Tuned In

Simon Says: Talking with The Wire's Creator

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I sat down with The Wire’s creator David Simon at HBO’s offices this fall, talked with him for an hour and a half, then managed to get a hundred or so of his words into my feature/review in the current Time. And you wonder why he’s angry at the media?

Anyway, I had entertained dreams of transcribing the entire interview and doing a massive document dump online, a la my interview with Ken Burns about The War. That’s not going to happen anytime soon. (For a professional writer, I am one lousy typist.) But he is brilliant, thoughtful, political–unapologetically lefty–and tough to excerpt briefly. He’s clearly thought through every reason for every thing he does in The Wire, and then some. (The man can talk.) But he’s not a dull intellectual; he has a thick Baltimore accent and looks, and carries himself, a little like the character Herc. Here’s Simon on a few of the topics we covered, including some subjects I couldn’t manage to shoehorn into my feature at all:

The first episode of the season is titled “More with Less.” It refers to cutbacks at the newspaper, but those are also paralleled with cuts in the police department. How does this tie into The Wire’s larger worldview?

That’s what they’re telling everybody now. Do more with less. The Wire’s basically about the end of an empire. It’s about, This is as much of America as we’ve paid for. No more, no less. We didn’t pay for a New Orleans that is protected from floods the way, say, The Netherlands is. We paid for a New Orleans that has weak-ass retaining walls built on swamp soil. We get what we pay for. The police department in The Wire gets what it pays for, the city government gets what it pays for, the school system gets what it pays for, and in the last season, the people who are supposed to be holding the entire thing to some form of public standard, they get what they pay for.

When did we stop paying for things?

[He prefaces this by saying, “I realize how pompous this sounds”–notes that he has a bachelor in General Studies from the University of Maryland and covered the police beat; “I’m not William F. Buckley here.”] There came a point in the early ’80s, when raw unencumbered capitalism became miscontrued as a social and political policy. It wasn’t just a force. It was acknowledged to be the be-all and end all of policy: that money should route itself and that power should be beholden to money and the opportunity to acquire more of it. The idea of mitigating capitalism so all society benefits became absurd. … In this culture, I sound like a communist. I’m not. I’m not even a socialist. In Europe, I’d be a Social Democrat.

The common thread of all the people in The Wire is that every day, they matter less as individuals. So this season, journalists who know their business matter less, just like the stevedores, the school kids, the corner boys, the East European sex slaves, and the cops.

And yet the rhetoric of capitalism in politics today is all about the individual.

I’m not against capitalism. I don’t think there’s another force that can motivate our economy. But it has to be mitigated and reinvested in society so you maintain a middle class, a consumer class. That’s what made the country great in the WWII era and even before, was the rise of the consumer class. Now they’re kicking the ass of the consumer class. … [Some people, he notes, are doing great in this economy:] This dickhead from Baltimore has an HBO show. I’m doing fine. But that’s not the probable outcome. New millionaires are being minted every day in America. But we’re minting a hell of a lot more poor people.

On how The Wire is different from much entertainment today because it’s based on Greek, rather than Shakespearean, tragedy:

We just replaced the gods with modern institutions. But we made them just as indifferent, just as powerful and just as unfeeling and uncaring. … And I think that’s part of the reason the show feels different to people, because so much drama, even good drama, is rooted in the Shakespearean and post-Shakespearean, where it’s individuals struggling against their own ambitions, their own moralities. It’s Hamlet, it’s Macbeth. If I say Hamlet or Macbeth, you can readily conjure Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen. McNulty is not a Macbeth or a Hamlet. He’s an Oedipus or an Achilles. He’s fated. As they all are. So is Sobotka, so is Stringer Bell, so is Gus Haynes [the city editor at the Sun] this year. [It’s not a tradition you see much in TV drama today because] as postmoderns, we’re not really comfortable with the idea of individuals not being in control of their own destiny.

Like with Bubbles, some little thing goes wrong somewhere in the system and your life is destroyed. But writing about social systems can be the recipe for crappy drama, so how do you–

You have to write it with incredible discipline, and the discipline is, “I get to have my say in terms of the universe I construct. I do not get to have my say whenever I want it willy nilly coming out of the mouths of these characters. These characters have to be as they would exist on the streets.’ You have to really believe in them as real human beings. … Clifford Odets, his heart was in the right place, but his stuff reads as it the characters are there to make his political points. You can’t do that.

On this season’s focus on the media:

To steal a little bit from Gibbon, what were they doing when Rome was burning, and were they aware? For that, the media was the perfect place to be. … The focus this season is, “Well, what were they paying attention to? I’m not worried about, Oh, look how much ink they gave to Anna Nicole Smith or to Britney. I’m not worried about the high-end stupidity,. That stuff will always be mocked. I’m talking about, “Wow, they gave out a Pulitzer for that?'” … The parameters of serious journalism have so shrunk that nobody’s going to take the time to go for narrative journalism, to find out how people live, to measure conventional wisdom against what’s going on in the streets. Shit like that takes extraordinary vision and patience and talent and effort. I never had a job that’s as hard as being a newspaper journalist.

Would The Wire have been the same show, or could you have even done it, in a larger city than Baltimore?

I could have done it in a larger city, but it would have to be a city that didn’t have an artificial economy. [New York, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C.] … It would need to be a city where they make things, a place where they’re actually contending with the displacement that’s happening in post-industrial America, where we don’t make shit anymore and everybody’s trying to figure out where the jobs are going to come from. It had to be a place where every human being is worth less every day.

[He segues into the following The Wire has developed outside the media centers, in post-industrial and heavily black cities:]

There’s people who get the show on a much more visceral level than in New York. Black folk. This is something I’m really proud of. There are 974 shows for one other America, but The Wire was actually a first-rate drama that spoke directly to the other America. The other America doesn’t get a lot of TV shows. They get, like, sitcommy shit to laugh at. Some lowbrow shit. But they don’t get treated as worthy of first-class drama. And they certainly don’t get something that’s this attentive to what’s going on in their neighborhoods. … Either they’re grist for the cop show mill, or they’re the benighted salt-of-the-earth working class. Nothing has advanced in that stereotype since Good Times. They’re never wholly depicted, subtle, self-aware people. …

There was no intent of making a “black show” or how it would be received in West Baltimore or North Philadelphia. But the market penetration there was complete. I knew that happened when I was editing season 3 in New York and I got on the A train, and there were guys on Monday morning hawking bootleg copies of what was on HBO on Sunday night. There’s this little economy that’s, We’re not paying for HBO, but we’re watching The Wire. And the part of me who has a little pirate hat on his head thought that was pretty cool. …

The Wire to me is like dissent. It’s political dissent. On commercial television, there’s no f___ing way you can say, “This is America and we’re not all right any more. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. This may be the end of empire.” You can’t say that if every twelve minutes you’re going to stop and sell people: “All right, sorry we brought you down, but now here’s the new Lincolns! And wait, check out the new iPods!” … And so what most television has been for most of its life has been to affirm the economic and political and social logic of the country.

[Incidentally, this is as good a place as any to link to LAist’s series of interviews with Wire cast members. Today, it’s Andre Royo, who plays Bubbles.]