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Under The Wire

David Simon Talks About Baltimore, the New Season of His HBO Series, his Critics in City Government, his Former Bosses at The Sun, and the Decline of the Working Stiff.

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/28/2003

The body of a young African-American man lies on the hood of a car in a desolate alley behind a block of rowhouses. He's been tortured, his skin bruised and broken, his limbs doing things they're not designed to do. His gut is sliced open. His intestines hang out.

You only see this image for a moment, but it clings to the retina like a glance at the sun. Few images as harsh ever make it to television, even cable television, but it comes from a show that trucks in such matter-of-fact imagery, scenes that would seem over-the-top if they weren't commonplace to cities with high crime rates. And the above scene isn't the only grabber. On this show, detectives drink themselves into a stupor and drive home or set their clothes on fire in a one-night stand's bathroom. Drug dealers take economics classes at community college, while a freelance criminal rolls through neighborhoods wearing a flak jacket and carrying a shotgun casually thrown over his shoulder. The latter was the young man on the car hood's lover, his gruesome death payback for stealing a drug stash from the wrong crew.

Welcome to writer David Simon's HBO series The Wire, a TV show far from the run-of-the mill cop drama. Of course, the series has its roots not in the big busts and courtroom theatrics of the Hollywood script factories, but in a widely interconnected, behind-the-scenes political reality that Simon knows well. A Charm City resident since 1984, the former Baltimore Sun police reporter shadowed one of Baltimore's murder-investigations units for his 1991 book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and, with Wire writing partner and former Baltimore Police detective Ed Burns, the addicts at Monroe and Fayette streets in 1997's The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. The former was the basis of a long-running, critically acclaimed NBC series; the latter was turned into a Emmy award-winning 2000 HBO miniseries.

When The Wire debuted last summer, it didn't look or move like any other cop drama, not even Homicide. As the show painstakingly followed a single drug case over the course of 13 episodes, action was secondary to detective work's mundane activities and the chess game the cops play with the drug dealers they pursue. Not content to paint good cops chasing bad crooks, it slowly drew out its players into characters as complex as their respective endeavors. By season's end, The Wire had emerged as a quietly heralded success, impressing critics with its so-called gritty drama, winning fans with its wide palette of captivating characters.

Not everybody found the show as commendable--especially in Baltimore. Last spring when the first season was being shot, City Paper reported that residents of the West Baltimore neighborhood that was fictionalized as the show's Franklin Terrace were concerned that the show would show the area as nothing but a haven for drugs and violence (Arts & Entertainment, May 29, 2002). And last November, right about the time a second season got the green light from HBO, City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh held a pointed public hearing that called for more positive portrayals of the city, called "Let's Not Just Imagine a Better Image for Baltimore." City Council President Sheila Dixon said that she was offended by such "negative" images of the city; about the best thing Dixon could say of the show was that the gritty portrayal of the city might bring in federal funding to fight the drug trade.

On a May evening at the former Baltimore County Wal-Mart that has been converted into The Wire's sound stage, Simon--a barrel-chested man in jeans and a windbreaker agilely juggling a steady stream of conversations--moves through the set checking in with producers and two of the other four writers for the show present, Washington-based crime novelist George Pelecanos and former City Paper writer and Sun reporter Rafael Alvarez. (Simon's The Corner collaborator Ed Burns and Joy Lusco Kecken round out the writing team.) They're shooting episode eight of 12 for the second season, which debuts on HBO June 2. And they'll probably be on the set until early in the morning.

The sound stage itself looks more like a construction site than the home to a TV show and is a perfectly unglamorous match for an unpretentious show. Inside the gutted former discount store sprawls a maze of sets--incomplete rooms featuring finished facades held together by collages of plywood and plastic and duct tape--where most of the series' interiors are shot. Crew and cast are strewn about, the low rustle of eating, chatting, reading, or waiting routinely silenced by the calls of "rolling" and "action" that are relayed through the enormous room.

