Interviewing the man behind The Wire.

Interviews with a point.
Dec. 1 2006 2:27 PM

Behind The Wire

David Simon on where the show goes next.

David Simon. Click image to expand.
David Simon

The fourth season of HBO's The Wire comes to an end next Sunday. A show of remarkable complexity, co-written by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former police detective Ed Burns, it is perhaps the most critically acclaimed TV program of the season. What critics and fans alike have noted is  The Wire's remarkable narrative compression; as in the best novels, there is a sense that every detail has a purpose. Early on, The Wire may have impressed viewers with its cop-show chops—the first season focused on the Barksdale drug crew and the investigative police force trying to bring them down—but the show was always about something bigger—namely, the life of the city itself. In the fourth season, which concludes on Dec. 10, the show has expanded its focus from local politics and the drug trade to the public school system; with only one remaining season scheduled, we pressed David Simon on what The Wire adds up to, how the writers' room operates, and what might be in store in Season 5. Simon spoke with me by phone from his office in Baltimore.

Slate: What did you think made The Wire different from The Corner, the HBO miniseries that preceded it?

Simon: The Wire concerned those parts of the book [Simon's original nonfiction account] about why the drug war doesn't work. But we realized that explaining that why the drug war doesn't work would get us only through the first season. So, we started looking at the rest of what was going on in the city of Baltimore. Ed [Burns] and I knew we wanted to touch on education. I had grown up as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, and I had seen many aspects of local and city administration. Once we began to come up with these different ways of addressing the city as a whole, we had a blueprint for the show.

Slate: If you had to sum up what The Wire is about, what would it be?

Simon: Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism.

Slate: How so?

Simon: Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It's viable for the few. But I don't live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.

Slate: What are your models?

Simon: There were no models for us in TV. I admire the storytelling of The Sopranos, though I don't watch it consistently. And Deadwood; I don't watch it, but I admire their storytelling. We certainly weren't paying attention to network TV.

Instead, the impulse on my part is rooted in what I was supposed to be in life, which was a journalist. I'm not interested in conducting morality plays using TV drama—in stories of good versus evil. I'm not interested in exalting character as a means of maintaining TV franchise. Most of TV works this way: You try to get something up and running, and once you do, you just try to keep it going, because there's a lot of money involved. That's not in my head. What's in my head is what I covered, what I saw as true or fraudulent, what made me smile, as a reporter. I've been mining that ever since. To be honest, at the end of The Wire, I'll have said all I have to say about Baltimore. I don't have another cop show in me. I don't have another season about Baltimore. What I'm saying is that I have to go back to the well.

Slate: Do you feel the well is starting to go dry?

Simon: We're catching up. We started with a case Ed did in the late '80s, then a case in the '90s. And all along we've been pulling things that are going on in Baltimore contemporaneously. We still now consult active detectives, journalists. The processes we're describing are not timeless, but they are time-tested. In Season 2, we said if someone didn't fix the grain pier [a shipping facility on the Baltimore harbor], someone would come along and turn it into condos. At the time it was sitting idle. By the time we were working on Season 3, they had sold it, and now there are condos over there. The bar where we had the stevedores hang out is being remodeled for a yuppie fern joint. We discussed how police officers can juke stats to make it look like crime disappears, and that was a huge issue in the recent election. The same games are always being played.

Slate: The show is a bleak yet accurate portrait of social realities in Baltimore's inner city, and you have said in interviews that the show is designed to be "a political provocation." Would you consider yourself a social crusader? What, if any, changes would you like to see the show catalyze?

Simon: I don't consider myself to be a crusader of any sort. I was bystander to a certain number of newspaper crusades. They end badly, in terms of being either fraudulent or by inspiring legislations that makes things worse. So, I regard myself as someone coming to the campfire with the truest possible narrative he can acquire. That's it. What people do with that narrative afterward is up to them. I am someone who's very angry with the political structure. The show is written in a 21st-century city-state that is incredibly bureaucratic, and in which a legal pursuit of an unenforceable prohibition has created great absurdity.

Slate: You have been pessimistic in public comments you've made about the possibility of political and social change. Do you think change is possible?

