Conversations with David Simon are never short.
That's because the quick-witted, pugnacious creator of HBO's The Wire is a born storyteller who can turn the simplest answer into a winding commentary.
Interviews are hourlong affairs; you turn on the tape recorder and kick back for detailed dissertations on the dehumanizing bureaucracies of urban police departments, school systems and drug gangs. References might include classic Greek literature and Baltimore's toughest drug dealers — sometimes in the same sentence.
Silenced by the writers strike, Simon did no interviews as his police drama's fifth and final season began in January. But his commentary was everywhere.
First-person essays for Baltimore magazine, the Washington Post and Esquire. Long features reported months ago for the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Newsweek and the Columbia Journalism Review. All centered on Simon's bitter theme for The Wire's swan song: the death of the great American newspaper.
"For the first time, the mainstream media want to discuss the content of The Wire," said Simon, who contends reporters outside the entertainment desk never explored the show's take on the fruitless drug war, the slumping working class or the crumbling education system.
Until The Wire started talking about journalism.
"There's a wonderful hypocrisy to all the journalists who thought we were doing God's work when we were lampooning police officers," said Simon, who scheduled a raft of interviews once the strike was settled.
"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," he said.
Inside the story
Critics may carp that ratings are down, but the show has managed a compelling balancing act. Frustrated by a lack of resources, antihero Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) has invented a serial killer, secretly redirecting the resources lavished on his effort to solving real murders.
He has gotten unwitting help from a reporter at a fictionalized Baltimore Sun who is, in Simon's colorful parlance, "cookin' it" — inventing sources to make his stories look better.
That's where Simon's own tangled history gets wrapped into The Wire's plot lines. Because the onetime cops reporter has maintained for years that his real-life editors at the Sun protected a guy who made up story material, hoping to win a Pulitzer Prize.
"I have, since 2000, been very public in saying that I hold the editors who used to run my newsroom in very low regard, and I don't care that it strikes some people as inelegant or rude or arrogant," said Simon, whose feud with former Sun editors Bill Marimow and John Carroll has become legend in both journalism and show biz circles.
"They aggressively defended a fabricator who had been caught time and again and did so by personally maligning anyone who would raise the issue," he said, firmly. The producer quotes himself in Esquire confronting Carroll, using a line he would eventually give his fictional city editor, Gus Haynes:
"You might win a Pulitzer with a guy like that. You might also have to give it back."
Relying on experience
Simon makes no apologies for venting old Sun squabbles on HBO.
"Here's what people who write fiction do with the real world; they cannibalize it — they steal literally," he said. "In terms of doing fiction as a realistic enterprise, I don't know what else to do with my past, but use it."
Marimow, now editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, laughed wearily at Simon's portrayals earlier this year.
Initially noncommittal about the feud, he quickly grew angry considering the impact on Carroll, who was ousted from his job editing the Los Angeles Times after resisting planned staff cuts there.
"I'm very tired of (Simon) trying to rewrite history and contort the truth," said Marimow. "What he's done has been cowardly and deceitful."
Journalistic infighting may have blinded critics to The Wire's larger point. In its zeal to chase stories yielding big awards and in its need to trim expenses by buying out experienced employees, Simon's fictional Sun misses nearly every major news story out of Baltimore — from the assassination of drug kingpin Joseph "Prop Joe" Stewart to the "perp walk" of indicted State Sen. Clay Davis.
A clear ending
That is the ultimate lesson of The Wire; individuals, no matter how valiant, never beat an exploitive, venal system.
"One of the things we honor, are characters who rebel against a system with no hope of changing it," Simon said. "McNulty has done what he could . . . and in the rebellion, he overreached and confronted his own fragile morality. He's entitled to some peace, now."
The best news for Wire fans is that there's no Sopranos-style, ambiguous fade to black. Instead, TV's best cop show goes out in style, wrapping up so many storylines, some fans may feel Simon works out too much in the end.
"This might be one of the last shows where people say they remember when TV meant something," said Clark Johnson, who not only lit up the final season playing city editor hero Haynes, but also directed the first and last episodes.
Simon disputes talk that ratings are down by noting rising DVD sales and HBO's growing on-demand business (excepting Sunday's finale, Wire episodes are available a week early through HBO On Demand). And he also gently challenges Johnson's notion that The Wire marks some last stand in adventurous TV.
"I have no idea what our legacy is, (but) there's no reason other people can't do this . . . HBO gave us 60 episodes and let us do exactly what we wanted," said Simon, who is now preparing an HBO series on the Iraq war, Generation Kill. "I wouldn't change anything."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.