David Simon: The Wire Exit Interview
The Wire is dead. There will be no waiting to see if the new season is going to be approved by HBO executives. There will be no more wondering what's going to happen to beloved characters when it comes back on the air. There will be no more stumbling across those The Wire placards on light posts and parking meters around town when the series is in production. The Baltimore-set and -shot series that debuted in 2002 is officially over following this past Sunday night's series finale. It's over. Finished. Kaput. Long live The Wire.
And it didn't go out with a whimper. The Wire's fifth season--which featured police detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) robbing Peter to pay Paul with investigations, new Mayor Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) already setting his sights on the governor's mansion and making the political compromises to get there, and the almost devastated ex-junkie Bubbles (Andre Royo) struggling to come to terms with himself--has drawn more consistent and hotly debated printed ink and internet bloviating than any season in the series' run. Many daily paper television critics maintained weekly episodes recaps and discussions online, as has New York magazine's Vulture blog and online magazine Salon. More than 130 media outlets previewed, reviewed, or followed the season in their pages and/or on their web sites. When a beloved major character died, some even posted obituaries to their sites. And over at Slate, Atlantic national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg and Slate Deputy Editor David Plotz maintained a season-long dialog about the show that numbered 62 posts as of press time.
Not all of this attention has been positive--or even levelheaded. And the season's most contentious aspects concern a story line introduced this season, the fictional Baltimore Sun of the The Wire's fictional Baltimore. And just about every aspect of this storyline--from how the newsroom looks to what the staff wears to how they interact in the office to the style discussions held by editors and copy editors to the very way corporate-owned daily newspaper journalism is depicted--has been scrutinized by writers, editors, bloggers, ad infinitum. That this story line includes a reporter who, quite frankly, makes shit up to further his career only added fuel to this constantly smoldering ire.
Much of that criticism has been leveled not only at the show but quite squarely at series co-creator and -producer David Simon, a former city desk reporter for the real Sun. In the past three months he's been called the "angriest man on television" in The Atlantic, and his own career has been used as a keyhole through which to view urban journalism writ large in the Columbia Journalism Review. The tenor of these pieces runs from evenhanded to reactionary, but by and large journalists haven't cared for the journalism thread one bit, and blame Simon's own personal feelings about what happened to The Sun after the Abell family sold it to Los Angeles' Times Mirror Co. in 1996 and Chicago's Tribune Co. bought Times Mirror in 2000. Simon himself jumped into the fray, writing about why he made the show in the February issue of Baltimore magazine and confronting journalism in the March issue of Esquire and in a Jan. 20 op-ed piece in The Washington Post.
But at this point the show isn't just about this final season: We can finally sit back and look at the series as a whole. And what it feels like from the vantage point of many people who call Baltimore home, where the show's fictionalized Baltimore very often far too closely resembled the world in which we live, is a piece of American protest fiction--like what American playwrights and novelists turned out in the 1920s and '30s, like what American movies were in the 1960s and '70s, and like what American songs have been ever since people started singing in this country. It's a suspicion supported by a March 5 Time essay in which The Wire's writing staff--Ed Burns, Simon, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price--collectively and very publicly announced their opposition to the American law enforcement's War on Drugs.
And now that television voice is gone. The series is over and the entire cast and crew have moved on to their next jobs and Simon--and his co-creator Burns--are busy editing their next HBO project, a mini-series based on Generation Kill, Evan Wright's 2004 book about the 2003 Iraq invasion. We'll no longer get to scrutinize the Baltimore in the mirror and debate what the show got right and what it flubbed.
In a modest effort to see some big picture, City Paper caught up with Simon at the end of February over the phone when he was in New York editing Generation Kill, and in an e-mail follow-up while he was working in Los Angeles. What follows is the entire on-the-record interview.
City Paper: How hard was this series to make? And I don't just mean creatively--I'm thinking in terms of just production logistics, because it seems like ever since the series premiered in 2002, it and often you personally have been criticized for what the show represented, and at least since Season 3 the conclusion of every season has brought the pregnant pause of wondering if the show will be continued. And, well, you've turned out--what?--almost 60 hours of TV?
David Simon: Sixty, yeah--well, if you count the The Corner, 66 about Baltimore. But the Wireis 60. A lot of stuff had to go right and a lot of stuff did. I don't want to make more about the struggles with civic Baltimore than I should because if you read the piece in Baltimore magazine, that's it. There was this brief pregnant moment where the mayor was very angry. And he got over it, and all credit to anybody who gets over being angry. I know I'm not good at it, so credit is due. I think he evaluated it not as the story that it was or the intentions of the story but as a political problem, and he approached it as a political problem. And at some point the practicalities of it became clear to him, and then he was remarkably professional after that. And so was the rest of the city. As far as the city itself, as I said in the piece, I can't be more grateful for Baltimore being as tolerant as it's been. That's just it. How many cities would have been that broad-shouldered to suffer us for five years?
As far as the network, we never brought in huge ratings. We were always hanging on by the skin of our teeth. But they kept renewing the show because we kept coming to them with stories they wanted to see filmed. I was in meetings with Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht, and the only thing we talked about was what next year's story would be if we make it. And it was about me selling story, and all the horror stories they tell about Hollywood pitch meetings are true. All of them. There's not a lie to any of those stories; it's a horror show from beginning to end. The idea that you get to stay in a room with network execs and argue over the validity of a story and that's what gets you renewed independent of any other consideration is a credit to the network.
