Free Minds & Free Markets

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?"

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    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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