20 years after first encountering The Wire I finally watched the second of its spiritual prequels. The first was Homicide. (RIP Andre Braugher.) You might call Homicide and The Corner The Wire’s parents, one is about cops in Baltimore, based on a David Simon book, and the other is about drug addicts in Baltimore, based on a different David Simon book. It’s weird watching it now, after I’ve seen The Wire multiple times but also not recently. But it’s compelling watching featuring some outstanding acting by African American actors who were underknown. (Like all early digital video, it looks like shit now.)
I’m not sure what else existed in the history of TV, or at least American TV, like this show. Though it is ostensibly a documentary, hosted by the real life Charles S. Dutton, it is a dramatized version of the book, featuring numerous faces you’ll recognize from The Wire and Treme and other places. But that’s not why it’s without precedent, obviously. The reason it’s without precedent, at leas that I’m aware of, is because it’s about one family dealing with the consequences of drug abuse, and I really don’t know of any other TV miniseries or show from the 20th century that dealt so realistically with the subject. Drug use was the occasional monster of the week on some teen soaps, but I am unaware of any (American) TV program to seriously address this level of drug use, in an environment like this.
Speaking of the cast, they are excellent. Despite being composed of not super prominent actors and (I assume) some local amateurs, they don’t ever throw you out of the “realism” of the show. They all feel real. That is quite an accomplishment for a TV miniseries from before the Golden Age of TV (or at the dawn of it).
I’m not sure whether it’s age or mood but I found this quite bleak. I think I would have appreciated its bleakness much more if I watched right after watching The Wire for the first time, or even if I had somehow miraculously seen it when it first aired (when HBO was not really something I thought was possible to watch in Canada). Now, the bleakness is absolutely necessary and there is really no point in telling this story an giving it some kind of false positive ending. But it just took me some time to watch it because of how grim it is.
I really didn’t get the idea of pretending it was real, having a known actor introduce and conclude each episode as himself, as if it was a documentary. The only thing that really makes you have hope for the future is when he brings the real people in for the last scene, where the survivors talk to him. Only then does it make sense and it’s a less hopeless way to end the show than the “Where are they now” montage that occurs immediately before it (which is one of the bleakest moments in the history of TV, I think it’s safe to say).
I’m glad I watched it and I think it’s landmark in American TV, with the medium being used to tell a real story about real people, people who had been utterly neglected by film and TV up to this point. But it also lacks the ambition of The Wire and most of that show’s humour. It is, to but it bluntly, not entertainment, and The Wire somehow managed to be entertainment that educated. The Corner was absolutely necessary and it’s worth watching, but it is also, at bottom, just a really bleak docudrama about a family and their friends in a terrible situation (which few people in power are interested in solving).