CP: You've said this to me and in other interviews that The Wire was envisioned as five seasons, and over this season I think we've already seen a number of instances where the echoes you've talked about before refer to instances, moments, dialogue lines, and scenes from the previous seasons. So I'm curious: How much prep did you and Ed Burns do for this show before writing even the first season?
DS: We only started thinking about subsequent seasons in the middle of the [first] season as we were working on it. And I knew then that if there was a second season, I knew it was going to the port. But it was when we got the second-season order that I sat down with Ed and talked separately with [producer/writer] George [Pelecanos] and [producer] Nina [Kristoff-Noble] and Bob Colesberry, and we all had discussions about what we would like to see the show accomplish. And we started throwing out ideas of if we were going to try to depict the city, what we would most want to address. And Ed was passionate about education, having taught for seven years. And I knew we had to bring the political element. I argued passionately for the political element and then went out and hired Bill Zorzi as a natural consequence. And I was also very interested in the notion of addressing the working class and what has happened to the culture of work in America, and so we knew we were heading there already. We knew we dealt with the drug war and we knew we dealt with the culture war. The other two elements seemed quite obtainable if we could get the time from HBO. And then I knew I wanted to put a coda on it that addressed what seemed to be the last practical questions, which was, If we had anything right in the first four seasons as to the nature of the city, its problems, and why those problems seems so insolvable, why is it that we're not intensely aware of those problems? Why is the underclass so invisible? Why are the city schools so ineffective for so long? Why does the police department continue to embrace a dysfunctional drug war and manage to solve less and less crime with every year? And what is the political element doing about these things? You can ask the questions specifically of those institutions, but in the end, the first question you have to ask is, what are we paying attention to? And that seemed to be the last question to ask, to throw it back on viewers and say, "If this is some weird amalgam of an op-ed piece and a television drama, how is it that these worlds are being depicted here and taken seriously and not as an everyday theme in the national media." And that seemed to be an argument worth having.
CP: I've spoken with you about the writing process before: writers meetings at season's beginning, discussion of story and character arcs, writers getting episodes assignments. But I'm curious--is there anything that didn't make it into the series that you wished could have?
DS: Sure. I'm fascinated by the transformation of Upper Broadway into a vibrant Latino community, and it's something relatively new for Baltimore. And I would've love to include a season that was thematically about immigration. I've said before, none of the writers are familiar with Latino culture--we don't have any Spanish speakers among the veteran writers of the show--but more than that, we would have been willing to learn and to embrace it. The problem was by the time we thought of it, we were working on Season 4, and--as you can see from the last season, if you've watched them all--Season 5 had to be the concluding season. So we would have been inserting the immigration theme as the penultimate season and we'd been off the air long enough at the time we thought of this that to do the research properly we would have remained off the air for a year and a half, two years. And at that point, it becomes problematic--to hold the actors, we needed to speak to what we had at hand. But having said that, that is a theme that I think would have been really fruitful.
CP: Was doing Season 5 in 10 episodes rather than 13 tough? Did it adjust the pacing/flow of this final season?
DS: Oh, no--that's been the subtext out on the internet, that it's moving too fast because there was cut episodes. We knew we had less story to tell [in Season 5], in that Season 4 we were running an election and running the school system story simultaneously, because we had to subsume the separate political story. So we asked for and received an extra episode in order to create a little more political preamble, and they gave us 13. They came back to us and said, "OK, you've ended the election and the school story is effectively over, do you need 12 this time?" And I said, "I'm not sure. I think it could be less." And they said, "How about eight?" And I said, "No, that's too little. Don't get carried away." [laughs]
You have to remember, it's a zero-sum game. They have certain amount of production budget at HBO, and other projects are also in need, and here they were approving The Wire and Generation Kill, and Generation Kill is seven hours of very expensive television. So they weren't saying you couldn't have 12, they were saying what do you need? And I said, "I don't think I can do it in less than 10, but Ed and I will start beating this out and we'll get back to you." And the truth was in the end, we needed 10 and half and if I needed 11, they would have given me 11, and if I absolutely needed 12, I could've had 12, because the discussions I had about the eight or 10 or 12, that was before the reviews came in for Season 4. So, in the end, I always felt as if I can't make it work the way I need to make it work I can go back to Carolyn, and in fact I did go back to her and say, "Look, the last episode has to be 90 minutes," and she said, "fine." So this whole internet narrative of they were denied what they needed, I think people felt it was moving too fast because they knew there was only 10, and if they were interested in the show, they wanted to see more of this given character or wanted to show more of the kids or why doesn't Cutty have a story. And if they said you have to have 11 or 12, I wouldn't have added to the existing stories, we said exactly what we wanted to say about the story lines as they exist, there probably would have been a separate Cutty story line or a separate Prez story line or both, depending on how much extra we had. There would have been more limbs on the tree, but the main stem would be the same. And the truth is we talked about that as writers and we felt that Cutty and Prez were exactly where they needed to be at the end of Season 4--that certain redemptions were complete and to say much more than we did in Season 5 would have been gilding those lilies.
CP: It feels like there has been more coverage and criticism of this season than ever. Do you think that's because of the journalism story line--and journalists hating to be portrayed--or more that the show's critical mass finally hit a point where it was on a number of people's radar screens, or that it started while the WGA strike was still in full bloom and there was almost literally nothing else to write about on TV?