After touching a handful of bases, Simon sets out to find a quiet place on set to talk during the only spare time he has open for the next two weeks. Also a co-producer, Simon's responsibilities extend beyond story and teleplay writing, with the second season still being pounded out. Easing into one of the chairs on the set that serves as Maj. William Rawls' office on the show, he settles down for a lengthy discussion about the new season and the first-season backlash, and in the process explained why The Wire really isn't a cop show at all.

City Paper: I've only gleaned a bit about what the new season is about from the teasers on HBO and the press release announcing the second season, which is that it takes place around the port and the waterfront. Without giving too much away, what is the story of the second season?

David Simon: We tried to do a second season that was sort of an analogy for the union-wage working class. This is a town that once prided itself on its industrial base. The port, steel mills, heavy industry--things like that very much built the city. We thought it would be an interesting theme to look at what's happened to the American working class.

CP: When you say an analogy for the American working class, do you mean that in the same way that although the first season followed one specific drug case, it was also an exploration of the vertical hierarchies in the drug trade and law enforcement as well?

DS: That theme continues--the idea of institutions vs. the people who serve them, or are supposed to be served by them. We were looking at the institution of law enforcement and the institution of criminal enterprise, and most of all the institution of the drug war, which is as calcified a conflict as you can find. And we were trying to speak to what happens when the institutions themselves become paramount over the people who serve them, or their own mission.

If there's anything polemical about this second season, it's an argument about what happened in this country when we stopped making shit and building shit, what happened to all the people who were doing that. If you look at what the Port of Baltimore once brought in and out of this city, and you look at what was made here and shipped overseas, and you look at what we do now, it's a very different world. Just as in the first season, where the institutions are not particularly sympathetic to those people who serve them once they have less use--once they're of less use to the institution, I should say--the same thing happens in the second season.

CP: Was this erosion of industry something you watched happen during your time at TheSun?

DS: It started happening across America in the 1970s, well before I got here. But I was here as a reporter for the closing of the Koppers plant, for the labor unrest at the port in the '80s. Right now we're all looking at Bethlehem [Steel] going belly up, and these generations that not only helped build this city, but it's not too much hyperbole to say that they're the people that beat Hitler--building Liberty ships, making steel--and they're losing their medical benefits. It's an incredible story. So the second season is written in that context.

CP: Was the second season also conceived by you and Ed Burns, as the first was, based somewhat on Burns' experiences as an officer?

DS: Yes, loosely. Rafael Alvarez, he comes from maritime experience. He's got a lot to say.

In some sense I watched the--it didn't really happen to me because I [was writing] the books by then and I had some other opportunities, but at a certain point when out-of-town management came in to the Baltimore Sun, a lot of people who had given 20, 25, 30 years to that newspaper, who had been at that newspaper from when it was family-owned, [the management] just started walking through the newsroom and wrecking people's lives. When they decided they didn't need somebody anymore, they were brutal. So one day you think you're doing a good job and you've trained yourself and you've got some expertise on a beat, and the next minute you're in a suburban bureau and they're telling you should leave and take the buyout. You've refinanced your mortgage and your kids are enrolled in whatever school, but tough shit. There's some sense of that.

But a lot of it is just a sense that this was not a story that we heard very much of. Vast legions of union-wage and -benefit citizens had disappeared from the Baltimore landscape over the course of a couple of decades. And not a great deal had been said about it. So it felt like it was interesting territory. And one of the thing that happens in any environment, when the legitimate opportunity starts to disappear, when the economy shrugs, a certain number of people are going to fall into any number of criminal enterprises. So it seemed plausible. I mean, you've got to remember it's fiction. We're making a story up. [But] it felt like a very real if not-less fictive place, if that makes sense, to go.

The second season doesn't waste any time getting to the waterfront. The season premiere opens with officer Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West)--the former homicide detective who inadvertently midwifed the first season's case into being by talking to a city judge--freezing his balls off on a boat in the harbor as part of the department's maritime division. The assignment is his penance for bucking the chain of command; instead of working cases, he's baby-sitting a tuxedo-and-gown fete aboard a Washington, D.C., party boat--the Capital Gains--that's stalled in the shipping channel. The show then briefly checks in with players from the first season before plunging into life at the Port of Baltimore.