Simon: No, I don't. Not within the current political structure. I haven't met any politicians with that kind of courage. I wasn't fond of his performance as mayor, but Kurt Schmoke's merest suggestion that we discuss drug decriminalization was very brave. The idea that we would address this issue as a matter of effective social policy! He was pilloried. It destroyed what remained of his political career. He was a prophet without honor in his own city. People, especially people from outside the city, want to say that Schmoke was soft on drugs. But the police department had locked up more people than any previous administration. To no avail! He had the temerity to say so, and look where he is now. He is dean of Howard Law School. Martin O'Malley has arrested so many Baltimoreans that the ACLU and other civil rights leaders have rightly, to my mind, questioned the constitutionality of the city police department's arrest policy. When we finish filming at 1 in the morning, it's even odds that one of the African-African members of the cast and crew will be detained. My first assistant director was arrested, dumped unceremoniously at central booking, and ultimately released after seeing a court commissioner. The charge against him was never brought into court. This is common in Baltimore under the current administration. Other members of my crew have suffered similar indignities. And it hasn't reduced crime significantly. That's not how you reduce crime.

Slate: Let's talk a little about process. In contrast to other shows on TV, The Wire seems to me to have a remarkable degree of narrative compression; there's a sense that every detail is planned and relates to another detail. I don't normally feel this on TV, where there's a sense that shows exist to fill up the hour.

Simon: I keep using this metaphor whenever I'm on set and we have problems with the actors—and we don't have many problems—losing sight of the whole. I say, "We're building a house here. Every single one of us, all the writers, all the actors, all the crew, all the directors; everything in our bag of tricks, it's all tools in the toolbox. It's not about how often the hammer comes out; it's about the house we're building. So, all the details are essential. The only thing I care about in the end is the house. In the writers' room at least, that's a given.

The big thematic heavy lifting was done in Seasons 1 and 2, when Ed and I were figuring out what we wanted to do: how many seasons, etc. We came up with five. We talked about many things; nothing seems substantial enough for a Season 6. When other writers came onto the show, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, we would throw it at them: This is what we came up with, five things. If there's anything else you have, any ideas for extending the series, say so. There was no general agreement on anything but the five. When I've done my begging with HBO—and begging it is—it has been on behalf of those five seasons. To be honest, one writer came up with another idea, and a really good one, but we realized that it would require so much research on our part that we couldn't do the work quickly enough to keep it in this dramatic world.

Slate: It wasn't this idea of examining the influx of Hispanics in Baltimore, was it?

Simon: Yes! It was.

Slate: David Mills mentioned it in the Slate "TV Club" on The Wire. I thought it was a fabulous idea.

Simon: Until now, Baltimore had no Hispanic population. And all of a sudden now we do—a large Central American population. Here's this remarkable new trend and it's also relevant to the life of the city. Two things preclude me to keep me from jumping up and down with HBO: One, I just did everything I could for Season 5; two, none of us is fluent in Spanish; none of us is intimately connected to the lives of Hispanics in Baltimore. None of us could do it with the degree of verisimilitude we demand of ourselves. We don't have that world in our pocket. By time we did the research, The Wire would have been off for two years. It's one thing when we take six months off to learn how the port works; we're still in the world we know. But I did no decent journalism about East Baltimore, where most Central Americans are living. It would be great if we could. When I saw the idea in print, I think I reacted as you did: Oh shit! Someone came up with Season 6! For all I know, David Mills mentioned it to me a few years ago, but it didn't have the import then that it does today. Someone should get to that story. It's very typical of Baltimore in that we would be late on that. Until now, Baltimore had never had this kind of population—it was only 2, 3 percent Hispanic.

Slate: How far in advance have you scripted out a given season? In mapping it out, do you know what the end will be? Or do you go from the beginning forward?

Simon: There are discussions during Season 3 that happen on the fly, in which you need to remember which characters need to be where for Season 4. For example, Prez. We knew we needed to have Prez in the schools at the beginning of Season 4. So, you know that Prez will be a teacher and that you'll be hiring kids. But what themes? What do you want to say about the education system? The first step is sitting down and figuring that out. We kicked that around a lot in the writers' room. This year Ed was predominant in the writers' room, because he had actual teaching experience. David Mills came and helped. He did this because George Pelecanos couldn't be available; he was working on The Night Gardener. (Though he did do one episode.) And myself and Bill Zorzi and Ed and Chris Collins and Eric Overmyer, who was on this year as a producer.

And then at some point, when we feel we've got the themes ready, we start to look at the characters and where we need to send them by the end of the run. We know what we want to say. We know what we think is fair and just to say about economic opportunities for these kids. But we don't know which kid is going to say what about those opportunities; that's all argued out, and this season we went through various scenarios. There was a lot of debate about what should happen to Dukie, for example.

There's always someone in the room saying, "I've seen that before." (George's favorite line.) Or another line is, "But what are we saying?" You get to the end, and someone comes up with a great ending, but you ask, "But what does it mean? What are we saying?" Which is not to say that you want the characters to be devices for your didacticism. But you want to be true about what you say about equality of opportunity.

