David Simon Says

The creator of HBO's The Wire talks about the decline of journalism, the failure of the drug war, and a new kind of TV.

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Simon: What idiot was that?

Reason: His name was Eli Lehrer. [Lehrer said the book "vividly describes just how bad life became in a typical inner-city neighborhood" after Baltimore's then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke came out for a less punitive approach to the drug war. In fact, Schmoke's police department locked up more people for drug crimes than any previous administration.] He was writing in the American Enterprise Institute's magazine.

Simon: Ed Burns and I spoke at one of those groups. There came this point where a guy said, "Well, what is the solution? Give me the paragraph; give me the lede. What's the solution, if not drug prohibition?"

I very painstakingly said: "Look. For 35 years, you've systematically deindustrialized these cities. You've rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you've alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say 'What's the solution?' and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don't know, but until you start it's only going to get worse."

And the guy looked at me and went, "But what's the solution?" He said it again. Ed Burns restrained me.

Reason: You've suggested that the third season is going to look at political reform.

Simon: Reform of all kinds. Political reform, reform within the department, reform within the drug trade. Reform is the theme.

You'll see a political component. But the theme of reform is not just political. There will be several characters who will present themselves as potential reformers. Some of them actually will be reformist, and some of them will not. Part of the season, from the viewer's perspective, is figuring out who's who.

Reason: What kind of reaction does the show get from the police?

Simon: I thought we'd get a bad reaction, because it clearly is very down on the drug war. In the middle of the first season, after it was clear what the tone of the show was, I went to the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] lodge off of 41st Street [in Baltimore]. I basically was going to say, "OK, I'm ready to take everybody's shit. What do you have to say?" And they just kept reciting scenes back to me that had made them laugh, that felt real to them.

Ed was a cop for 20 years. I covered that world for 13. We didn't get the shit wrong. A lot of the guys knew the stuff we were referring to, the cases that we were stealing from.

Reason: Have you gotten any reaction from the local criminal community?

Simon: They like it. Around the courthouse, there's a hilarious wiretap of people on a Monday talking about the Sunday night episode. I was dying to get ahold of it, but it never became public -- most wiretap stuff doesn't, unless it's brought into evidence.

Reason: How does your experience doing The Wire compare to your experience doing Homicide?

Simon: HBO's a lot smarter than NBC. They can afford to be. They don't care if you're watching every show on HBO. If you're a subscriber and you're only getting it for two shows out of 10, they've still got your $17.95. And therein lies all the difference.

That's a model that can't exist in network TV because of the need to present the maximum number of viewers to advertisers. That leads to decisions about story, character, and theme on network TV that are just destructive. They were destructive on Homicide. Compromises had to be made.

What writer wants to make compromises with story? Story is the only reason you're in it.

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  • proegg antichicken||

    I think The Wire is worth the time it takes to watch it. That is the highest praise I can give any passive entertainment.


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