“At some point during the run of The Wire, I became a fellow traveler of the libertarians,” says acclaimed writer and television producer David Simon. “And then a great disappointment to them.”
A self-proclaimed “lefty,” Simon is the creator of the celebrated HBO series The Wire, which depicted with tragic realism the devastating impact of the drug war on inner-city Baltimore. Over five seasons from 2002 to 2008, The Wire told a series of complex, interwoven stories built around major problems afflicting the modern American city: failing schools, faltering newspapers, the decline of the working waterfront, the unseemliness of local politics, and, more generally, the frustration of would-be reformers by bureaucratic institutions.
In writing The Wire, Simon drew on his 13 years as a Baltimore Sun reporter plus the year he spent embedded with the Baltimore Police Department in preparation for his 1991 book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Producer Barry Levinson later turned that book into an Emmy-winning series that ran on NBC from 1993 to 1998.
Simon also co-wrote (with David Mills) The Corner, a 2000 HBO miniseries that depicted inner-city Baltimore ravaged by drugs, and HBO’s Generation Kill, a miniseries based on a book by Evan Wright about a Marine Corps unit during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Simon’s blistering indictment of the drug war frames Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary on the subject, The House I Live In, and he is an outspoken critic of the state of the newspaper industry. Simon in 2009 testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on the future of journalism.
HBO’s Treme, Simon’s latest project, offers a multifaceted look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the music scene that makes the city unique. Treme premiered in 2010, and its third season began this fall.
In September reason.com Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Simon in Baltimore to discuss Treme, the drug war, school choice, Simon’s general antipathy toward libertarians, and more. Watch video of the interview, listen to an audio recording of the unedited exchange here at reason.com.
Editor's Note: Simon reacted negatively to the Reason interview, claiming that Reason had "shanked" the interview. For links to his response, posted on his personal website, go here.
reason: Let’s talk about Treme. Watching the first three seasons of the show, I kept thinking of the William Faulkner line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Your show seems very much focused on people who are trying to maintain New Orleans culture, but then there’s also a recognition that things have to change.
David Simon: There’s always a tension between tradition and the past and organic creativity. That’s probably true in any city, but it’s particularly dynamic in New Orleans. And the amazing thing about New Orleans is they’re not willing to let anything go.
reason: Does that make them kind of like cultural hoarders?
Simon: In a way. I mean if you’re familiar with their actual culture, the music scene down there is more dynamic pound for pound than any I’ve ever seen in the world. I mean, there is a punk sea-shanty band. On some level that’s just gorgeous. Only in New Orleans, as they say.
reason: It’s a complex text. When I first started watching, I have to say I saw the character played by John Goodman, and I was like: “Wow, this is awful. This is a white-guilt liberal.” And I was kind of happy when he died at the end of the first season.
Simon: You might want to reflect on that.
reason: Believe me, I will. But in fact, the show is very layered.