Here, Polish- and African-American longshoremen look to their fellow dockworker and union president Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) to throw them shifts loading, unloading, and tracking the shipping containers that deep-draft vessels bring in--and to protect their livelihood when politicking to bring more ships their way. After work, the dockworkers young and old gather at a bar, where the older men entertain the younger guys with stories of the good old days when the work was steady and fruitful.

What's fascinating about this world is not only how detailed it is--as finely drawn as the mundane life of the players at every level on the totem poles in law enforcement and the drug trade in the first season--but how fresh it feels on television. It's a rare slice of life to encounter even in movies. Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront was the last major movie that dealt with dockworkers in any extended fashion. About the only time you read about what goes on at American ports in newspapers is when dockworkers strike--and even then it's a short story buried in the national news section.

The Wire doesn't deal directly with labor disputes; that's not its prime concern here. Dwindling numbers and disappearing work for union workers are. In the first episode, Sobotka pays for a new rose window--one that depicts the hard-working longshoremen--for his Polish Catholic church. Unfortunately, another parishioner, police Maj. Stanislaus Valchek (Al Brown), has also purchased a rose window for the church, one that honors the Polish police in the parish. Valchek's came from a stained-glass maker in Glen Burnie; Sobotka's came from craftsmen in Germany, riling the major not only because the longshoremen's window is already installed in the nave, but because he realizes Sobotka's union must only have about 100 members paying dues. How could they afford it?

It's a fair question. Dockworkers get to the port early in hopes of catching a shift, but it's not guaranteed; there simply isn't the steady need. And that's why some may be turning to earning a buck elsewhere, extracurricular activities that aren't above board. And when the event takes place that sets The Wire's second season in motion, it happens at the state-owned port, which sparks political jockeying between Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and state law-enforcement divisions to determine who has to take the case. Episode two goes on to offer a peek at the sort of behind-the-scenes in-fighting that you suspect happens in law enforcement but that television rarely bothers to dramatize.

CP: Was the desire to tell stories that weren't being told, or weren't being told in ways that were different from the norm, something that attracted you to get out of traditional journalism?

DS: I got out of journalism because some sons of bitches bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun. And I don't sort of see myself as completely out of it. At some point I'm going to put down this crack pipe of television and go back and do another book or something.

The [show's] stories are fictional. But they're rooted in a reality that I covered and that Ed [Burns] worked and that Rafael [Alvarez] is aware of and that George [Pelecanos] has researched in his books and that Joy [Lusco Kecken] is aware of in her work. And it feels like an extension of some honest piece of journalism, to tell some of these stories. All of the characters are reminiscent to me of people that I met as a reporter. That's not to say that this guy is that guy. A lot of them are a combination of four or five people, but they're very real to me because I met people like them. And so did Ed. And so did Rafael. So we sort of care about the characters on that level.

I tell you, it's less a sort of journalism. It may be more like we wrote a big sort of op-ed piece. Buried behind those [first] 13 episodes was a very dry, unimpassioned, but definitive argument against the drug war, and against everything that the drug war represents. And if we do this season right and it turns out that we capture anything, my hope would be that people will watch it and they leave the last episode with a sense of what was lost and what was left unprotected when the global economy shifted and certain people caught the wave and made the money. What got left behind.

There's two little pieces of the American myth that get sold a lot. One of them is if you're more clever than the next guy, if you build a better mousetrap, if you're slick, if you're smart, you'll succeed in this country. And I think that's true. That part of the American myth is not myth. The business climate has changed a lot and the economy has changed a lot, but that's always true. That's capitalism. The other part of the myth that I think has been proven a lie in the past 20, 25 years is that if you're not smarter than the next guy, if you're not slick or clever, but if you're willing to get up every day and work your ass off and come home and be a citizen and be committed to your family and your job and whoever you work for, there will be a place for you, and you won't be betrayed. And I think that has been proven to be a lie.