Slate: The show brings in a lot of different high-profile writers and directors, including Richard Price, for example. How does that work?

Simon: There is a lot of arguing. There's a lot of ego in the room. There are a lot of authors in the room with a lot of success in different media. George Pelecanos knows how to write a book with a beginning, middle, and an end. So does Richard Price. Ed Burns co-wrote a nonfiction book [The Corner]. Not to mention that I can be a pretty big shithead myself. All of us together, it can be miserable for a while. But what attracts everyone to it, even though they've got their own gigs, is a fealty to the entire story, to the whole. You don't have people being protective of the single episode or idea; you have people being protective of the whole story.

We let all the writers know what's happening, the larger arc. Not the actors, of course—then they'd telescope. We want their characters to be living in the present tense.

Slate: What role, if any, do actors themselves play in the dialogue they speak? Is a finished episode relatively faithful to the original script?

Simon: Pretty faithful. Ninety-five percent or so. One of the writers is always on set. If someone comes up with an ad-lib or a different intonation and it doesn't work, or it's not our intention, we bring them back to the book. If someone comes up with something, and it's good, it serves the story, or it's just generally funny, we let it ride. But because the story is so ornate and because we're looking at this thing as a 66-hour movie, when we're done, it's the writer, the people with the constant awareness of the story as whole, who need to make decisions as to whether or not an ad-lib would work.

Slate: I'm interested that you said you see this as a 66-hour movie. One thing that has attracted me, like many viewers of the show, is that its sheer length allows you to show in detail many things you just never see in cop films.

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.

Slate: You've killed more characters than any show I can think of. Who was the hardest character to kill off?

Simon: I miss all of them—I miss Wallace, I really miss D'Angelo. I miss Idris [the actor who played Stringer Bell]. I saw him at the HBO premiere after we killed him off. I was just beaming. All these theories that we kill off guys because they get contracts elsewhere, it's not true. The fact is, if you're not willing to kill your babies—isn't that a Faulkner line?—well, that's no good. You have to kill your babies if the story demands it. Stringer tried to reform the drug trade; it doesn't bear reform. Colvin tried to reform the drug war; it doesn't bear reform. But for me, the most painful death was Wallace. By the way, our own crew was really upset. Even they're not used to this kind of show. It came as a surprise to them. When the dailies came in, we were like, jeez, that's horrible.It was quiet when we saw this scene.

Slate: Marlo is the only character on the show thus far who seems to be out-and-out bad—almost a sociopath. Avon was cold-blooded, but his friendship with Stringer humanized him. Is this intentional on your part? Or do I just dislike Marlo (even though the actor is brilliant)?

Simon: Yeah, we have made him sociopathic. No, you know what—sociopathic to a lot of people really means something beyond Marlo. In our mind, Marlo is the logical extension of every single lesson that the drug war holds true. There is a lot of sociopathic impulse that is excused and justified by that. To say that he is sociopathic, no; he has real allegiance to a few others. There are a few select people, subordinates, to whom he has allegiance. Let me ask you this: Did you have any allegiance to the Greek in Season 2?

Slate: The Greek? No, I don't think I did.

Simon: That's because he represented capitalism in its purest form. There are certain people who represent the boundary to the form. At another moment, perhaps next season, the point of view might shift and the window into that character might shift and our allegiances with it, because we are only experiencing a character from a certain point of view. If we were to have followed the Greek too far, we would have wandered far afield from the main story, the stevedores. 

You're right to feel that Marlo is enigmatic and distant now. And you're also right to feel he's doing an awful lot of bad stuff. But he's not any less complex than the other characters. He's just not showing other sides of himself. In other words, if anyone is feeling empathetic for him right now, it's not because of what the writers did.

Slate: Some of our readers have been offering up what amounts to a racialist critique of white, middle-class writers presuming to tell black ghetto stories. And in Slate's "TV Club" on The Wire, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz touch on a question that they have been asked (and asked themselves) over the years: Can a white person honestly and accurately capture black culture?

Simon: Well, I have a couple answers to that. On one level, I'm becoming impatient, because I feel the work has answered the question. But let me answer. The people in that room on The Wire miss certain things because we're white. I'm sure we do. We miss certain things about black life—or not entirely; we miss the subtlety that a black writer of a commensurate skill could achieve. But it is possible that there are things we catch because we are who we are—we are not necessarily of the place, and this may allow for whatever distance is necessary to see some things.

