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The Wastedland

An HBO series features lost souls in a drugged-out Baltimore neighborhood; a search for the lost tribes of Israel finds evidence just about everywhere.

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Save-a-soul mission: Sean Nelson and Khandi Alexander are son and mother in HBO's The Corner.  

You will recognize this Baltimore: a Belfast or Beirut with stoops. The Corner (Sundays, April 16 through May 21; 10 to 11 p.m.; HBO) is familiar from countless episodes of Homicide, looped like a gray film behind the eyes of the frazzled cops, a high-risk urbanscape of wheeler-dealers and the dispossessed, of listlessness and sudden violence, of glum pickings, low cunning, extreme caution, and involuntary twitch, but also of surprising community. The same Baltimore Sun reporter who wrote the book that inspired the Homicide series, David Simon, has co-written all six hours of The Corner, based on another heartbreaker of a book he wrote with Edward Burns, a police detective who retired to teach school. Simon, with co-executive producer David Mills (ER) and director Charles S. Dutton (the actor and a Baltimore native himself), set up cameras and shop in an open-air drug market at the intersection of Fayette and Monroe to see if he could catch some ghosts.

So the people and their names are real, like Gary McCullough, who used to have his own stock portfolio but now steals copper plumbing to buy his next fix; and Fran Boyd, a party girl poised between the shooting gallery and a detox clinic; and their 15-year-old son, DeAndre, who walks a wavering line between them like a candidate for sniper fire. But they are impersonated by actors (T. K. Carter, Khandi Alexander, and Sean Nelson, respectively), who know in advance what will become of their real-life counterparts, but who have been encouraged by Dutton to "play the person, not the drugs" -- which means imagining themselves beyond the addiction to what once was and could be, a sort of soul search. And the streets are real, as well -- so much so that the production company did some skillful footwork with both the dealers and the cops. And all of this looks like a documentary by Frederick Wiseman or Barbara Kopple, not exactly improvised but happened upon, unfolding according to its own rhythms or drift, a narrative somehow more persuasive, more reliable, because of its very uncertainty.

No doubt this raises epistemological questions, but I leave them to assistant professors of problematizing and media quibble. We are absorbed by remarkable television into these margins, this underground of coke and heroin dealers and users and their parents and children, this black-market mirror of the global economy, a kind of parody of Darwinian capitalism. As Gary, Fran, and DeAndre, not to mention Gary's sometime squeeze, the angle-playing survival artist Ronnie (Tasha Smith), or DeAndre's pregnant 14-year-old girlfriend, Tyreeka (Toy Connor), or Ella Thompson (Tyra Farrell), the mourning mother who starts a recreation center, or the creative scammers Fat Curt (Clarke Peters) and Blue (Glenn Plummer), explain themselves as best they can, as often with a subversive sense of humor as in jazz riffs and bluesy self-deception, several things happen off-camera in the mind of the viewer:

First, of course, our stereotypes are exploded, like little balloons full of bile. Next, we start to root for Gary and are surprised by Fran and despair of DeAndre. Then, although nobody lectures us, we come to feel, if not complicit, at least vulnerable and precarious, only a catas-trophic illness away from falling through the cracks ourselves, after which there aren't enough beds at the rehab and we will be punished by the politicians for failing to be lucky. And finally, in admitting our sympathy, our reawakened fraternal feeling, we begin to appreciate an even greater scam than Fat Curt's. The war that has been so noisily declared on drugs is really a war of the overclass, at its clean computers, on the underclass, on its messy corners.

Just to prove that all the dope fiends don't live in West Baltimore, we have Trapped in a Purple Haze (Monday, April 17; 8 to 10 p.m.; ABC), where white middle-class Chicago is the neighborhood at risk. Executive producer Thomas Carter and director Eric Laneuville seem to be suggesting that 18-year-old Jonathan Jackson (General Hospital) is doomed to heroin addiction, rather than a career painting pictures in Paris or pushing hockey pucks in the NHL, because his father, Colm Feore (Stephen King's Storm of the Century), can't stand up to his mother, the tyrannical perfectionist JoBeth Williams (The Big Chill), and his walk-on-the-wild-side college girlfriend, Carly Pope (Popular), really wants to be Angelina Jolie. There are nice touches here -- for instance, the fact that talent scout JoBeth is smart enough to spot the dark side in a set of black-and-white photographs she wants her art gallery to exhibit, but not to see it in her own son -- but since I'd just spent six hours on The Corner listening to people who did me the favor of refusing to indulge in pop-psych excuses for themselves, I resisted most of the way.

