Fascinating Interview with David Simon

David Simon is the producer of HBO’s “The Wire” – a highly acclaimed series that I have on my Netflix queue since I’ve heard so many rave reviews calling it “The Best Show on TV Ever.” Here is part of an interview he gave with Nick Hornby for The Believer:

We got the gig because as my newspaper was bought and butchered by an out-of-town newspaper chain, I was offered the chance to write scripts, and ultimately, to learn to produce television by the fellows who were turning my first book into Homicide: Life on the Street. I took that gig and ultimately, I was able to produce the second book for HBO on my own. Following that miniseries, HBO agreed to look at The Wire scripts. So I made an improbable and in many ways unplanned transition from journalist/author to TV producer. It was not a predictable transformation and I am vaguely amused that it actually happened. If I had a plan, it was to grow old on the Baltimore Sun’s copy desk, bumming cigarettes from young reporters and telling lies about what it was like working with H. L. Mencken and William Manchester.

Another reason the show may feel different than a lot of television: our model is not quite so Shakespearean as other high-end HBO fare. The Sopranos and Deadwood—two shows that I do admire—offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of the central characters (Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen). Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The modern mind—particularly those of us in the West—finds such fatalism ancient and discomfiting, I think. We are a pretty self-actualized, self-worshipping crowd of postmoderns and the idea that for all of our wherewithal and discretionary income and leisure, we’re still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious. We don’t accept our gods on such terms anymore; by and large, with the exception of the fundamentalists among us, we don’t even grant Yahweh himself that kind of unbridled, interventionist authority.

But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.

NH: How did you pitch it?

DS: I pitched The Wire to HBO as the anti–cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television. I am unalterably opposed to drug prohibition; what began as a war against illicit drugs generations ago has now mutated into a war on the American underclass, and what drugs have not destroyed in our inner cities, the war against them has. I suggested to HBO—which up to that point had produced groundbreaking drama by going where the broadcast networks couldn’t (The Sopranos, Sex and the City, et al…)—that they could further enhance their standing by embracing the ultimate network standard (cop show) and inverting the form. Instead of the usual good guys chasing bad guys framework, questions would be raised about the very labels of good and bad, and, indeed, whether such distinctly moral notions were really the point.

The show would instead be about untethered capitalism run amok, about how power and money actually route themselves in a postmodern American city, and, ultimately, about why we as an urban people are no longer able to solve our problems or heal our wounds. Early in the conception of the drama, Ed Burns and I—as well as the late Bob Colesberry, a consummate filmmaker who served as the directorial producer and created the visual template for The Wire—conceived of a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.

First season: the dysfunction of the drug war and the general continuing theme of self-sustaining postmodern institutions devouring the individuals they are supposed to serve or who serve them. Second season: the death of work and the destruction of the American working class in the postindustrial era, for which we added the port of Baltimore. Third season: the political process and the possibility of reform, for which we added the City Hall component. Fourth season: equal opportunity, for which we added the public-education system. The fifth and final season will be about the media and our capacity to recognize and address our own realities, for which we will add the city’s daily newspaper and television components.

Did we mention these grandiose plans to HBO at the beginning? No, they would have laughed us out of the pitch meeting. Instead, we spoke only to the inversion of the cop show and a close examination of the drug war’s dysfunction. But before shifting gears to the port in season two, I sat down with the HBO execs and laid out the argument to begin constructing an American city and examining the above themes through that construction. So here we are.

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