Behind The Wire
David Simon on where the show goes next.
Simon: On The Wire, we were trying to explore this stuff you don't see—the dope on the table, all that has been done to death. Sometimes the real poetry of police work is a couple of detectives with their feet on a desk in the backroom looking at ballistics. And that sounds like anti-drama. But that's the trick to making good drama; the drama has to be earned. There have to be moments of anti-drama. You can't make a good show based on pure verisimilitude, pure anti-drama. But you have to acknowledge a lot of ordinary life. Most TV doesn't do that.
If I had to write a police procedural right now, I'd put a gun to my head. And I really have to say this, even Homicide [on which Simon was a producer and writer] was prisoner of the form. On shows where the arrest matters, where it's about good and evil, punishing crime, the poor and the rich, the suspect exists to exalt the good guys, to make the Sipowiczs and the Pembletons and the Joe Fridays that much more moral, that much more righteous, that much more intellectualized. It's to validate their point of view and the point of view of society. So, you end up with same stilted picture of the underclass. Either they're the salt of earth looking for a break, and not at all responsible, or they're venal and evil and need to be punished. That's a good precedent for creating an alienated America.
Slate: One thing that struck me about the show, from the get-go—and this may sound like base flattery: It reminded me of Shakespearean drama for the way that even the villains are humanized. No one is just a bad guy. Even Avon, whom I loathed at the opening of Season 1, I came to like.
Simon: It's funny you should say that, because the portrayals in Deadwood are in the Shakespearean model. On The Sopranos, there's an awful lot of Hamlet and Macbeth in Tony. But the guys we were stealing from in The Wire are the Greeks. In our heads we're writing a Greek tragedy, but instead of the gods being petulant and jealous Olympians hurling lightning bolts down at our protagonists, it's the Postmodern institutions that are the gods. And they are gods. And no one is bigger.
By the way: If at any point any character on the show ever talks as I'm talking right now, it would suck. It's crucial that the characters can't lecture us.
Slate: The second season is focused largely on white dock workers in Baltimore, and less on the inner-city ghetto. What was behind that decision?
Simon: If we hadn't gone somewhere else in Baltimore, we couldn't have said to anyone we were trying to write about the city. Ed and myself and Bob Colesberry—who inspired the visual look of the show, and who sadly passed away—the three of us said, we want to build a city. If we get on a run, we want people to say, "That is an American city, those are its problems, and that's why they can't solve its problems." If we had just gone back to the ghetto and continued to plumb the Barksdale story, it would have been a much smaller show, and it would have claimed a much smaller canvas.
Originally, the show created a new target each season. By the time we ended Season 1, we realized we could extend the Barksdale story over Season 3, to Hamsterdam, and that we could extend that target over the City Hall story. One of our five themes was the death of work and the death of the union-era middle class. So, we thought, do we go to the port? Do we go to GM? Do we got to Beth[lehem] Steel? They probably weren't going to let us film at GM, and Beth Steel was bankrupt at that point. We put out a few feelers and GM wasn't really open. But the Port Authority was open to talking to us. So, that's where we were going and everything developed from there.
You know, sometimes people in West Baltimore say to me, about Season 2, "We know you tried to take our show white, but it didn't work—then you came back to us." And I have to say, "Dawg, no. The second season was the most watched season." A lack of audience is not why we left it behind.
Slate: Do you think it was the most watched season because more of the characters were white?
Simon: It certainly helped. There are limits to empathy in this country. By the way, viewership for The Wire is now up—it's up 15 percent on HBO on Demand, and on second airings.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Photograph of David Simon by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images. Photograph of Michael K. Williams on Slate's home page by Paul Schiraldi/HBO.