“I’m not an academic, I’m not a sociologist,” said Bill Zorzi, by way of introducing himself, one recent evening, to a roomful of Steinhardt media, culture, and communication students studying the HBO series The Wire. “I’m just an old newspaper man.”
Zorzi, a longtime Baltimore Sun political reporter and friend of The Wire showrunner David Simon, wrote for the show’s third, fourth, and fifth seasons alongside Simon, Ed Burns, and George Pelecanos, among others. As a guest in Steinhardt professor Arvind Rajagopal’s media landscapes senior seminar, he spoke for two and a half hours about his experiences researching and writing for the cops-and-drug-dealers show widely celebrated for its social realism and nuanced portrait of urban crime.
Bringing The Wire into the classroom has become commonplace since it left the airwaves after five seasons in March 2008. The show—which New York magazine called the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years and Entertainment Weekly named the best show of all time, and which is Barack Obama’s favorite—has been the subject of classes at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Brown in disciplines ranging from sociology to film studies.
Peppering his remarks with cranky, self-deprecating humor, Zorzi answered questions on everything from the pathologies of inner-city ghettoes to what Dominic West—the actor who played the arrogant, alcoholic detective Jimmy McNulty—is like in real life. His colorful anecdotes about life on set also included a couple of stories about his cameos on the show as—you guessed it—a gruff, salty newspaper reporter.
Below are just a few of Zorzi’s insider offerings.
If you ever felt as though you needed a diagram to keep track of the show, you’re not alone.
Zorzi confirmed that the writers sketched out a season’s arc and theme (politics as a vehicle for reform in the third, the failure of the urban school system in the fourth, etc.) before sitting down to write. Individual episodes began as lists of “beats”—or plot points—that all needed to be squeezed into the hour-long show; these outlines, which Zorzi showed the class, ran to four or five pages, single spaced. “Beats” were ultimately transferred to index cards that could be shuffled into a logical order for a given episode, and then, finally, writers penned the actual scenes. The rigorous approach amounted to what Zorzi described as a “mind-numbing” amount of work—and the show’s plot twists occasionally tripped up even its creators. Zorzi once scrambled to rewrite part of a scene on set, after he realized that McNulty had inadvertently been given a line that amounted to a spoiler.
The school kids in season 4 are real students from the Baltimore public schools.
Zorzi got to know them during the months he spent observing activities in the city’s middle schools. “I’m a middle-aged white guy,” Zorzi said, answering a question from Professor Rajagopal about the extensive research that went into The Wire’s portrayal of urban Baltimore. “What did I know about a 14-year-old African-American who’s never left West Baltimore—how he talks, how he dresses, what he says in class?” It was in an audition for the show that one such student’s idiosyncratic pronunciation of Amsterdam—the nickname for a Baltimore neighborhood where cops deliberately refrained from enforcing drug laws—caught the writers’ attention. “Hamsterdam” stuck, finding its way into the show’s dialogue and even becoming the title of an episode in season 3.
The actors didn’t improvise. Or at least not much.
Pretty much everything heard on The Wire is in the script, Zorzi said. When an actor flubbed a line, it was the writer, not the director, who had final say over whether another take was needed.
There’s no soundtrack to The Wire.
“The soundtrack is the sound of the street,” Zorzi said. “There’s no music to say ‘you’re going to feel sad now,’ or ‘there’s something scary around this corner.’” And though you might not always notice it, even background noise—police calls, radio ads, and the kind of barely audible crowd murmuring known in the industry as “walla”—was scripted.
The ex-mayor’s “bowl-of-shit” story is true. Sort of.
Though the politicians on The Wire are fictional—there’s no single real-life person on whom a character like mayoral hopeful Tommy Carcetti is based, for example—Zorzi “stole shamelessly” from stories he heard during his years covering City Hall for the Baltimore Sun. One such story, about a mayor being made to eat silver bowls of excrement on his first day in office, was one told often by the real-life one-term Baltimore mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro III.
—Eileen Reynolds, NYU Stories
Photo: Ian Freimuth, via flickr.