TVGA Masterworks: The Corner

David Simon's novel, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, is in many ways the companion piece to the book that inspired last week's featured TVGA Masterwork, Homicide: Life on the Street.  The previous took a long, hard, and realistic view of the truths behind homicide detective work, unveiling a compelling insight into the almost soul destroying landscape of paperwork and politics that really exists for the elite units in the police force -- an environment that has devolved to becoming about turning red names on a board into black all in the pursuit of statistics.

the corner

The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood was co-written by Ed Burns and David Simon and along with the companion mini-series The Corner is the second parent of The Wire, a show most critics acclaim as one of the best -- if not the best -- shows to have ever graced our small screens.  Just as there is much of Homicide: Life on the Streets in the police portions of The Wire there is a great deal of The Corner in the street sections of the show.

The Corner is the mini-series adaptation of the novel and unlike the sprawling seven season epic that Homicide is, it instead provides a short and cutting insight into one of the other great problems of America's urban centers.  The Corner is an unforgiving, unrelenting, and unflinching look into the very real pain, poverty, and suffering that many, many souls are saturated in.  It's an uncompromising mirror of truth held up to reveal one of the true prices that the world's most powerful nation has paid and is still paying.  It's a cry out about the futility of a "War on Drugs" and an attempt to humanize drug addicts by simply showing the truth of who they are and why they do it.

The Corner chronicles a year on the streets (and corners) of Baltimore through the perspective of the McCulloughs -- fifteen-year old DeAndre and his separated parents Gary and Fran.  It's a family that once had it all: Gary used to be a businessman who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, working two jobs and investing wisely to provide for his family.  But the world of drugs, brought into the household by Fran, gradually took its inevitable toll on them all.  At the time the mini-series starts Gary and Fran are hopelessly addicted, living for little more than the next fix, while DeAndre is out on the corner, playing at being a gangster and dabbling in dealing drugs.

The Corner is a series of intertwined tales about the McCulloughs and the people in their surrounding neighborhood.  It follows Gary's endless quest to graft and perform capers (crimes) in order to get enough money for the next fix.  Gray knows in his heart of hearts that it doesn't have to be this way for him -- he's got great potential, he was once a real citizen and he could be again, but the snake of addition twists in his gut and when the need calls everything else becomes secondary to chasing that high.

Fran is likewise way down in the hole, struggling to balance her own addiction with raising and providing a good role model for her two growing sons DeAndre and DeRodd as Gary is little to no help at all on the domestic front.  DeAndre in particular is a huge source of frustration and fear for her as he's accelerating towards either prison or a morgue slab with little care or regard for either fate.

The Corner follows DeAndre and his two parents, but the mini-series is not in truth about any one human character; it is about the environment itself -- the titular corner.  This corner is a hard, uncaring beast that forces the people who live on and around it to bow to it's all knowing game, a game with unwritten rules that are universally accepted even as they are broken, a game that's rigged from the moment of birth and almost impossible to escape from.

Fellow user Fat Curt is living proof of the soul destroying power that "The Game" possesses, a life long soldier of the drug trade he's lived as a pusher and a user both with little to show for his dedication other than an almost unassailable addition, multiple diseases and crippling physical conditions that mean his time is numbered.  He may not have caught a fatal bullet in his time, but the corner never intended such a fate for him, instead he's set to experience a slower and more humiliating end - one that he faces with an almost unbelievable determination.

The Corner is an intense and at times breathtaking window into the lives of the forgotten masses that are normally only portrayed exclusively as one dimensional "bad guys" by the modern media.  Here - as in David Simon/Ed Burn's other works - there is no clear dividing line between black and white, bad and good; there are only people and all the shades of grey that exist for them.  In the world of The Corner it is OK to break into a house and steal all the copper pipes from the plumbing - as long as no-one is hurt it's not really a crime.  In the world of The Corner the police are not the white knights, riding in on mighty chargers to save the day - they're just people doing their job and playing a part in "The Game" just the same as any pusher or user.

Despite all of this, despite the despair and hopelessness of the situation The Corner is a triumphant shout about the strength of the human spirit and the amazing ability people have to occasionally rise far above their personal circumstances.  It's a love song to the citizens of the streets and an acknowledgement that at least one person sees their plight and understands - not with pity, but with the knowledge that the status quo isn't working.

One of the most important parts of The Corner is the performances of the cast, as the story is rooted in non-fiction it's even more crucial than normal that the actors are able to sell their roles as believable.  They're not just playing characters from a book, they're portraying the lives of real people who have been through this experience and they're representing people who are still going through these experiences today, over ten years later.

Every single last performance in The Corner feels as real as it can be, there's no glamour, no cheeky winks at the screen, no witty one-liners followed by the donning of the sunglasses.  Instead you have real, three dimensional people living lives that seem quite incredible and unreal.  There isn't a weak performance amongst the entire bunch and the show hangs together so well you could be forgiven for thinking it's a documentary as opposed to being based (closely) on a non-fiction book.

As The Corner progresses we follow Gary, Fran, DeAndre and others including Fat Curt and his cronies in their lives, we watch them rise up and then stumble, we watch some of them fall and pick themselves up again and again until life on the corner claims them.  The show ebbs and flows with an organic experience that is rooted in the reality of the world - warts and all.  Continuing to a conclusion that is as inevitable as it is brilliant and touching.

The Corner is a mirror held up to the ugly truth of the "war on drugs" a war that is revealed to be un-winnable in its current incarnation.  The events depicted may have happened in the nineties, but the same story continues in new forms even to this day.  We still haven't won this war and the casualties still keep coming.

The show can be a hard experience to watch, but it's one that will open your eyes and give you a fresh perspective on the people involved in the drug trade.

It's also fantastic preparation for watching The Wire.

Video: TVGA Masterworks. The Corner
Check out a clip from the acclaimed HBO mini-series: 

Cast & Stats: TVGA Masterworks. The Corner
The Cast:

  • T. K. Carter as Gary McCullough
  • Khandi Alexander as Francine "Fran" Boyd
  • Sean Nelson as DeAndre McCullough
  • Sylvester Lee Kirk as DeRodd Hearns
  • Clarke Peters as Fat Curt
  • Glenn Plummer as George 'Blue' Epps
  • Toy Connor as Tyreeka Freamon
  • Maria Broom as Bunchie Boyd
  • Corey Parker Robinson as R.C.
  • Reg E. Cathey as Scalio
  • The Stats:

  • HBO mini-series of 6 episodes
  • By Fen

    About the author

    Used to blog over at http://rev-views.blogspot.com/ but have since migrated here to TV Geek Army!

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    1 Comment
    On: Monday, October 25, 2010
    Lucas High said:

    Rev,

    I can't recommend this mini-series and, to a greater degree, the book it was based upon more. As a Baltimore native, to me, the book is the single most influential work of urban sociology written in the past 25 years. And that is not an exaggeratation, it is that good. Keep in mind as you watch The Corner, that David Simon and Ed Burns actually spent a year on the corner of Monroe and Fayette in West Baltimore talking to people, seeing how they lived their lives, taking notes.

    The other great thing about the The Corner is, if you are huge fan of The Wire, there are stories and pieces of dialog that are transferred almost verbatim from the book to the beloved show. Its fun to see how pieces of certain characters from the Corner are fused to become characters on the Wire.

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