DS: I hate to be ad hominem, because it's sort of not fair, and perhaps if I'm being very liberal about it I should say, "Well, maybe the show just sucks this year and maybe that's why there's criticism." But I happen to believe that a lot of the same logic that we applied to politics, the school system, or the police department, or journalism produces a different dynamic and a different level of criticism, and we expected that. And it's for that reason in the very middle of the piece you hear Judge Phelan offer that old saw about never pissing off anybody who buys ink by the barrelful, because we knew that at this point in the story some journalists, not all, were going to be acting like cats in the alley with their tails on fire. I don't know what else to say about it. I mean, journalists like nothing better than to discuss themselves and assert themselves, and I think if police officials and politicians and school administrators published and blogged, we would have been criticized for the entire run of the show. But I don't take the criticism seriously--I mean, I read it. I read it with the hope of taking it seriously, but I just don't agree with it.
CP: You also appear to be much more vocal in your responses to the show's criticism. Did you anticipate this level of criticism--or is it just because the show was ending and you had the time to devote to responding to things?
CP: You have been writing more during this run of the show.
DS: No, I disagree with the premise. Where do you think I've responded to criticisms of the show?
CP: You have been writing more about the show this year.
DS: I actually haven't written about the show.
CP: The Baltimore magazine piece, the Esquire piece, you've been writing about--OK, excuse me, you have been writing about journalism during this run of the show.
DS: Ah. Yes. I have written a bit of memoir about journalism, not about The Wire, about journalism. I wrote a piece for The Washington Post about where I thought journalism lost its way, where newspapers lost their way even before the internet became the tidal wave that it's become. And that's it. I've been pretty rigorous--in fact, I've been entirely rigorous about not responding to criticism of the show.
Now, I'll tell you a couple of other things just so the critique is, I think, fully knocked down. There are these guys doing the show on Slate this year. And there was a moment at which I actually tried to post to Slate and ended it following it off campus to some marketing site because I'm not very good with my computer. I meant to post to Slate but I posted to some guy's site who was citing the Slate piece, you know. I don't know if you've ever done that. And if you read the piece, I'm unequivocal that The Wire will either fail or succeed on its own merits. What I did resent about those fellows and their discussion at one point was I was reading it and I realize he's speaking about my dinner conversation at a wedding with him and his wife. And listen, I hold journalism to certain standards. I wrote two narrative nonfiction books about real people who I quoted by name, dozens of people in both books, and every single one of them knew when I was working as a reporter. I told them what I was doing in advance, and they knew what the project was. And when I sit across the dinner table from somebody, if I'm going to be quoted, I'd like the person to say so--it will certainly change my demeanor.
And so if I sit there for two hours among a table full of journalists and our discussions include how we got into journalism, how we got out of journalism, who did we like in journalism, who was our mentors, who we had a low regard for--I expect it to be dinner conversation. So I posted on that basis and, privately, I had a conversation with Mr. Plotz where I said, "By the way, everything you have me saying I'll say for you freely on the record. You didn't need to cannibalize our private encounter. I'll be perfectly blunt with you on the record." And he defended it briefly, and then I got a letter from his wife saying, "Absolutely not, what he did was not kosher." And he had not worked at a large paper like she had, and the rules are a little less formalized at Slate. And then promptly after that I got an apology from him privately. And that ended it for me. I had no interest in debating the show with him but I did have an interest in asserting for a certain amount of . . . I don't want to have to walk into parties and think that I'm being quoted--or if I am being quoted, I'm not coming to the party. That's it. It was as simple as that.
And the other place where I made a post that could have been perceived as defending anything in the show was even funnier. The New York magazine web site, that Vulture web site--
CP: Who has been doing weekly posts about this season.
DS: Right. There came a moment where they called Diego [Aldana, HBO spokesperson], and they asked Diego, "We have this thing about `evacuation,' and Webster's Dictionary says it different from on the show, and blah blah blah. And we're going to run this. Can we get a comment from David Simon?" And so he calls me and says, "Can you give them a comment for this?" And I text-messaged him a comment. And he text-messages it back to them, to the reporter who called on the phone. And they posted it on their web site like I'm writing it on my computer and answering their critique. And they don't reference the fact that they called the spokesman and asked for a comment and I responded. And by the way, it wasn't exactly defending it; it was basically saying this is what [former Sun rewrite man] Jay Spry [said], it was an homage to Jay Spry. It wasn't exactly a vigorous defense of the show.
So those two things, and then the only other places where you'll find me interposing is where if people get confused about something said on the show or misinterpret something. Or there was a place where a web site--you know, I read stuff--and it said, "Richard Price is using his own stuff from Clockers," and suggesting it might be lazy. And I said, "No no no, we asked Richard to do that. We admire the book and we actually asked him to do it." Just saying something kind and accurate about somebody who did something gracious. And in other places, I'll say, "Really enjoying the discussion, thank you for taking the show seriously."
But if you actually parse everything I've written, including the Esquire piece, including the Post piece, including the Baltimore magazine piece, there's been no defense of this season. And so, I sort of bristle at the notion that I am the angriest man in television.
CP: I was most interested in why I've seen your byline in publications more this season than in seasons past.
DS: Well you know what? See what happens when you have a five-month writers strike. Wait, November, December--it was about four months. When you have a four-month writers strike and you can't work on scripts--I used to write prose for a living. It's not something that I don't do. And journalism obviously interests me in the same way that education interests Ed, and here's a telling thing. After Season 3--actually, before Season 3, where we legalized drugs, I tried to interest a bunch of publications in it, in the idea of drug legalizing. And we tried to sell the show on that basis and I tried to get people interested in what the show was saying. And the mainstream media yawned and went about its business. In Season 4 Ed was very passionate about some of the things he was arguing for in terms of No Child Left Behind [Act of 2001] and what that had done to the school system, and the only people he could engage in his writing or to discuss the story and the show in terms of the issues--I'm not talking about discuss the show, you can always get critics to critique the show--but the only people that were [interested] were the education mags.
