David Simon

 

David Simon started out as a reporter, not a screenwriter. His street's-eye view of Baltimore inspired two successful books, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner. Both became TV shows focused on cops and the violence of the drug world. Simon's HBO series The Wire was even more ambitious. A social critique disguised as a cop drama, it offered a bleak picture of the American city, and Simon's views on how to save it. He was still reporting, but in a different way than ever before. We talked with Simon, one of the influential television industry players interviewed for TVGuide.com's Best of the Decade section, about different ways of breaking stories — those that are true, those that are fiction, and those that are both.

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TVGuide.com: Would The Wire have happened without HBO doing The Corner as a miniseries first?
David Simon: The Corner gave them confidence that I knew what I was doing, that I had some ability to execute. So no, the first season of The Wire couldn't have happened without The Corner. Maybe it could have, but I think it probably would not have been as easy. It would've been a harder sell. The Corner was a nice step for them in the beginning to trust me.

TVGuide.com: How did you develop the character of Jimmy McNulty?
Simon: {Executive producer] Ed Burns was a [cop] who was nominally assigned to homicide, but he would often pull himself out of the rotation and go to wiretap cases. He had a hard time convincing the department that the methodology was not only sound, but that it should be replicated. I watched him during the last half of his career hit his head against the wall trying to get the police brass to have a little bit of ambition. There's a lot of Burns in McNulty. Ed would laugh at that, because he thinks there's a lot of me in McNulty. We gave him an ex-wife and there were some personal things, but that's writing. You cannibalize everything you have in front of you. I grafted on a lot of stories from hard-drinking cops. There's a lot of oral history in the show. We got to write a lot stories down on cocktail napkins and put them in the show. I think that's what made the show idiosyncratic and, for lack of a better word, real.

TVGuide.com: Why did you choose to have The Wire's story shift so dramatically between seasons?
Simon: I had no interest in doing another cop show. Good and evil and catching the bad guy had not only lost any point to me as narrative, but they were problematic. Even for a well-done police show, when [catching the bad guy by the end of the hour] is the defining issue, you can be pretty much assured that saying anything meaningful about society is going to be marginalized. The Wire was about not doing a cop show, but doing it in the milieu that people recognized.

What we really wanted to do was construct a city and to say these are our problems as a people. [We didn't want to] leave it at the feet of some abstract bad guys in Baltimore. We wanted to say the opposite — that, it's not about good and evil. It's about money and how money and power root themselves in our society. To do that, we had to build a city. Now did I say that to HBO when I first pitched it? Nope, because they'd laugh me out of the room. In the beginning, we basically said we'll undercut the cop show. People will start by thinking they're trying to catch the bad guy. If we do this right, by the end of the first season we'll be wondering what a bad guy is anymore and what a good guy is.

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TVGuide.com: The show was known for its complete absence of exposition. Was that a risk?
Simon: If you're trying to be hyper-realistic about your universe as a writer, the one thing you have to get away from is the notion that you're going to explain everything for the reader or the viewer at the moment that all of them might require explanation. Not only does that burden storytelling, and make it false, it's also not the way real life works. [That kind of writing] allows for a different kind of storytelling ambition. TV has never discovered it to any great degree because for most of its history, every 12 minutes they had to stop, sell you some s--t, and worry that you were going to take a leak. Premium cable and the banishment of advertisement created a situation where you could be a lot more sophisticated about your storytelling and not worry about leaving people behind.

TVGuide.com: You killed a bunch of characters. Who was the hardest?
Simon: They were all hard. There was nobody that I wanted to kill off, but the story requires it. This was a tragedy we were writing, and these things have to happen. The hardest one was probably the first, because it was Wallace .The crew was mad. The Baltimore crew had worked on Homicide, and they were used to a certain amount of darkness, but the way in which we killed Wallace bothered everybody on-set. It was the first time we had confronted just where the show was going. I knew there was more to come, but that was the first bite of the apple really.

TVGuide.com: Did you ever wonder if the message was too bleak?
Simon: The parting message is we are no longer a culture than can recognize our own problems, much less begin to solve them. We will accept the short-term solution, the juked statistics, the jerry-rigged profit over actual substance every time. This is the America we've built and paid for, and it's all we deserve. We have not paid the real cost of being a first-rate society. As long as we buy into the notion that you can build a just society with capitalism alone, it's not going to get any better. It was a critique. I am not anti-capitalist, but if you think that's the prescription for building a just society, you're just naïve. It was a real, angry critique of the last 30 or 40 years.

Check out photos of the cast of The Wire

What can you tell us about your new show, Treme?
Simon: [It] is about a particular place that lives in the American imagination. What came out of New Orleans has informed not only American culture over the last century, but it's also informed world culture. You can't go anywhere on the face of earth and walk into a bar and not find Michael Jackson or Otis Redding or John Coltrane on a jukebox. African-American music is the singular greatest creation of our culture. And it only happened because European instrumentation and musical form met up with African rhythm and pentatonic scale. It could only happen because of the American city. With The Wire, I'm afraid some people thought we were denigrating the idea of the city — that we were saying the city was not only unsaveable, but also not worth saving. It may prove unsaveable, but it's definitely worth saving.

TVGuide.com: How has television changed in the past decade?
Simon: For me, the point of origin was Oz. Tom Fontana wrote a story that couldn't have existed on TV prior to premium cable, and he demonstrated for the first time what the potentialities were. In order for television to become a grown-up medium and say grown-up things, you had to get rid of the advertising. There's a premium — you're going to have to pay admission, but we're not going to try to sell you anything other than story itself. The first 50 or 60 years of television was really the infancy. There was a reason it was an inferior medium to film. Film didn't have to leave you every 12 minutes so that you would buy Lincoln Continentals and iPods and blue jeans and feminine hygiene products. The advent of premium cable and the banishment of advertising has created the possibility of TV as a medium having real ambition as an art form.

TVGuide.com: How do you hope it will change over the next 10 years?
Simon: I would like to see more and more outlets for this kind of storytelling. Anywhere where a writer is given the room to tell a story as a story ought to be told is a good thing. Places like HBO and Showtime [give] the showrunner a lot of room — you can either hang yourself or you can create something worthwhile. In book publishing, the editor never steps in and says, this should be a medical novel, and we'd like a love story right up front — a little push me, pull me. Can you imagine telling that to any novelist worth his salt? Publishing never got away from the notion that this about writing and storytelling. Television is about filmmaking and storytelling, and for most of television, the storytellers have been an afterthought. The story was [what] went in-between the advertising. So if there are more places for writers to be left alone to see if they can execute, better stuff is going to happen.