which was harder for him, the streets or the school, Burns says, "School is always harder. It's frighteningly true. It's not that the kids are scary at all. It's that the kids are trying to survive in a room, and each has his own tangent, and they're going off in vectors all over the place. You're trying to bring them into one cohesive unit and get something across to them. What you're doing is the most meaningless thing in their lives, so it's pretty rough.

"They're bringing the street with them -- their torture, their discontent, their sorrows. This spills out. The idea of this was, the kids are going to learn, but are they going to learn in an educational context, or are they going to learn in the rest of the world, in the street?

"They're eminently teachable, if they can perceive a connection between what you're asking them to learn and their world. There is the tragedy of the year for some of them."

For True-Frost, it's a case of art imitating life, since his wife, Cora, was a Baltimore teacher before the couple met.

"She taught me to see what heroes these teachers are," he says, "and how, as messed-up as the system might be, there are a lot of people working their tails off and really passionate and really dedicated, just on a day-to-day level, the kid level, trying to make a difference.

"So telling their story through my character was, for me, a real privilege."

At one point, Prez turns to throwing dice to teach math, but True-Frost says his teacher wife "was skeptical. She's pretty by-the-book. Dice would never have made it into the room."

On the law-enforcement side, the wiretap squad is moving on to new assignments, including Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) taking on the high stakes of homicide. Going in the reverse direction is former hotshot detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who has gone from a frustrated, self-destructive heavy drinker to a man who has found a measure of serenity and happiness as a patrol officer.

"We took away the overweening ambition that made him such a pain in the ass," says series creator David Simon ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "The Corner"), a former Baltimore crime reporter. "He smiles very well, doesn't he? I thought that was a real good turn for him. He's the lead of the show, but it's a very powerful ensemble cast. It allows the show as a whole to breathe."

A third major story line follows City Councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) as he makes a bid for mayor. His political trajectory resembles that of Baltimore's real mayor, Martin O'Malley, who also went from city council to City Hall. On a side note, while Carcetti is Italian-American, the actor who plays him is Irish-born, and O'Malley is an Irish-American (who once headed up his own Irish band).

"He's cooler," Simon says of Carcetti.

In real life, O'Malley had to bail out his city's financially troubled school system in 2004, and Carcetti faces a similar budgetary crisis if he becomes mayor. This story line will play out if the show gets a fifth season. It's already mapped out but contingent on the success of the current run.

"There's a political role [in season five]," Simon says. "We're trying to depict this city, and we have one last thing on our agenda."

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