The other thing is that I didn't ask for this gig. I got hired out of University of Maryland by the Baltimore Sun to be a crime reporter in a city that was 65 percent African-Americans. If I didn't do my best to listen to those voices, to acquire some of those voices for my storytelling, I wouldn't have been doing my job. If I'd been a higher-education reporter, maybe I wouldn't have written The Wire. But I didn't ask for the job. They gave me that beat. I wasn't after these stories. (Likewise, Ed grew up in Baltimore and, after he came back from Vietnam, he became a patrolman, and they put him in the Western District.) If we tried to tell these stories, and they were not credible, and if the voices weren't sufficiently authentic, we'd have our heads handed to us—not only by social critics and literati, but by viewers, by regular folk.

I don't know how popular The Wire is on the Upper West Side of New York or Westwood or Des Moines. But I know that in West Baltimore, Omar can't get to the set, because we have people going nuts. Or Stringer Bell or Prop Joe. The show has an allegiance in that community. That's its own answer—not that it's popular, but that it's credible. I was just on 92Q, the hip-hop station. The call came in with someone who said, why did you kill Stringer Bell when the real Stringer Bell is still alive? And I said, oh, you mean Mr. Reed? I explained that Reed was not the real Stringer, but that we mix and match stories. But there we were, talking intimately about the history of West Baltimore drug trade as if we were talking about baseball. If it was as lamely white and unnuanced as some people claim, we'd have been found out a long time ago.

Having said all that, the show is very conscious of trying to bring in African-American writers. I tell agents in Hollywood, don't send me scripts unless they're by African-American writers. From the moment the show was conceived, I asked David Mills to produce it with me. I would have loved to have his voice in the show—not just because he's African-American but because he can write the hell out of it. A young writer named Joy Lusco did a few episodes. Kia Corthron, the African-American playwright (Breath, Boom), penned a fine episode for us this year. We've been trying to leaven the writers' room in that way. But it's a very hard show to write, as you can imagine. It's not as if all these scripts came in from agents, and we read them and think, "Based on this spec script from NYPD Blue, I'm confident I'll get what we need." You're looking for people who've worked on this level before, and when you find them, you beg them to help out.

We have done better in having an African-American hand in some of our crew departments and in directing. Nobody has directed more episodes than Ernest Dickerson—he's Spike Lee's former cinematographer. We've also broken someone: Anthony Hemingway, AD, directed our first episode last year. And now we may not be able to get him back, he's got so much work.

It's our hope—this is a little premature—to get Spike Lee for the first episode next year. He said he was interested last year, but we had some miscommunication. His agent said he wasn't available. We are very conscious of the race disparity. We look around the room and see, oh shit, we're a bunch of white guys! But you look at what Price and Pelecanos and Lehane and Burns have done. … We're not trying to exclude in any sense, and it's not a good-old-boy network, because some of these people never met before this show.

Slate: Can you tell us a little about Season 5?

Simon: Yes, the last season. The last theme is basically asking the question, why aren't we paying attention? If we got everything right in the last four seasons in depicting this city-state, how is it that these problems—which have been attendant problems regardless of who is in power—how is it that they endure? That brings into mind one last institution, which is the media. What are we paying attention to? What are we telling ourselves about ourselves? A lot of people think that we're going to impale journalists. No. It's not quite that. What stories do we want to hear? How closely do they relate to truth; how distant are they from the truth? We have a story idea about media and consumers of media. What stories get told and what don't and why it is that things stay the same.

What's happened to the Baltimore Sun locally is what has happened to that whole second tier of journalism—below the New York Times and the Washington Post: They're being eviscerated by price per share. There used to be 500 reporters; now there are 300. They keep telling us they can do the same job, they just need to be more effective. Bullshit. Five hundred reporters is 500; 300 is 300; you can't cover the city the same way with fewer people.

I don't want it to become onanistic. Obviously, I have a lot of memories of the Baltimore Sun. One thing I've always hated about TV portrayal of media is that it's always unfeeling assholes throwing microphones in the face of someone as he comes down City Hall steps.

I'll tell you a story. We had a press conference the first season. We staged it as a press conference really would be: a small room, some empty chairs. TV reporters are looking at print reporters to see what they ask; there is a pile of dope on the table; there is no sense of urgency. That is the way it always was. This was one of the only [production] notes we got [from HBO] the first season: What's up with that press conference? It looked so fake. At the time, I didn't have enough credibility with HBO to argue with the note, but I said Carolyn [Strauss, president of entertainment at HBO], you're raised on too much TV press.

The low end of journalism is not what concerns me. It's not that sensational stuff I'm worried about. It's that there may be no high end anymore, that the kind of thing journalists once aspired to, especially in the Washington Post-Watergate era, may no longer exist.

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.