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The great show that Emmy ignored

'The Wire' goes oh-fer nominations, but not praise

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

The Wire
Dominic West plays Baltimore homicide detective Jimmy McNulty, one of the many characters on "The Wire."

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• HBO: 'The Wire' external link

NEW YORK (CNN) -- TV critics nationwide have praised the HBO series "The Wire" so highly, it begs the question: Why didn't this show receive an Emmy nomination?

"I don't know," guffaws the show's creator and co-executive producer, David Simon.

Perhaps, he suggests, it has to do with where the series -- a complex take on the interlocking lives of narcotics officers and their prey -- is set.

"Here in Baltimore, we have a particular talent for being ignored," he laughs. "I learned to do this stuff from Tom Fontana on 'Homicide,' which was routinely praised by critics as one of the best shows on TV. It was never nominated. [And] that was seven years."

Simon, at least, has the support of HBO. This interview comes as he's making the final production touches to the end of "The Wire's" second season -- which concludes at the end of August -- and setting up the plotlines for season three (yes, there will be a season three, at least as of this writing). (HBO is a division of AOL Time Warner, as is CNN.)

He's also no stranger to the Emmy podium. He shared in two awards for the HBO miniseries "The Corner," which he wrote and produced. He says the answer to "The Wire's" woes may lie in the changing TV landscape.

"I think there's a lot of quality programming on television, I don't think that it's quite the wasteland that it's made out to be. It's easy to get missed," he says.

'It's framed as a novel'

The Wire
"The Wire" doesn't shy away from Baltimore's gritty streets and grittier characters. Andre Royo, right, plays Bubbles, a junkie who supplies the cops with inside information.

"The Wire's" trademark complexity, with its long storyline and intertwined characters' lives (and deaths), could have easily been missed by critics, too.

"I worked at a newspaper for 13 years," he says. "You could always find the TV critic's desk because it was under 740 VHS tapes of new programming. ... Now you're handing them the TV equivalent of a novel and saying, 'You won't get this if you watch one or two chapters, you've really got to watch the whole thing.' I think to the credit of critics in the country, they came back at the end of season one and said, 'Wait a minute, they're building something here.' "

That's the crux of "The Wire": "It's framed as a novel," Simon states flatly.

"Homicide," his first TV series, was episodic in construction, he continues. "Good episodic TV has its own discipline, but the form it's most comparable to in literature would be the short story. A good season of 'Homicide' was 22 short stories, framed around the same universe with the same characters," he says.

Simon first tried the tack of applying the novel's approach to television storytelling with "The Corner." It wasn't a new strategy -- the first major TV miniseries success, "Rich Man, Poor Man," was drawn from a long Irwin Shaw novel -- but broadcast networks have shied away from the concept in the last decade.

Cable networks, on the other hand, have been open to the idea -- perhaps none more so than HBO, home of "The Sopranos."

"It occurred to me, having written a couple of 600-page tomes, that if you want to say something intricate about something as disorganized, confused, and interconnected as an American city, you want to stay for the whole season on a single story," Simon says.

"Can you do that? Well, probably not on [a broadcast] network. But HBO shows their dramas four times a week. ... I think 3 to 4 million people may see us on Sunday, but by the end of the week it may well be up to 8 or 9 [million] with the repeats."

Rooted in police work

Executive producers David Simon (left) and Robert F. Colesberry with co-producer Karen L. Thorson at the second season premiere.

Simon's Baltimore newspaper background -- he spent more than a decade as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun -- has come in handy, to say the least.

"I met people very much like the characters on the show," he says. "Some of them were sources. My co-writer on story, Ed Burns, was a homicide detective. ... We're doing a lot of stuff that's framed in police work he's done, wiretaps and so on."

Simon describes the show as "writer-oriented," and he has the talent to back up that claim: best-selling crime writer George Pelecanos has written for "The Wire," and, beginning next season, novelist and screenwriter Richard Price ("Samaritan," "Clockers") will participate.

The Baltimore setting gives the show a distinct flavor, quite unlike the New York or Los Angeles crime shows that dominate the broadcast networks.

"Baltimore's often called the most northern Southern town. It has a distinct essence," says Simon. "It's definitely post-industrial, definitely Rust Belt, very working-class. I grew up outside of Washington, and I felt I was moving to a completely different place when I moved 30 miles north out of college."

But he hopes the show's appeal is universal.

"We live here, we love this place. People in Baltimore who watch the show catch all the local references," he says. "Having said that ... the point of the show is not just to make something that people in Baltimore love, but to make something that resonates no matter where you watch it. I can't speak to rural America, but if you're living in any American city, presumably we're dealing with similar problems in a similar landscape."

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