City has rough image as 'metropolitan hell-hole'

On the second-season premiere of TNT’s “Saving Grace,” the guardian angel is unavailable to his human charge, played by Holly Hunter, because he’s been “spending a lot of time in Baltimore.”

Even among those who have only driven past the town this is a knowing joke, which provides some insight into the jaundiced reputation Baltimore has acquired strictly from its depiction in TV and movies.

The height of Baltimore’s image as the ultimate metropolitan hell-hole came in HBO’s “The Wire,” which chronicled the never-ending drug war, bureaucratic stupidity and gradual destruction of the town’s major daily newspaper in painful slow motion over five glorious seasons. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

ABC News’ six-part documentary “Hopkins,” set at Johns Hopkins hospital, saw an emergency room resident refer to the city as a “war zone.”

What really put Baltimore on the cinematic map, however, are directors Barry Levinson and John Waters, who have each generated their own “Baltimore Collection,” though Levinson’s “Diner,” “Tin Men,” “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights” have a considerably lower “ick” factor than Waters’ “Pink Flamingos.” On the plus side, the musical “Hairspray” — originally derived from a Waters movie — opens with a sprightly ode to — what else? — Baltimore.

“The Wire’s” David Simon also set two earlier gritty crime projects in the city, NBC’s “Homicide” and the HBO miniseries “The Corner,” based on the time he spent there as a Baltimore Sun reporter. Yet Simon told the New York Times a few years ago that there was nothing particularly special about Baltimore on the subject of big-city decay.

“The show could have been filmed in Wilmington, or Philadelphia, Washington, New York, St. Louis,” he said.

(Among other odd footnotes to “The Wire” is that the most negative appraisal of its final season, according to Metacritic.com, came from the TV critic at the Baltimore Sun.)

Those who haven’t been to Baltimore have to rely on the perspective of others, and it’s hard to forget what “The Wire’s” Dominic West said back when the show began. Asked what he thought of the town, the then-newly arrived British actor quoted a couple that passed him in the airport shortly after he landed, who were muttering to themselves, “I can’t get out of this place fast enough.”

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