A while ago, there was a controversy in people-who-write-about-TV circles when David Simon, creator of The Wire, complained in a New York Times interview about certain post-Wire coverage that he thought trivialized the show’s messages. (In particular, Grantland’s online bracket to crown the best Wire character ever.) You didn’t read about it here, because while I will shamelessly use this blog to write about things that I know fascinate only me and not most of you, a controversy over how best to critique a TV show that went off the air four years ago is perhaps over the line.
David Simon, however, is welcome to do that, and now he has a blog to do it on. (With the great name The Audacity of Despair.) Simon has famously expressed reservations about blogging culture and what it’s doing to his former profession of journalism (Simon was a Baltimore Sun reporter), and he reiterates them on the blog itself. But, he says, last month’s Wire controversy made him realize it would be good to have a format to vent on his own terms, partly because his words in the Times interview (which he admits were poorly chosen), made it sound as if he believed that most fans of The Wire were watching the show wrong.
On his blog, Simon details his thinking on all that, in a wide-ranging post that links his recent brouhaha, the Trayvon Martin case, and the general tendency in the media to reduce any argument to its simplest, most dialectical terms. In a story like that of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, he says, we want to impose a good guy / bad guy structure, elevating one party and denigrating another to suit our worldviews. In real life, he says (and this is definitely true of The Wire), the truth is messier, and often comes down to: “Who’s the bigger asshole?”
That’s part of his complaint (which he analogizes to reducing The Wire to “Who’s more badass, Omar or Marlo?”). The corollary is that good guy vs. bad guy vs. asshole is beside the point: the point is the larger structure in which these guys operate. In the case of Florida, he says, it’s the Stand Your Ground laws. In the case of The Wire, it’s the drug wars and all that came with them.
This has always been an issue, a dilemma and a cause celebre for Simon, because as a journalist and an entertainer, he knows that if you’re ever to get anyone to care about, invest in, and understand those bigger issues, you have to put a face on them. That’s exactly why he and his colleagues created so many awesome characters that you can do an entire March Madness bracket of them. Bubbles and Bunk and McNulty were not fascinating, watchable, sympathetic people on accident. Just like a journalist who knows that people will read a story of a kid with a hoodie and a guy with a gun before they will read an analysis of gun laws and their effects, Simon wrote a story about people—and, sometimes to his chagrin, it’s been received as one.
It takes a little chutzpah to analogize your annoyance over the portrayal of your much-lauded TV show to a racially charged shooting death, but honestly, I think I get Simon’s point: he’s using his experience, and one of the biggest news stories in the country, to talk about the dynamics and weaknesses of how stories get attention.
Which is not to say I agree with him in every instance. Getting back to The Wire, he cites an interview sportswriter Bill Simmons recently did with President Barack Obama—mainly about basketball, but which ended with one question about The Wire. That question, to Simon’s annoyance, was “Who’s the best character?” Writes Simon:
If he were a hectoring asshole, an argumentative scold, a fucking killjoy, he might realize that he has The Man right there, and that he is at the end of the day acting as, well, a journalist. So if anything is to be said about that show, well, here is a rare chance to break some ground. He might swallow hard, seize the moment and say something along the lines of, “Mr. President. I know you’ve said you’re a fan of The Wire. Well, one of that show’s basic critiques is that the drug war is amoral. More Americans are now in prison than ever before, and the percentage of violent offenders in prison is lower than ever. We are now the jailingest society in the world, incarcerating more of each other than even totalitarian states. How can we go on supporting this?”
Simon means this as a rejoinder to the argument that there’s no harm in people making Wire brackets, because it doesn’t prevent other people from arguing its bigger philosophy. But I actually think the Simmons interview is proof of the argument that Simon is arguing against. The fact is, the person putting together blurbs for a “Who’s the coolest Wire character?” online featurette is not going to, if prevented from doing so, instead write about the legacy of the drug war in urban centers. And Simmons, fine writer though he is, is not going to substitute a grilling about drug laws at the end of a sports interview.
But that’s no reason that a political reporter—from the New York Times, from CNN, from Time magazine—couldn’t ask Obama exactly that. If they don’t, it’s not Bill Simmons’ failing. And just maybe, all the frippery that Simon sees as beside the point is the candy, the story, the human interest that gets a new generation of viewers watching The Wire on DVD—and asking just those bigger questions.
In a way, it’s the age-old story of artists and their interpreters. You can tell the story, but you can’t control how people hear it. (The people who try hardest to do so usually tell the worst stories.) But I’m glad that Simon is now online pitching his case—and I hope many others to come—because it’s a deeply thoughtful essay about how stories get told, from a guy who’s told a lot of them well. In a welcome post explaining how he came to blogging, Simon says one reason he finally did is that “I delight in pursuing a good, ranging argument.” And I hope he’s got plenty more in him.