The Wire, the gritty, critically acclaimed police drama set on the streets of Baltimore, Md., returns to HBO this Sunday night for its final season. Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg has called it "the best show ever broadcast in America." In 2006, Meghan O'Rourke asked creator and writer David Simon about the future direction of his show's social politics. The interview is reprinted below.
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.