The newspaper that I left just presented the employees who work there with a new contract that eliminates 401(k) contributions toward their pension and asks them for 45 percent of their medical costs. And the Baltimore Sun is a monopoly newspaper. I'm not just singling them out. The people at Beth Steel are losing their pension, and the guys down at the port gave back stuff in [labor] contracts only to see the container business nonetheless go to Norfolk [Va.]. That notion of if you do what you're supposed to do and you keep your end of the social contract, you won't be betrayed by the institutions that you're working for, that's been proven a lie time and time again. And that's kind of what we want you to feel at the end of this.

CP: And it's not just in blue-collar industries. I'm from Dallas, and I worked with colleagues who were at the Times Herald when it was bought by [A.H.] Belo. A few people were rolled over to the Morning News, but most had to start looking for new work.

DS: Businesses fail, and sometimes this is unavoidable. But you just don't get the impression that anyone in power is particularly concerned about where the people go. A lot of this is about what work gives people in terms of dignity and how they define themselves.

And there's a generational thing that I think is wonderful. The actors are playing it really well. There's this great scene in the first episode where these guys are sitting around in a bar and talking about back in the day, how great it was. How hard the work was, bulk cargo before the age of containers. They're telling stories, and the young guys are listening because the old guys have all the stories. And the young guys don't really have a place in the world, because the world doesn't really have a place for them. That, to me, is kind of sad. And it just seemed like an interesting thing to write about.

And visually, I think the port is beautiful. There's something gothic about those cranes. I mean, you haven't seen anything like it on a network TV show. So it seemed like a place we hadn't been.

Understated but implicit in season two's realization of dockworkers' lives is something that bubbled underneath The Wire's first season as well: the lives of the lower middle class, people of modest income who have to stretch their paychecks just to get by. Roseanne was the rare series that took a blue-collar family as its focus, as did the short-lived Roc. Today, that economic strata is a bit more prevalent--The King of Queens and The George Lopez Show both feature the modestly middle class--but all these shows use such situations for conventional sitcoms.

The Wire takes a more exceptional approach, daring to depict lower-middle-class living in a candid light. McNulty's almost barren apartment and humble car are prime examples. He's a guy living on a cop's salary and probably kicking part of that over to his ex to help care for his two sons. The first season featured a touchingly comic scene of a frustrated McNulty putting together a set of Ikea bunk beds because his wife complained that he doesn't have suitable sleeping arrangements for his sons when they stay over.

The second season doesn't flinch from such subtle depictions of people scraping by. Frank Sobotka's dockworking nephew Nick (Pablo Schreiber) still lives in his mother's rowhouse basement, his cluttered room as much an indication of his youth as it is of his inability to afford his own place. He wakes up to go to work only to find his car won't start in the winter cold, and walks to the port past new housing developments promising luxury waterfront homes and apartments starting from the low $300,000s.

It's a refreshing repose from television's usual cop dramas, which rarely, if ever, deal with financial concerns, even though money is one of the most common motivating forces for crime. But given America's long-standing promise of a classless society, portrayals of class in popular media run the risk of being misinterpreted.

CP: I brought up going from journalism to something fictional because I think you can take a cursory look at The Wire and think that it's a genre show, a cop show, and it's really not.

DS: That's because we're not making a cop show.

CP: Well, I say that because I felt Homicide the book and The Corner were not traditional journalism in the sense of coming from some artificially omniscient, objective point of view. They're immersed in the respective cultures that they cover in a way that traditional journalism often isn't.

DS: There are some people who have said that the tone of this thing has been cynical. And I don't think it's cynical at all. I think people who say that have a very two-dimensional view of what cynicism is. I think the show is very harsh and very cynical about the nature and policy of the drug war and the economic imperatives of the country. This year's argument is saying that raw unencumbered capitalism without any social framework around it is not a good thing for the most people. It's a good thing for the few.

So there's a cynical bent to the political implications of the story. But as far as the story itself and the characters, I love these characters. I love the quote-end-quote bad guys, I love the quote-end-quote good guys. I love them for their flaws. I love them for their humor and their wit, for their ability to endure. I like to think of the show--and The Corner as well, and Homicide--as these humanist celebrations. They're very much a celebration of the human spirit under pressure. I liked those detectives in the homicide unit when I wrote about them. I think all the flaws they exhibited are right there on the page with all the good things. But I liked them. I wouldn't write 600 pages about them if I didn't. And I liked the people I met at Monroe and Fayette. And I felt that their flaws were there, too. Their unique worthiness as people was right there on the page. And that's what we try to do with the show, give a shit about them. They all matter.

