"When you get that first shot of dope," says diseased drug addict Fat Curt in one of The Corner's mock-interview scenes, "it's the best motherfucking feeling in your life. It's better than sex. And every time after that, you looking for the first time. Over and over again."
If art is also a drug, then HBO's acclaimed crime series The Wire is, for many viewers, a first shot of truly great television storytelling. (I know those of you who haven't watched the show may be sick of hearing how good it is, but seriously, it's amazing.) After the credits roll on the series finale, many viewers are left wondering where to go next. Are there any shows out there that can match The Wire's authenticity, boldness and overall excellence?
In my search for such a show I discovered the HBO miniseries The Corner, which was a direct ancestor and, in a sense, prototype of The Wire. Aired in 2000, two years before The Wire's premiere, The Corner is based (fairly faithfully) on a nonfiction book by Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns and shares many cast and crew members with its later, five-season counterpart. Look, there's Prop Joe (Robert F. Chew) as a shoe salesman! There's Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick) as a recovering drug addict! There's Detective Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) as a basketball-obsessed corner boy! And there are familiar names behind the scenes as well, most notably that of executive producer Robert Colesberry, who produced The Wire and shows up here in a cameo as a judge.
The Corner's story revolves around a year in the life of an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood, and focuses specifically on three members of a sort-of family: Gary McCullough (T. K. Carter), a formerly middle-class heroin addict who spends his days either scheming to scrape together money for a blast or regretfully wondering what's become of his community and himself; Fran Boyd (Khandi Alexander), Gary's ex-wife, also an addict but trying to get herself clean; and DeAndre McCullough (Sean Nelson), son of Gary and Fran, a teenage boy who dabbles in drug dealing and impregnates his girlfriend. The Corner is what The Wire would have been if The Wire focused mainly on Bubbles, so, as you might guess, it can make for a pretty harsh viewing experience. I'm not sure which scenes are harder to watch: Those in which the camera lingers on a needle entering a dope fiend's vein (and there are a lot of those), or those in which an addict betrays his or her closest friends and family members for a single shot of powder (and there are a lot of those too).
As in The Wire, however, the saving grace in all of this misery is the show's compassion and affection for its characters. DeAndre cheats on his girlfriend, but he also encourages Fran when she enters detox. Gary may steal DeAndre's stash of drugs, but he also makes sure to visit when Fat Curt enters the hospital. The characters are human beings, not cartoonish heroes and villains, and they have to be, because that's the point of the show. Above all else, The Corner aims to remind its viewers that no matter how messed-up America's inner cities may be, the people who live there are still people. The terrific performances of the show's actors (especially T. K. Carter, who makes the sad-eyed Gary into one of TV's most heartbreaking characters) serve to drive that point home.
Like Simon and Burns' other HBO miniseries, Generation Kill, The Corner is never quite as addictively gripping as The Wire, simply because it's bound by the limitations of nonfiction. As narrator Charles S. Dutton (who also directed The Corner) notes in the last episode, a year is an arbitrary amount of time; if the writers are staying true to life, they can't force their various subplots to climax and be resolved by December 31st. Still, each of the six hour-long episodes is engaging and well-made, and the closing epilogue, which features an interview with some of the real people on whom the show was based (though no musical montage), provides as much closure as you can expect from this kind of story.
In the end, The Corner isn't quite as entertaining as The Wire, and it certainly isn't as all-encompassing, but it is equally intelligent and heartfelt. I won't say it's better than sex, but at the very least, it's a great way to spend six hours while we wait for the premiere of Treme.