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.
On September 19 an often-overlooked gem will return to HBO. The Wire, entering its third season, is sometimes described as a Baltimore-based crime show, but that's a little misleading. It's a show about cops and criminals, but it doesn't follow any genre formulas. It does not wrap up a case every hour, has no clear-cut heroes and few clear-cut villains, and is willing to explore the ways that life in the middle of a police hierarchy and life in the middle of a criminal syndicate might produce the same frustrations.
At the center of The Wire is creator-producer-writer David Simon, 44, a veteran of the Baltimore Sun who rose to national prominence with his 1991 book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The product of 12 months immersed in the Baltimore homicide unit, it was quickly acclaimed as a classic of contemporary journalism and soon inspired a TV series, NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999). Simon's next book, The Corner (1997), was written with retired detective Edward Burns; it was the product of another year-long immersion, this time in a West Baltimore neighborhood ravaged by the drug trade and the drug war. It too made a mark on the small screen, as an HBO miniseries in 2000.
Simon had a hand in each program—he co-wrote The Corner and wrote several episodes of Homicide—but he didn't exercise creative control over a television series until he and Burns launched The Wire in 2002. Though with The Wire, even the phrase television series is somewhat misleading. Each season is more like a 13-hour film, or a 13-chapter novel, that grows steadily more engrossing as it unfolds. The show's stable of writers now includes several prominent crime novelists: George Pelecanos (Soul Circus) joined the staff in the second season, while season three will include scripts by Richard Price (Clockers) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River).
Last year the program explored corruption on the waterfront, with the tale of a union official who dealt with criminals not to feather his own nest but to reverse the declining fortunes of the port, with terrible results; the story was closer in spirit to a classical tragedy than a police procedural. The program's other major story line centers around the West Baltimore drug trade, with battles between gangs for territory and within them for status and power. It sometimes feels like one of Shakespeare's history plays, if there is a history play that looks without flinching at the bankruptcy of the drug war, the intersection between crime and politics, and the day-to-day deprivations of inner-city poverty.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker spoke with Simon in July 2004, as production for the third season drew to a close.
Reason: Would you describe The Wire as a cynical show?
David Simon: It's cynical about institutions, and about their capacity for serving the needs of the individual. But in its treatment of the actual characters, be they longshoremen or mid-level drug dealers or police detectives, I don't think it's cynical at all. I think there's a great deal of humanist affection.
Reason: The Wire draws heavily on Ed Burns' experiences as a policeman. But though you cast yourself as a reporter in one episode, there hasn't been an inside-the-job look at a journalist's life. Is that something you're thinking about doing in the future?
Simon: We might glance at it a little bit. One of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little. The world now is almost inured to the power of journalism. The best journalism would manage to outrage people. And people are less and less inclined to outrage.
I think if you look at what journalism has achieved in terms of parsing the events that got us into this war in Iraq, or the truth about what happened in the election—I've become increasingly cynical about the ability of daily journalism to effect any kind of meaningful change. I was pretty dubious about it when I was a journalist, but now I think it's remarkably ineffectual.
Reason: Do you think you can raise that kind of outrage with a TV show?
Simon: I don't. The Wire will have an effect on the way a certain number of thoughtful people look at the drug war. It will not have the slightest effect on the way the nation as a whole does business. Nor is that my intent in doing the show. My intent is to tell a good story that matters to myself and the other writers—to tell the best story we can about what it feels like to live in the American city.
Reason: What's the show's underlying message about the drug war?
Simon: That it's a fraud. It's all over except for the tragedy and the shouting and the wasted lives. That'll continue. But the outcome has never been in doubt.
Reason: I've seen one writer citing The Corner to make the case that the drug war needs to be fought harder.
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.