But, man, if you decide you're going to write about journalism, the world is you oyster. They can't get out of their own way. It's like, "What else can you say?" It really is telling in terms of the onanistic and self-absorbed nature of the beast. We've written about stuff routinely and we've been interviewed routinely when people got interested, and it's hard to make people interested in such mundane drivel as public education and drug policy and the fate of working America. You can't sell that shit. But suggest to journalists that they're not doing their job--now you got an audience.
CP: You and the show have been especially in the cross hairs this season, and I get the impression you read a good deal of what is written about the show. What criticisms of The Wire do you agree with--from any season, this one or earlier?
DS: I think there's been a lot accurate. I think there's been a lot of criticism that I think has been legit--I don't think we've made a perfect show. We've made the best show we can make and we've made a show that matters to us and we've certainly made choices that we believe in. And most of them were right and a few of them were debatable and a couple were wrong. But by and large that's the show we intended to make, so you're not going to get a lot of crying over spilled milk here.
I've never want to criticize criticism publicly. And I don't. And the notion that I was weighing in everywhere and arguing everywhere, I felt--I was really shocked when that became the meta-narrative because the only place where I let my anger go was on these guys who had really violated an ethic. And who privately did the right thing and apologized and didn't do it again.
CP: Speaking of those criticisms, why do you think The Wire and yourself have been so finely scrutinized? From the beginning, the show came under fire from the City Council and the mayor's office, it's been charged with not saying anything positive, charged with being too bleak, more recently charged with not being truthful/accurate enough with respect to the journalism story line, and chastised for criticizing the so-called system of the modern city but not offering any solutions. I find this fascinating because nobody would ever lodge the same sort of criticism at Law and Order, for example, a show that once marketed itself as "ripped from the headlines" and being inspired by stories in the actual media cycle. The Wire has never made claims to be telling the "truth"--merely presenting its own fictitious Baltimore. And yet when people criticize the show they come at it with such a fine-toothed comb.
DS: And how can I complain about that? That is what kept the show alive, that is what gave the show resonance, that is what impressed HBO enough to let us finish our run--the commitment of fans to taking it seriously. So if they get pissed off, if they think the story line sucked, if they think the characters weren't developed, if they think something is not up to our standards, more power to them. More power to them for taking us that seriously.
Listen, we took ourselves that seriously, we tried to do our best. But I'm not--and usually when you find me on a web site, it's usually to correct something--like, "No, no, no--actually he said this." Somebody heard the word wrong. It's not me trying to weigh in. And I say, "Thank you very for having a very serious discussion about a television show." It's gratifying to a show like The Wire which has survived on that kind of currency. It's essential. So there's no way I want to diminish arguments over the show or in any way inhibit them. Usually when I see a good argument happening over something meaningful, I try to compliment the argument for existing.
CP: That being said, the show has throughout addressed many contemporary issues that need to be addressed, which reminds me of American protest fiction, from the novels and plays of the 1920s and '30s through songs and movies of the 1960s and '70s. TV is the one last remaining spaces of popular American art that hasn't been infiltrated by socially aware storytelling. Does popular fiction that deals with social issues have a social responsibility as well?
DS: I would say TV has been very slow to address it in terms of social issues, because it's so dependent on advertising until very recently. And the advent of premium cable has made it possible to have a much deeper political dialectic than ever before, and The Wire is on the coattails of that. But you ask what is the responsibility of any medium to address social concerns?
CP: As in, if you're going to sincerely address social issues, do you have a certain civic responsibility when exploring them seriously as opposed to cheap entertainment.
DS: Cheap entertainment, it's not a matter of responsibility. I don't want to suggest storytellers are required to be socially relevant or politically relevant or culturally relevant. Sometimes a story is just a story, and if it's well told, there's nothing wrong with something being an entertainment. There's nothing wrong with something being a romance or a fable or a comedy or a farce. Stories are stories, and I'm loathe to suggest that some certain exist because they don't cut to the heart of what somebody somewhere else thinks is important. But having said that, our intent with The Wire was to address ourselves to the idea of who we are as an urban people, what our problems are, and why we don't seem to be able to recognize the problems, much less solve them. And Season 5 was about recognizing the problems--or not. And we issued a critique that we thought was fair and that we thought was even affectionate to the craft of newspapers. In our minds, it was. In our minds, there was nothing vicious about it. That doesn't mean it wasn't critical. That doesn't mean that it didn't express some anger and some frustration about the state of newspapers today and about the economic problems they're facing and why they're facing those problems. But that was a choice. We wrote a show about what mattered to us and we did the best we could with it. It's not the only reason to have a television show.
CP: Outside Generation Kill, what else are you working on? Is the New Orleans project still on the table?
DS: Yeah, I'm trying to turn in a pilot on New Orleans to HBO. I have a little more work to do on it. It was mostly done. Then I've taken a series of notes from smarter people than I am when it comes to New Orleans, and now it's not mostly done. But it's on the way to being done, and I just need a few days apart from the postproduction on Generation Kill to get it done. Whether New Orleans will happen, HBO still has to look and decide if it's worth doing, and I don't have a green light on that.
CP: Is this the last Baltimore-based storytelling you're going to do for a while?
