“The kind of writers I love are writing on the backs of cocktail napkins.” So says David Simon, creator of The Wire, the acclaimed HBO Baltimore drama now in its final weeks. The former police reporter at the Baltimore Sun joined a roomful of journalists for dinner and a Wire screening Wednesday night at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association Theater near Union Station.
Smartly dressed in jeans and a sport coat, Simon received a hero’s treatment, a rock star among the media brethren. Many prefaced their questions with gushing praise (“Thank you for creating the most wonderful work of art in modern memory”).
If you’ve seen The Wire, you might agree with the chorus. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and start now. With five seasons and sixty episodes, you’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up to the most relevant drama in television today. Simon is a storyteller in the truest sense, always looking for a deeper explanation for the seemingly inexplicable. The Wire is full of murder, government and police corruption, drug use and traffic. But in the deep, contextual portrait he draws, it is near impossible to define the line between black and white, protagonist and antagonist, good and evil. And in the end, some of today’s best ideas are scrawled on bourbon-stained napkins in smudged ink. Here’s what Simon had to say:
-On why The Wire is not as popular or mainstream as other HBO hits: “Most of American popular culture is about individuals triumphing over institutions. The idea of fated and doomed protagonists whose heroism is set against certain defeat unsettles people. If you subvert the triumph dynamic, you lose some audience.”
-On Baltimore: “I love the city. The Wire is a love letter to Baltimore—a letter from a very conflicted, pissed-off lover.”
-On good journalism: “Actual journalism is not about convincing a prize committee to validate you. It is about your city. Readers don’t care how many Pulitzers you win. They care about the life around them.”
-On bad journalism: “‘The Wire spent four seasons building a city. The fifth season is about how disconnected the attempts to cover Baltimore in the media are so different than the series we’ve seen. When the biggest drug dealer in the city gets killed, he’s mentioned in a blurb on page B3. Nobody knows. They miss every story. Sixty percent of Americans believe journalists routinely make stuff up.”
-On the creative process: “The script is easy. Most of the work is done before that, in plotting, with charts, pieces of colored paper. It’s not easy. We just end up pissing each other off.”
-On HBO: “The idea that you don’t have to stop your show every 13 minutes to sell Buicks or iPods is epic. I don’t know how they do it on network TV.”
-On the war on drugs: “It destroyed police work. One of the best inventions for police forces was the wino’s paper bag. It freed cops from enforcing public consumption laws and allowed them to do real work. Now it’s back to taking drugs out of the hands of small-time offenders. If I were ever on a jury in a drug case … even if it was for the biggest kingpin out there … if no one could prove an act of violence, I would vote to acquit.”
-On the end of The Wire: “My advice to anyone with a show: Write to an ending. Not only is it easier, but you also get this turn at the end where everyone’s talking about you and saying you’re the shiznit.”