Still Defiant: David Simon Caps Five Seasons of Unspooling The Wire
While most viewers gear up for next week's American Idol episodes, HBO's The Wire will conclude its run as TV's most challenging, dense creatively astute series. (also, as TV's only predominantly black TV series which isn't perceived as one)
It's not hard to see why Idol gets more attention: The Wire practically dares its audience to keep up, slinging around lingo from politics, cop work, the streets and newspaper newsrooms with no explanation, tackling some of America's most daunting problems with a fatalistic realism that can be unsettling for those used to the way CSI wraps up a murder in 60 minutes or less.
Creator David Simon's message: that few individuals, no matter how heroic, can beat a venal, exploitive bureaucracy. And those who try -- normally the triumphant heroes in more conventional narratives -- usually wind up with the crap end of the stick.
Simon stopped doing interviews when the writers strike broke out in November, so he wasn't available to talk before the debut of the shows last season in January. But with the series finale airing at 9 p.m. Sunday, I finally caught up with the big man to ask a few compelling questions.
Was it tough not talking to the press as your last season started?
“I was very amused by the reaction. People who become fans of the show, they want to see more of what they enjoyed in the past. They want that validated. They always felt that way with (NBC cop show)Homicide. By the time I got to Homicide, Andre Braugher was dying to see his character do something different. But people just wanted to see Frank Pembelton take apart a suspect in the interview room one more time. This season, we went through the same thing.” Hear Simon's take in an interview with National Public Radio's Fresh Air here.
You brought in the media this year. And I was surprised by the way critics who had no problem with the liberties taken in cop shows such as NYPD Blue and Law & Order were complaining about the journalism stuff in The Wire.
“If you’re at a newspaper now where the technology seems to be running against the industry, there’s some frustration is seeing anyone critique the product. I sort of understand that. I believe there was relevance in the critique. I don’t believe that journalists and journalism are wholly innocent in what’s happening. My argument will be that the Internet is a tidal wave, and to withstand it, newspapers had to be strong and vibrant and essential to their communities. After the last few years of profit taking, they were anything but. I know they did when I was at The Sun."
As you say, you were a cops reporter at the Baltimore Sun for many years. Why are so many journalists so resistant to the scenes you're showing in The Wire?
“I knew by presenting this critique that a lot of people would get cranky. There is a wonderful hypocrisy to all the journalists who thought we were doing God’s work when we were lampooning police officers, but the notion that a managing editor might be fatuous or venal, or that the profession might be portrayed in a way that wasn’t ennobling -– now you’re talking outrage. I mean, we had a cop legalizing drugs in season three. I couldn’t sell that story to the mainstream press. Ed Burns gave a bunch of interviews about education to all the education periodicals last season. They were fascinated by the school stuff in season four. But season five... For the first time the mainstream media wants to discuss the content of The Wire. TV critics were talking about the content, but it didn’t make it off the entertainment pages, until we started talking about journalism. And everybody got excited.”
Your downsized Baltimore Sun misses nearly every major story which breaks in the city during this last season -- a lesson about what happens to newspapers with slashed staffs. Do you think people are missing the point because if your well-publicized feud with the two guys who ran the Sun when you left, John Carroll and Bill Marimow? Read Simon's account of that moment in a first0person piece for Esquire here.
"I have, since 2000, been very public saying that I hold the editors who used to run my newsroom in very low regard. I don’t care that it strikes some people as inelegant or rude or arrogant. These fellas emphasized that in journalism which I did not find meaningful. Ultimately, they aggressively defended a fabricator who had been caught time and again and did so by maligning anyone who would raise the issue personally. For that reason, I’m comfortable with my opinion. I left the paper in 1995. When I left, I still kept them in low regard, but I kept my mouth shut until 2000. They ignored all of it. They kept submitting his stuff for a Pulitzer. A lot of honorable journalists were appalled with what was happening in that newsroom. Four years later when it happened again, and they were apologizing to the governor, at that point, I resolved that I was going to own my past."
"They value impact journalism. Surround something that is fundamentally unjust and attack it with a series of blunt articles until people react. That is Pulitzer logic. I was on the street doing (the book) The Corner when Clinton’s welfare reform came through. All the adult males had been thrown off the welfare rolls. They were herding them onto (Social Security disability) rolls...because there was no safety net anymore. Did the Baltimore Sun cover the dramatic turn of events as the result on welfare reform? No, they did a series about how so many people were cheating on SSI."
So, to bring a question I've wanted to ask for weeks: Why did have to kill Omar?
“Read your Greek plays – read Antigone. All that stuff you didn’t read in high school. The Wire is cyclical, like most Greek tragedies. The Wire is cyclical in its sense of the permanence of fate. It’s kind of a hard thing for some people to accept. We’re more comfortable with the later western tradition. Characters confront their inner demons and they change their destiny. We like to believe that. But I'm not sure it happens often."
What's the legacy of The Wire?
“I have no idea. I think we took a lot of risks. We were committed to our content. There’s no reason other people can’t do this, or other shows. There’s every reason to hope some aspect of TV will do the same thing. I’m very grateful to HBO that they gave us 60 episodes and let us do exactly what we wanted. I wouldn’t change a thing -- well, I wouldn't change anything of real substance. Nothing’s perfect -– nothing is every truly finished, just a little bit abandoned. At the same time, in terms of overall message and intent and storytelling, I’m pretty sanguine."