DS: I won't be doing another crime show; you can alert the Greater Baltimore Committee that it's safe to come out. There will be no more crime shows, from me anyway. Certainly not a continuing series. I'm always looking for good ideas. We have a couple of projects on the board about Baltimore--not about Baltimore, but they're set in Baltimore. A couple are actually comedies, believe it or not. And one is a true crime story but not one that is so political as The Wire.
At this point in the telephone interview Mr. Simon was called away and had to end this portion of the conversation. What follows are his written responses to the remaining questions City Paper wanted to ask him.
CP: we last spoke I had asked you if The Wire was the last Baltimore-based storytelling you're going to do for a while, which you covered. I also wanted to ask why you haven't been drawn to write crime fiction--or book fiction in general? Given the people you know, I'm betting you could do it, and I imagine it's equally as quasi-lucrative as the sort of TV work you're doing now. (I'm not trying to be glib here, it's just that I don't see you making Michael Bay money by producing serious drama for HBO, just as I don't see Pelecanos making Stephen King money doing what he does.) Do you prefer TV storytelling to narrative prose? Are you drawn to the social aspect of TV/film storytelling?
DS: I've thought about writing prose fiction, but in its own way, there is nothing easy about writing a novel. I'm certainly not going to suggest it's any easier than writing drama. I know this, living with a committed novelist. I have--as a sales point, perhaps--argued that The Wire is constructed as a visual novel, and in some respects that's accurate. And film requires a lot of time, energy, and collaborative effort that doesn't exist in the solitary pursuit of prose work. But a novel also demands an interior voice that film does not require. So I understand that to undertake the effort I would need to grow and extend myself as a writer. If the opportunity comes, OK. But right now there's this big nasty crack pipe called HBO in my mouth.
I don't mean money when I describe the HBO gig in such a way. I mean the opportunity to use a mass medium to tell stories in a fresh way. Right now, I'm poking around in television. We'll see what comes.
And yes, I used to love the camaraderie of the newsroom. Now, I love the camaraderie of the film set. Apparently, standing around with other knuckleheads and bullshitting is deeply important to me.
CP: Other than 1) understanding how to construct a narrative from slowly learning about its constituent parts and 2) offering a wealth of ideas as to how things work behind the proverbial scenes, how has your journalism background influenced or shaped your television storytelling? I mean, I understand that your books directly influenced story lines in The Corner miniseries and various parts of your reporting have fed into The Wire, but I'm just curious if reporting has, outside structure and material, proven a useful background tool in your work as a television writer/producer.
DS: I think that, in a perverse way, I've always regarded storytelling as a means of positing an argument that is political in nature. That kind of storytelling can get all Clifford Odets-didactic, of course. And it requires delicate balance, because you're always in danger of slipping off the characters into the political, or emphasizing the characters over the intent of the story itself. It has its risks.
But telling a story just to hold the floor and entertain the folks at home feels, I dunno, insubstantial to me. HBO gave us 60 hours. The least I could do for viewers was give them an argument about the world we live in. I might be wrong. I might be ridiculous in my arguments even. But I did some reporting and I've watched some things happen and I've read a little bit, and so have the other fellows writing this show. And now, we're going to use drama for the same purpose that some guys write op-ed pieces or editorials. If it works, it just might be more interesting than dramas about whether they catch the bad guy, or which doctor is sleeping with which nurse. Or it might suck. But at least it was ambitious in its intent.
And journalism naturally brought me into contact with a lot of people with different voices, not the least of which is Ed Burns, who was essential to The Wire.
CP: Now that you're doing a miniseries based on somebody else's book and research, how has that process been for you?
DS: I am basically a clinician on Generation Kill. I'm working the scripts, the production issues, the editing. So is Ed Burns. The story itself belongs to Evan Wright,. It's his journalism. And I wouldn't have even attempted to tell a story about war and Iraq and Recon Marines without having Evan in the room for the entire journey. From the moment I took the project, I regarded his participation as essential.
CP: And I'm just curious: Other than the fact the he strikes me as an extremely competent human being, what do you enjoy about working creatively with Ed Burns? I ask because at this point y'all have completed three pretty big projects together.
DS: He makes it better. Every fucking time. I've told how we met--reporter and detective--too many times, so I'll skip that and just say that I knew right away he was a serious thinker and that ideas mattered to him. I did not know he could be such a good storyteller, and he's learned that without formal training, simply by reading and studying film and absorbing the world as the autodidact he is. I often joke about the battles we fight over the material, about how aggravated both of us get. It's not much a joke, although in the last few years, I think we've gotten smarter about each other and our foibles, and so the arguments progress quickly and achieve their intent. But yeah, the writers meetings are dangerous. Big flaming balls of napalmed ego hurled to and fro, barbed verbiage and belt-fed high-caliber rounds of lacerating criticism raking the conference table, the shooting of the wounded, the murder of bystanders, the bayoneting of prisoners. It's bad, sometimes. But I have learned to trust it. Always. And I admire Ed a lot. All of the writers on this project in fact.
CP: In some online interview with Dominic West he says something about a Wire movie, and that you said it'd have to be a prequel? Is that something that is really on the table?
DS: I said prequel because we have some endings coming up. But I said it without the slightest idea of a story that would justify such. I got nothing on it now. Nothing at all.
CP: Do you feel your visual storytelling method works for a standalone movie?
DS: Well, I've never done a standalone movie. So no. I don't believe it yet.