A handsome new ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre production of David Copperfield (Sunday, April 16, 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Monday, April 17, 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) gives me a gratuitous chance to complain out loud about John Irving's screenplay for The Cider House Rules, in which the Dickens novel figures so obsessively. In Irving's novel, when Homer left the orphanage to become, like David Copperfield, the hero of his own life, so, too, did Melony, with a copy of Jane Eyre and a violent grudge against the world. By retaining Dickens in the movie but dumping Brontë, Irving mutilated his own splendid riff on nineteenth-century English literature. For shame.

Now that I've got that off my shelf, let me say that the public-television Copperfield has a cast every bit as stellar as Delbert Mann's 1970 Hollywood version starring Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Emlyn Williams, Wendy Hiller, and Richard Attenborough, with a better script (by Adrian Hodges) and a better lead (Ciarán McMenamin). I won't trouble you with a plot synopsis; it always sounds ridiculous and almost never is. All you really need to know is that Maggie Smith is Aunt Betsey, Bob Hoskins is Mr. Micawber, Ian McKellen is Mr. Creakle, Ian McNeice is Mr. Dick, and Trevor Eve is Murdstone -- and that, after three splendid hours, David once again finally marries the right woman.

Be warned that Quest for the Lost Tribes (Sunday, April 16; 8 to 10 p.m.; A&E) is one of those indulgences in anthropo-archaeological mysticism to which I am peculiarly susceptible. Emmy-winning filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici decides to look for the lost tribes of Israel -- all ten of which have been missing almost since the death of Solomon more than 2,700 years ago -- in such exotic climes as Syria, Afghanistan, Bukhara, Samarkand, Keifeng, Bombay, and along the Burma-India border, not to mention all those Pathans in the Khyber Pass. Imagine his nonsurprise to find ancient rituals and kosher kitchens everywhere he goes, as well as inscriptions in Hebrew and Aramaic, not to mention prayer shawls, Exodus songs, and the prophet Elijah, plus a convenient island of high-priest Cohens off the coast of Tunisia, just waiting for the "in-gathering" on the Megiddo plateau that will signal Armageddon. Jacobovici, who explains all this between swatches of on-the-road film to an audience seated in what must be Israel, may be as full of potsherds as the Arthur Koestler who wrote The Thirteenth Tribe, but he makes a thrilling case.

In brief: Why anybody should think Picnic (Sunday, April 16; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) needs remaking is beyond me. Is William Inge canonical or something? Anyway, instead of William Holden's stealing the heart of Kim Novak in the Kansas corn, Josh Brolin will steal the heart of Gretchen Mol, and it's not the same. In fact -- and in spite of affecting performances in the adult categories by Bonnie Bedelia, Jay O. Sanders, and Mary Steenburgen -- it is a whole other order of not-the-same, as, say, Peter Pan was to Oedipus Rex. . . . Halfway through Finding Buck McHenry (Sunday, April 16; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Showtime), I wanted to write a letter to someone complaining that Ossie Davis, the fine old radical, had been turned by television once too often into a Great Uncle Feel-Good. But then, of course, the school janitor who undertakes to coach a Little League "expansion team" rises to the polemical occasion to explain what it was like playing ball in the bad old days, in the Jim Crow South, in the Negro Leagues, and why he quit the game not because he was afraid of the violence that might be done to him but, instead, because of the violence he might do. Watching him on television, his hitherto innocent wife is filled with admiration. Since she, of course, is Ruby Dee, I, of course, am mollified. . . . Kiss Toledo Goodbye (Saturday, April 15; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Starz!) is another whacky gangster movie, in which an about-to-be-married investment banker, the dithering Michael Rapaport, discovers that his real father is the double-breasted mob boss Robert Forster, which will mean a number of over-the-top performances -- at length, by Christopher Walken; in passing, by Nancy Allen; and in brief, by a missing finger.


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