It was an accident. I didn't mean to start watching The Wire again, which I've already seen twice in its entirety.
I certainly didn't intend to gobble up two seasons of the 2002-2008 HBO drama in an embarrassingly short period. You start with one episode, and before you know it, you're hooked on the characters and the sprawling drama that follows the institutions in Baltimore, from the school system to the drug trade.
To be fair, I'm not alone here -- the show has racked up critical acclaim and counts President Barack Obama as a fan. It's not just mindless entertainment (for that, I'll always have Dance Moms) -- if anything, the show makes you think beyond the hour-long episodes as it examines the way a struggling city's dysfunctional systems intersect and support each other. No one is safe from creator David Simon's critical eye, from the police officers chasing promotions to the journalists at his old employer, the Baltimore Sun, chasing a Pulitzer.
I can't help but see parallels to Detroit, enough to make me feel an odd affinity for the (fictional) Baltimore. A school system riddled with deficits attempts to avoid state takeover; violence sweeps the city; tensions percolate between the mayor and city council; a white mayoral candidate runs in a majority black city for the first time in years.
But it was evidence released by the U.S. District Court in Detroit after former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's corruption trial ended that sparked the recent comparison. In two surveillance videos, the ex-mayor's father, Bernard Kilpatrick accepts cash and a case of champagne.
In The Wire, stealing a case of vodka from a shipping container is one of the more harmless crimes. The covert monitoring of criminals is saved primarily for drug dealers, and the self-destructive detective hero of the show derides the FBI for their preference for going after high-profile political targets rather than the city's drug lords and murderers.
But in Detroit, murder and all, we don't take corruption lightly. Enter Kwame Kilpatrick.
The stories aren't the same, but there are moments in the many years over which Kilpatrick's sordid dealings were exposed that recall scenes from The Wire. In the show, a police lieutenant who flouted his superiors by following an investigation gets passed over for promotion and sidelined to an obscure department. In real life, Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown was fired after he attempted to investigate the former mayor's bodyguards and a party allegedly held by Kilpatrick at the Manoogian Mansion.
Kilpatrick has an analogous character in fictional Clay Davis, the charismatic state senator who appears in The Wire, shaking down developers, political candidates and criminals for cash. He eventually becomes the target of a corruption investigation. City detectives have stacked up evidence against him, including a series of donations to his charity followed by withdrawals and deposits in the same amounts to his personal account.
The evidence against Davis echoes the litany of checks paid out of the nonprofit Kilpatrick Civic Fund for the ex-mayor's personal expenditures, used as evidence in the corruption case: $3,050 to a driving range, $1,009 to a resort, $8,605 to another resort, $3,900 to a yoga center and more.
Spending thousands of dollars on yoga is the kind of dramatic touch that riddled Kilpatrick's corruption case, along with evidence presented by the prosecution of private plane rides, a witness carrying $90,000 through airport security to deliver to Kilpatrick and a former fundraiser recounting meetings with the ex-mayor in which she would give him cash she had hidden in her bra.
We may have tuned in each day to find out what happened next in, but the trial exposing Kilpatrick's years of in-office corruption wasn't the kind of story you could turn off.
On The Wire, Davis went to trial and gave an impassioned speech defending his actions. The jury delivered a "not guilty" verdict and he walked away victorious. "The people, who I continue to serve, have spoken," he said.
"Was I corrupt? Absolutely not. Did I steal? Absolutely not." -- Kwame Kilpatrick, August 2012
Kilpatrick gave plenty of rousing speeches in his time, but he didn't take the stand during the six-month trial, so we don't know how a jury would have reacted. It makes you wonder what he might have said on the courtroom steps had the trial gone a different way. But last Monday, a jury found him guilty on 24 of 30 counts.
Many saw the jury's verdict as justice finally served for Detroit after Kilpatrick's criminal activity took its toll on the city. Some saw it as closing the book on a long legacy of corruption.
Of course, in The Wire, while some people manage to eke out happy endings for themselves, the city of Baltimore is never that lucky. There's always a new drug dealer trying to make a name for himself and a fresh politician eager to rise through the ranks by less-than-legal means. There's always someone ready to take the place of those who fall or are successfully taken in by the "good guys," who are themselves far less than perfect.
If Kilpatrick's conviction was a plot point in the show, a scene of people celebrating a new day in Detroit might lead into another of a current official following in his footsteps and making their own furtive deals, perhaps in the same restaurant bathroom stall where Derrick Miller claimed he delivered to Kilpatrick a $10,000 bribe.
But even The Wire, with its final montage suggesting that the same cycles of corruption and crime and civic disfunction restart and continue, came to an end after five seasons. Baltimore was permanently stuck with a pall cast over its future.
Luckily for us, life isn't like TV, at least not entirely. The story doesn't end when the big case wraps up. Kilpatrick's conviction might feel like the end of a chapter, but there's many more stories to follow. Despite Detroit's own precarious future, we see evidence every day that people, and cities, can change for the better.
Here's to season six.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post used the incorrect name for Gary Brown, Detroit's former deputy police chief.
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