CP: I'm glad you brought that up, because I know a lot of people, especially here in Baltimore, have described the show as bleak and felt that it represented a very poor view of the city, that it's just about crime and drugs.

DS: If you turn it on and don't watch carefully, or if you just watch half of the season, you see a couple of bleak scenes--and by bleak, I mean visually bleak--and you might think that that's all it was. I would disagree. But I would think that you have a right to think that.

I know this. At no point have I ever--or would I ever--say that this show represents Baltimore. It represents certain segments and certain slices and certain moments that are given credence in stories. Who would write a book or make a television show or make any narrative form that would presume to be the story of something as confused and as large and as contradictory as a city? The same city that can support this storytelling also supports Barry Levinson's take on the city, John Waters, Ann Tyler, Laura Lippman, Rafael Alvarez's fiction, all of the narrative and storytelling that is in the Baltimore Sun and the City Paper.

That was sort of the thing that I was incredulous about--that there were certain stories more than others that were in danger of defining the city. The whole sum of all the stories that get told about Baltimore don't define Baltimore. Because a lot of the ways you think about your own city, or other people think about your city, is what they've heard or what they experience themselves. My sense of Baltimore comes from living here every day. There's no story that anyone can give me that will upend my sense of what this city is.

I thought that [the City Council's upbeat ad-campaign proposal] was a little overstated. What I objected to was the idea . . . not that people could think the show sucked or that it was bad for Baltimore or that they didn't like it. I made it clear throughout the whole thing that they could think all those things and mean them.

Anybody could say anything they want about the show. They could say it if they were the mayor and they could say it if they were council president. They just shouldn't say it as a governmental body. They should just say, "I hate that show. I think that show sucks. I think it's bad for the city. And I hate it." But storytelling is not the purview of government. We all tell stories that matter to us. I definitely don't make television shows to hurt anybody's feelings.

Like everything else about the show, that "celebration of the human spirit under pressure" isn't written in broad, bold strokes. It's subtle, and it primarily appears in the way its characters navigate their world, using world-weary humor to deflect job frustrations and other quotidian obstacles. It's rarely mentioned as such, but The Wire is one of the funniest shows on television.

It's just not conventional humor. In the first season, McNulty and his partner Detective William "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce) investigate an older, unsolved murder, and the only word they exchange during a five-minute sequence at the scene is "fuck," its sentiment slightly changing each time due to how it's uttered. After the steely, savvy drug-trade mogul Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) gets out of his economics class, he visits the legitimate storefront photocopy shop that he runs. The young men from the fictional Franklin Terrace high-rise housing projects who work at the shop don't feel making copies is as cool, but Bell goes into a lively explanation about the difference between the "elastic product" that the shop dispenses and the "inelastic product" that is sold in the towers. It's a touchingly droll scene that would be entirely ridiculous were it not undercut by the bittersweet chasm that separates how much Bell cares about what he's learning and how little the young guys care for anything at all.

The characters' witty, absurd take on reality is all over the second season. In one scene, white narcotics Detective Thomas "Herc" Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) storms into the office of his African-American ex-mentor, the now desk-riding Detective Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), telling her that he now has more respect for black people because the white drug dealers he's working are as dumb as a box of rocks. They don't talk in code, they don't do meets before making deals, they just don't know what they're doing, and, Herc insists, there should be different laws for white dealers. "Like affirmative action?" Greggs asks. "Yeah," Herc replies. "Leave no white man behind." And if you listen very closely, at the very end of a scene in the homicide unit, you'll hear the in-office PA call, "Hey, Norris. State police. Line 2."

