NEW YORK — There’s more than one way to make reality TV.
One way, you hand-pick volatile participants, throw them together and make sure sparks fly.
A different approach is that of “Brick City,” an engrossing five-hour portrait of Newark, N.J., that premieres Monday at 10 p.m. EDT on Sundance Channel and airs nightly through Friday. Its producers found a promising story, then kept the cameras rolling while the story told itself.
That story — captured mostly between Memorial Day and November 2008 — is a real-life struggle for recovering Newark, which became a symbol of urban decay, racial tension and violence in the wake of rioting in 1967.
“Brick City” tells its tale from numerous perspectives — notably that of Mayor Cory Booker, a dynamic young leader with an Oxford education and a common touch, and of his police director, Garry McCarthy, a former NYPD lawman and self-described “crazy white guy from the Bronx” who’s as analytical as he is tough.
Another “star” of “Brick City” is Jayda Jacques, a longtime member of the Blood gang who has renounced violence and mentors at-risk girls. At the same time, she is in a relationship with Creep, a member of the Bloods’ archrival, the Crips — and she learns she is expecting a child with him, even as she faces possible imprisonment for a past violent act.
“Brick City” (whose title refers to the unyielding nature of this city of 280,000) is a rich, remarkably entertaining series that makes good on its aim to be a nonfiction blend of “The Wire” and “The West Wing.”
You might also detect “Friday Night Lights” in the mix. “Brick City,” for all its grim twists and turns, resonates with hope. The citizens of Newark emerge as members of a team, however much at odds, and the viewer can’t help cheering them on.
Much of that team spirit flows from Mayor Booker, who says at one point, “I will not let finite disappointment undermine infinite hope — and I have infinite hope.”
His program of reform since taking office in 2006 includes continuing the city’s improved homicide rates. As the miniseries starts, Newark is leading the nation in homicide reduction. But the traditionally violent summer months loom.
“We’ve got to take the summer back,” declares Booker, and means it.
Even for viewers who may already know how things unfold, the series’ human drama and compelling characters pack the punch of anything a writer might imagine for a script.
That’s what longtime collaborating filmmakers Marc Levin (“Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” and the Showtime cop drama series “Street Time”) and Mark Benjamin (“The Last Party,” ”Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop”) suspected when they first began scoping the project. (And what motivated Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker to join them as a fellow executive producer.)
“We knew we had this charismatic mayor,” said Benjamin, “but we wanted to do a film about the whole city, all its parts — from City Hall down, and from the street up.”
Adds Levin, “We thought that if a city like this could be in transition, maybe there was a larger story here that wasn’t just about Newark, but all of urban America. But how do you tell stories of a positive transformation and a progressive moment without being preachy and didactic?”
One way: Inevitable setbacks for Booker’s agenda add gripping narrative suspense, and remind viewers that in Newark, win or lose, nothing will come easy.
In one of the series’ most affecting scenes (in episode 5), the principal of Central High School addresses an assembly after one of its students was wounded outside the building by a bullet targeted by one gang member at a rival.
“This is not normal,” says the principal as he delivers an impassioned reality check. “You’re living this life like it’s normal. It is ab-normal!” And to assume otherwise “doesn’t mean you’re tough. It only means that you’re oppressed.”
The story of “Brick City” chronicles how Newark, under Booker, means to throw off that oppression.
“But it’s not easy work,” said Booker in a recent phone interview. “It’s pushing a boulder up a hill. If anything, I hope the documentary shows how fortunate I am as a mayor that I’m not the only person with my hands on that stone. There are a lot of good people here who are working with me.”
And the work goes on, including Booker’s race for re-election next year. Meanwhile, Levin and Benjamin, hopeful for a second season for “Brick City,” have never stopped filming Newark’s dramatic world.
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