CP: I get the impression that you've given up hoping--or, I imagine hope is the wrong word, and actively ignoring the very process more the situation--for Emmy recognition for the show, but what I'm wondering is why the cast hasn't been getting more and more work recently. I mean, we see people more and more on things, but not to the extent that I had thought--and some of that face recognition might just be because after The Wire I'm noticing them more often than I used to--as in, people such as Dierdre Lovejoy, Jamie Hector, and Clarke Peters possessing pretty extensive résumés pre-Wire. But outside Dominic West and Andre Royo, I don't see as many of The Wire cast members showing up in other places, and I can't understand why, say, movies and TV aren't fighting to cast Idris Elba in damn near anything.
DS: Idris has been getting some work. But is this talented cast underused and ignored by the rest of the industry. Why yes, they are. Same with the actors who labored on The Corner or Homicide for that matter. Come to Baltimore, have your best work ignored. They should put that up on the ramp out of BWI, warn these people when they get off the plane. Guys, you'll do meaningful stuff if you work for that Simon fella, but if a tree falls in Baltimore . . .
CP: Speaking of the cast, how did The Wire end up with so many foreign actors with such great Baltimore accents?
DS: Much love to all our cast for trying, and every now and then someone would get a line in that sounded right. Dom West got close a few times. But the only Bawlmer accents I truly believe on this show were from people who grew up here-- Toots Duvall, Jay Landsman, Larry Gilliard, Felicia Pearson, Robert Chew, James Ransone. There were others, too, so forgive me. But to talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. One day I'm gonna convince Center Stage to let me do a Shakespeare play all in Bawlmerese. A comedy, you say. Christ no. Lear maybe. Go all the way with it.
CP: Has there been a personal favorite character for you on the show? I know the ubiquitous fan favorites are Bubbles and Omar, but I was curious if there was somebody who just really came alive after an actor got a hold of what y'all put together on the page.
DS: Baltimore. I always get this question and I always answer the same. I love when small, local, and idiosyncratic truths find their way onto the screen, even if they are tangled and tortured and fictionalized.
CP: By the same token, do you have a personal favorite episode? Scene? Conversation? Line of dialogue? Or anything that one of the writers put in there than you just really, really loved? As in, one of my favorite moments on the show is Colvin's paper-bag monologue in Season 3.
DS: When Bill Zorzi tells the city editor to shove a broomstick up his ass. That was a big moment for me. A big, ripe moment. On a more serious note, let me throw a holler to George Pelecanos for writing that last line for Felicia: "How my hair look?" Outta nowhere. So idiosyncratic. So unexpected. So true. But those are just two moments off the top of my head. Who cares about moments when all is said and done. Either the whole works, or it doesn't.
CP: In our last conversation you talked about how, despite all the scrutiny on the journalism thread of the show, only one writer had noticed that the paper is missing the big stories going on in the show--the major story lines affecting the city that the paper presumes to cover. I was wondering if there have been other moments from throughout the series where you felt that the writing staff put some subtext in there that was being overlooked. Also: Is there anything about the show that you're surprised nobody ever bothered to ask you or bring up when discussing it?
DS: Aside from some of the visual symbolism, which I won't detail because it ruins any sense of discovery for serious viewers still acquiring the series, there are a few things I wish had been more deeply discussed. Sometimes, I would reference these things in interviews, hoping to provoke a little debate, sometimes I let them slide. It's never good when storytellers explain their story before or afterward. Either I can't shut up, or I'm just polite about answering the questions as they come, or a bad combination of both. But the truth is, we had our say in the 60 hours. Time for other people to argue it out.
OK, just one: I wish someone, somewhere had discussed the fact that the dead women in the shipping container in Season 2 were, without doubt, the most inhumanely exploited workers that any of us can imagine. And the irony of the fact that among the people unwittingly participating in their exploitation was an American labor union, which once guaranteed a living wage to its members but was now struggling, in the post-industrial era, to avoid itself being marginalized and exploited. I felt that Sobotka sensed this without verbalizing it--that he had glimpsed the whole pyramid scheme of capitalism in this specific tragedy, and it was from that glimpse that his shame overwhelmed him at the discovery of the women. Collective bargaining is the only meaningful tool available against the unequivocal triumph of capital over labor. It has always been so. When unions die, we all go with them. That we somehow forgot this over the last quarter century is the preamble to a lot of human tragedy yet to come.
How's that? Have I now ruined Season 2 with more pontificating? Hope not.
CP: In the last conversation we also briefly discussed about how when people discuss the show--be it in reviews on in online discussions--they get very, very specific about its details, evidence of very close and maybe even repeat viewings, which you said accurately offered as evidence that people take it seriously. And one of the reason people take it seriously is because of everything that y'all have done to give the series' world a sense of verisimilitude. Given that--and given that the show has shown how political corruption works and how even good cops might be pushed to bend the rules and how dealers are smart enough to converse in code--why hasn't there been any depiction of outright crooked cops? I recall a cop in Season 4 who harassed a few of the kids and took money from one, but we haven't really seen any cops working in collusion with drug dealers or shaking down dealers. Was that an aspect that just didn't fit into the story lines of the show as the writing team was envisioning them?
DS: Herc and Carver stole drug money. Daniels has a history of doing the same. A beat cop in Season 4 was shown shaking down corner kids and others. Overtime was cheated. Confidential informants were manufactured for graft. And, a lot of honest police work was done, because, well, even in this day and age, most of the people on the job are honest. I think the depiction of dishonesty in police work was in the right proportion.
CP: A quick turn back to journalism: Given everything going on in the daily newspaper business, are there any dailies out there that are upholding the kind of standards you advocate? Or is that even still possible given how dailies have been restructured and managed?