This caustically resigned sense of humor will be familiar to anybody who religiously watched NBC's Homicide, and it's not the only thing carried over. Homicide's Peter Gerety (Detective Stuart Gharty) showed up as a meddling city judge, Callie Thorne (Detective Laura Ballard) portrays McNulty's estranged wife, and Eric Todd Dellums (Luther Mahoney, the last TV drug dealer as richly drawn as those on The Wire) portrays a medical examiner, who appeared briefly in season one and returns for season two. And one of Homicide's most compelling, if inanimate, characters--the big board, where the victims' names in open cases appear in red, a constant, instant yard stick of the homicide unit's efficacy--has a stronger presence in season two.

And like Homicide, The Wire deals with the results of human beings at their worst and weakest, but it portrays human beings trying to do their best. It can be rough going, but that doesn't prevent The Wire from being a joy to watch.

CP: What I enjoy about The Wire--and I think it's something that really started with Homicide: Life on the Street--is that Baltimore is a city in the televisual medium that you don't already have a lot of preconceived notions about. It isn't New York, it isn't Los Angeles, it isn't Las Vegas, it isn't Miami, it isn't any place where there are already established crime stories and attitudes that came with that. So while the show is presenting these stories that are quite detailed with local color, they could also stand for any number of other city across the country where the same sort of problems exist.

DS: Yeah, it's always fun to recognize the street names or smile when you see something in the background. There's a scene in [the second season's] episode two where two detectives are eating crabs and beer in the interrogation room, and just watching the claws get cracked makes you smile if you're from here.

But the other thing is, not only do I believe that this show doesn't represent all of Baltimore and would never claim such, this show is not unique to Baltimore in that we're trying to get enough local verisimilitude so that it feels real. It happens to be Baltimore. But if you're watching the show in St. Louis or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Chicago, you relate to the things you experience in your own vicinity. You're looking at a housing project in West Baltimore, [but] you're not watching the show saying, "God, Baltimore's fucked up." You're saying, "That's what it looks like when I drive by East St. Louis." Or, "That's what it looks like when I drive down [Chicago's] Dan Ryan and I look at the Robert Taylor homes."

If we didn't succeed at that, the only people watching would be in Baltimore. The point of the show is not that Baltimore is any more fucked up than a lot of places. We have these problems and we're going to speak to how they feel to us, since most of the writers are from Baltimore. But presumably these problems are universal problems, or at least American problems.

CP: I think anybody who's ever worked in a corporate setting can relate to McNulty when he's being berated by Rawls, when he yells at him "chain of command," just to remind McNulty of the food chain and his place in it.

DS: I found this to be as true at the Baltimore Sun as Ed found it to be true at the Baltimore Police Department as everybody finds it to be true at their jobs. The only people who think that the institution is completely healthy are the people running it. The bosses always think they're doing a great job and the employees are always happy. And no one's willing to tell them otherwise because they're bosses, and they don't have an open mind. They like to think they do. They like to think that anyone can just walk into their office and tell them what they think. No. No they can't.

I like to think in some ways you don't have to work in a police department and you don't have to sell drugs [to relate to that] if you watch the show carefully. I take great satisfaction in the fact that some white guy in Timonium can watch the show and watch what D'Angelo goes through and think, "That's my fucking job. The bosses are assholes, and good help is hard to find. Middle management sucks, brother. I'm with you." And on the other hand, somebody who is actually in D'Angelo's situation down on North Carey Street selling drugs right now might watch the show and see McNulty's world, and up until that precise moment, his complete attitude toward the police was, "Fuck the police, I hate them, they're bastards, I hope they all die." He's completely alienated from law enforcement, as anybody would be on the other side of a war. And he watches what McNulty goes through, the aggravation of trying to just do his job, and thinks, "God, that's my job. The bosses are assholes, and good help is hard to find."

And that, to me, is very subversive. Because once you do that, it's almost an All Quiet on the Western Front moment of, "Oh shit, look at this French soldier. He's just like me." It makes it harder to fight a drug war if, instead of these faceless thugs that have been rendered as cartoons, if suddenly the Wallaces and D'Angelos and even Stringer Bells of the world are rendered human, and vice versa. So I really do feel the show has a humanist tinge that you don't get the first time you turn it on. The first time you turn it on you probably go, "More New Jack City bullshit." But you can't win 'em all. No show is going to keep all the viewers in America entertained.

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