Simon on The Wire: “On a Human Scale from the Other America”

Somewhere in my Google Reader feeds, Shankar Kalyanaraman tagged  Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker piece on TV’s best show, The Wire, and its creator David Simon.

In Simon’s view, “The Wire” was never “a cop show. We were always planning to move further and further out, to build a whole city…. ‘The Wire’ is dissent,” he says. “It is perhaps the only storytelling on television that overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.” He also likes to say that “The Wire” is a story about the “decline of the American empire.”

Simon’s criticisms of Hollywood’s myopia do not sound too different from some arguments from the right: the people making our entertainment are not us, and are out of touch with the realities most of us face:

“So much of what comes out of Hollywood is horseshit. Because these people live in West L.A., they don’t even go to East L.A. The only time they go downtown is to get their license renewed. And what they increasingly know about the world is what they see on other TV shows about cops or crime or poverty. The American entertainment industry gets poverty so relentlessly wrong. . . . Poor people are either the salt of the earth, and they’re there to exalt us with their homespun wisdom and their sheer grit and determination to rise up, or they are people to be beaten up in an interrogation room by Sipowicz. . . . How is it that there’s nobody actually on a human scale from the other America? The reason is they’ve never met anybody from the other America. I mean, they could ask their gardener what it’s like.”

Simon’s belief in the show is a formidable thing, and it leads him into some ostentatious comparisons that he sometimes laughs at himself for and sometimes does not. Recently, he spoke at Loyola College, in Baltimore; he described the show in lofty terms that left many of the students in the audience puzzled—at least, those who had come hoping to hear how they might get a job in Hollywood. In creating “The Wire,” Simon said, he and his colleagues had “ripped off the Greeks: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides. Not funny boy—not Aristophanes. We’ve basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy and applied it to the modern city-state.” He went on, “What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

Simon spells out a bit more about season five’s focus on journalism– and previews a colorful vignette:

“It’s about the people who are supposed to be monitoring all this and sounding the alarm—the journalists. The newsroom I worked in had four hundred and fifty people. Now it’s got three hundred. Management says, ‘We have to do more with less.’ That’s the bullshit of bean counters who care only about the bottom line. You do less with less.”

Some of the dialogue from the fifth season is taken word for word from the Sun’s newsroom. Simon recalled, “There was this writer, Carl, who every day would eat the same thing for lunch: cottage cheese. One day, somebody walked by and saw him staring down into his cottage cheese, poking it with a spoon and saying to himself, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck.’ That’s in there.”

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