DS: Oh no, not back to journalism. Well, brother, you asked for it. At this point, the St. Petersburg Times, owned as it is through a nonprofit endowment, has not had to significantly cut its local coverage and is a meaningful read as a local paper. How long that lasts and whether the technological wave that is the internet overtakes them? I dunno. It's hard to stay afloat in these times, when the entire industry is sinking.
Obviously, the Washington Post and New York Times and Wall Street Journal are still the high end, and their product is not yet significantly diminished by the cuts that have been undertaken there. That's because when you go from 1,300 reporters to 1,150, the percentage loss is still, by comparison, modest. At least it seems so if you're the Baltimore Sun and you've gone in two decades from 500 reporters putting out a morning and evening edition and county-zoned tabs to 300 souls putting out a morning paper. That's the telling stat for me: When the paper was fat, when TV had vanquished the evening papers and made The Sun the monopoly paper, when they'd finished buying up all the profitable community papers in the region, The Sun began to cut back its commitment to coverage. And this was before the Tribune Co. did its worst work. Before the arrival of the internet. This was out-of-town ownership, Times Mirror, deciding that they were willing to spend the money to put 500 sets of boots on the ground to vanquish the competition, but not, apparently, to put out a great paper.
So apart from the improbability of the St. Pete model, which is an accident of philanthropy, and the highest end of journalism, which so far has enough resources to take a hit and continue quality coverage--no, everyone is vulnerable. But no one--not The Sun, not any other regional chain newspapers ever made the commitment to use profits to make their product less vulnerable, less assailable to the challenge of the internet. And none, therefore, ever felt confident enough to take a stand and charge even a nominal online subscription fee that might have made the idea of online advertising meaningful to potential advertisers. That's my critique of what happened to The Sun and to many other second-tier regional papers. When the money was there, when the paper was fat--the out-of-town ownership took profits. When the internet arrived, they had not improved the product in any manner that actually made the newspaper more essential to readers.
At The Sun, they Pulitzer-sniffed, to be sure. And they even won some prizes--for some notably good journalism actually. And they came close with some other less deserving and more manufactured stuff. Yeah, they won exactly the same number of Pulitzers as the Sun and Evening Sun did in the same number of years prior.
But to do that, to put the resources there, they cannibalized the beat coverage--the essential core of any institution claiming to be a meaningful watchdog or paper of record. Labor coverage in a city with dying industry and displaced workers? Gone. Court coverage in a city where the drug war has lowered the standard and competence of the casework being brought before judges? Marginal and for long periods nonexistent. Poverty coverage? Nope. They killed that beat dead. Replaced it for a time with a beat called nonprofits. You know what the poverty beat is? It's about poor people struggling in the other America, and the systems arrayed to allegedly help them in that struggle. You know what the nonprofits beat was? It was an opportunity to ignore the plight of poor people and instead write about the projects and heroism of the white folk who went to John Carroll's dinner parties. News becoming what happens to the editors and their friends and not so much what is happening in the streets. Neighborhood coverage? Nope. Gone for the most part. Meanwhile, out-of-town management does what they always do--they brought in out-of-town editors and reporters until the Baltimore daily is writing stories about lacrosse or the Preakness infield or the city drug problem as if these things are newly discovered, and Lincoln Park has replaced Leakin Park without a copy editor catching it, and so on.
And day by day, with buyout after buyout of veteran reporters and institutional memory, the newspaper became less essential to people who wanted to consistently find out what the hell was actually happening in their world, apart from the three or five five-part series on a given issue or outrage. That's what a newspaper is. That's why they matter. Build that up, make that deeper and more sophisticated, and then maybe, when the tidal wave that is the internet crashes in on you, there is at least a product that you just might be able to sell online to paid subscribers for a few dollars, and in doing so, you can then go to advertisers and say, we have X-numbers of subscribers online, paid, and you can then charge an online ad rate commensurate with a paid audience. Instead, the product is thin, and they have to give it away and talk to advertisers about web site "hits." You know what a web site hit is? It's bullshit. It says nothing in a medium where readers bounce from one page to the next at a keystroke. A paid subscriber is a paid subscriber--it declares that the product is worth something to somebody.
So now, falling circulation, falling advertising, buyouts, and to quote the great Molly Ivins, the only plan for newspapering seems to be a commitment to slow suicide. But, in defense of The Sun specifically, there aren't any regional newspapers doing any better. They all took profits in the 1980s and early 1990s. Every newspaper chain did. They were fat and happy. No one reinvested or retooled or dramatically improved when the window was there. The failure of vision and commitment was industrywide.
Hey, you asked.
CP: Do you see anywhere where alternative medias are taking up the slack that was once the daily paper's territory? I ask because while blogs have exploded in the past few years, what I see happening on blogs--be they at traditional news sources or individual citizen journalists--is more commentary and news analysis than, well, reporting. And reporting, first and foremost, is what I feel has always been the daily paper's reason to be: active reporting of what's going on and the long-form story that few places even do anymore. If these facets of daily journalism are what are being constricted by corporate management and cutbacks on the news floor, what do you envision as the future daily paper?
DS: Some people have critiqued the lack of presence of the internet in the Season 5 story. For them, allow me to offer the deleted scene that would have incorporated the profound impact of the internet on the goings-on in our story set at the mythical Baltimore Sun:
INT. GARDEN APARTMENT/ANYWHERE - DAY
A white MALE, thirties, unshaven, sits in his underwear typing on a desktop computer. C.U. on computer screen. As he links to Baltimore Sun coverage off the newspaper's web site, creating a link on his own blog. The MALE scratches his left testicle, then satisfied, begins typing. C.U. on the moving cursor as commentary ensues.
