A Hartford 'Wire?'
It's not hard to imagine how Mark Manson, a Hartford police officer, and Felix Soto, a known criminal in the city, felt about each other upon their first meeting.
"I think (he's) like, the scum of the scum," Manson remembers thinking, "and he thinks I'm a jerk 'cause I'm a cop. I never would have thought in my wildest dreams I would associate with him."
But their mutual passion for entertainment, along with a well-connected Groton attorney, Donald L. Williams, led to a project called "The Second District," a television series they are negotiating to get on the air.
The Second District is called the most dangerous area in Hartford in the trailer for the show, which has gained attention on YouTube and Facebook. Manson says the name itself is not a real beat, but the streets and neighborhoods are.
"If you're assigned to this district, you will be challenged," the trailer says, as aerial shots of the city and highways flash by.
As a struggling police department fights to maintain order, the description reads, rival gangs have seized control of portions of the city, leaving the public in fear and a once vibrant city without hope.
In a style similar to HBO's "The Wire," the show aims to portray both the realities of being a police officer and a gangster in the city, says Manson, who began a career in acting in New York before joining the Coast Guard and then law enforcement in his home state of Connecticut.
He spent time with Soto, who is now in prison for bank robbery and other crimes, in bookstores or in the car writing and revising to get the terminology and street language right.
Soto then got Williams involved. Williams says he was representing Soto for an extortion case when they started talking about the project. Williams, who has experience in entertainment - acting, singing and publishing books - helped form Independent House Productions and eventually turn their rough draft into a polished pilot.
They connected with a production company called Solid Brick Entertainment, which started shooting for three weeks in July in Hartford, East Hartford, New Britain and Bloomfield, including in real housing projects. They held casting calls and used some actual police officers, along with real uniforms, guns and cruisers, Williams says.
They have about six to eight episodes written, and Williams' character shows up in the fourth episode.
"It's really our lives fictionalized," he says.
David Wenzel, with Onward and Sideways Productions, learned about the project through his brother, who has connections in law enforcement. Wenzel and his partner Rick Lohman are helping shop the show around the industry.
"Obviously crime shows are a dime a dozen," Wenzel says. But The Second District "rings so true. It's so organic and so honest."
"What's an interesting hook is here you've got (a police officer) and a creative liaison who's been in the criminal system for 20 years," Wenzel says of Williams.
It's people with real background versus writers in Hollywood trying to write from a perspective they'll never be able to get, he adds.
Williams, who originally moved to Connecticut as a Navy JAG, says the show's hardest sell is its Connecticut setting.
"No one knew affluent Connecticut had issues," he says, adding that people who know about the production have been telling him it could be "a fantastic thing for Hartford," highlighting social issues.
Manson stresses the show is "purely entertainment," pointing out his decision to make the Hartford police chief a woman, heightening the drama of internal politics in the department, but at the same time, he wants to maintain the feeling of reality.
"It was easy because I was writing what I know," he says. "I've been involved in an officer-involved shooting, I know what it feels like... I want cops, not just in Hartford to say, this is what it feels like."
The trailer's popularity on social media sites has them further tweaking the show based on viewer comments, like the scene on the roof where Felix's character is wearing Adidas. In Hartford, the commenters say, they wear Nike. Manson and Williams want to get even those small details right, in addition to consulting with other police officers and doctors on their experiences.
Manson wants the end of every episode to be dedicated to a police officer fallen in the line of duty. His relative, Henry Jennings, was a Hartford police officer who was killed in line of duty in 1964.
The partners aren't sure whether the show will have an effect on crime in Hartford.
Manson says, "You may get a criminal who looks at the show and says, 'Is that me? Is this what I'm really doing, killing people out there?'" But Williams points out that others may see the show as glorifying those actions.
"Either way, it's bringing out a real reaction from real people," Williams says.
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