CUT TO: EXT. DRUG CORNER/WEST BALTIMORE - DAY
Or whatever . . .
You just said it exactly. The internet is skimming the froth of commentary from the first-generation news gatherers like The Sun. They have parasitically achieved immediacy and relevance by co-opting the debate, the humor, the rage, and the provocation that results from the news product--WITHOUT ACTUALLY INVESTING OR COMMITTING IN ANY SERIOUS WAY TO THE SYSTEMIC ACQUISITION OF THAT NEWS.
And the parasite is killing the host. Is the internet a marvelous tool in myriad ways? Of course. Is it the future? No doubt. But thus far it is not a responsible or viable alternative to a major metropolitan newspaper.
The scene above is, believe it or not, the power that the internet holds over newspapers at this point. It is the economic preamble to the story of Season 5. But to mistake it for the story itself, for the drama, is silly. The critique that The Wire undertook this season is to ask the same question--the only meaningful question--that one would ask about the media and its role in our version of Baltimore. If these problems depicted in previous seasons do exist--and they do--and if many of the trends and events depicted actually occurred--yep, many did--how effective is the highest end of local journalism at acquiring and delivering an account to readers? How are they covering the city? And that question is the same in 1972 as it is in 2008.
Could we have included a line about a reporter filing to his blog as well as the first edition. Sure, though it changes nothing in the premise. We could have also shown reporters staring at the internet in the newsroom. Look! Zorzi's reading Romenesko. It's accurate. But so is a detective filing out vehicle-use reports.
The impact of the internet is profound as preamble. Newspapers have not yet figured out how to coexist with it. But do not claim that this is because the internet is doing the job of newspapers. When bloggers begin showing up with notepads or laptops at council meetings and courthouses, in London or Moscow or Fallujah, then we'll talk.
CP: How/where do alternative weeklies fit into this current media landscape, in your opinion.
DS: Well, I read the City Paper. And when I'm in another city, I run down the alt-weekly and scan that, too. And they are a valuable resource. But frankly, your coverage is, while unique and valuable, it is incremental to the job that a major metropolitan daily is supposed to do--if such a beast is staffed and equipped and funded sufficiently to do it, and if management has the commitment to do the unglamorous, quotidian job of covering a city well.
Again, every voice helps. But thus far, no other media source--not television, not the alt-weeklies, not magazines, not the internet--have taken responsibility for the consistent and immediate acquisition of a wide range of information about their communities, their regions, their nation, their world. Are there other places apart from The Sun to acquire national and world news? Sure. But if The Sun doesn't put boots on the ground to watchdog the institutions of central Maryland, then those institutions go unwatched. The Jeffersonian nightmare of a government without newspapers. God help us all.
CP: Finally, how hard was this show to lay to rest? I ask because its very existence kind of goes against most models for American television programming: a diverse and extensive cast, working in a city that isn't routinely represented in TV, being shot by a largely local crew, and envisioned by a writing staff with impressive careers outside television. Not to discount all the hard work y'all had to do to make it happen for five seasons, but surely at some point you had to look around and wonder how the fuck this series even came to be.
DS: Thematically, we said what we needed to say. And while I will miss not being able to work with all of The Wire's crew and actors--though I hope to see them down the road on various projects--the simple truth is that there are a lot of other stories to be told. We had five distinct story lines that offered up five distinct critiques of what is ailing the American experiment at this point in time. Right or wrong, that's what we had.
Could we have taken the show further in terms of characterization or drama? Sure. But we were never in it for those things only. We were able to state our theme and then bring it home in what we thought was a convincing way. That's the real calling in this kind of storytelling. And to hang around, adding a few more shards here and there, seems indulgent and unnecessary. Time to tell another story about something else.
That said . . . the city of Baltimore, Maryland, managed to give 15 years of meaningful storytelling about an American city to the television industry. No one contemplating the TV universe in 1992 could have imagined that Baltimore would have anything to say on that scale, certainly not anything that speaks seriously to the human condition. Yeah, I'm proud of that, and not so much personally as collectively proud.
The television that was done here owes a great deal to Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Jim Finnerty, Bob Colesberry, Nina Noble, Roc Dutton, John Waters, and dozens of other pros who began the journey and primed the pump and shaped the crew base here. They built a local industry out of scratch. Hard to see us losing it now because the state can't get its shit together on a film incentive program to compete with other states, but what're you gonna do? I write The Wire. I'm not gonna start going all Candide on myself and looking to government for sensible answers.
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The Wire: Enough Already in Arts and Minds 1/28/2008
The Wire: On Newspapering in Arts and Minds 1/17/2008
The Wire: Still Simon vs. Sun in Arts and Minds 1/16/2008
Decision 2008: Obama Doesnít Endorse Omar . . . in Arts and Minds 1/16/2008
The Wire: The Music of Episode 2 in Arts and Minds 1/15/2008
The Wire: Week 2 in the Media Scrum in Arts and Minds 1/14/2007
The Wire: David Simon Repeats, The Wireís Sun Is Not the Real Sun in Arts and Minds 1/10/2008
The Wire: Gangster Related in Arts and Minds 1/9/2008
On The Record : The Wire Turns Its Unblinking Eye Toward Daily Journalism With Its Fifth and Final Season 1/2/2008
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