David Simon admits it takes a special kind of [expletive] Say, “I told you so.”
“But I can’t, okay?” he said recently. “Nobody likes people who say, ‘I told you so,’ but it’s organic. Ed and I, and then the other writers, when they joined in, we were all looking at some of the same things happening in Baltimore.”
Twenty years ago, Simon, a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Created HBO’s “The Wire” with retired Baltimore homicide detective and public school teacher Ed Burns.Fictional but originating in Baltimore, where Simon and Burns lived, “The Wire”, which premiered on June 2, 2002, introduced memorable characters such as the gun-wielding, law-abiding Omar Little (the late Michael K. Williams) and a more ambitious gangster, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).
They are an indelible segment of a crime show with a higher purpose: a harsh indictment of the war on drugs, a broader dissection of institutional breakdown, expanded over five seasons to explore working-class opportunities and a diminishing system of public education , and other pillars of U.S. citizenship.
That’s not what a hit TV show is about: On a live show, the show only attracts a small, loyal audience and struggles to avoid cancellation. But over the years, “The Wire” has been hailed as one of television’s greatest shows, even as the systemic decay it portrays has become more apparent in the eyes of its creators.
Burns and Simon continue to collaborate on other noble projects for HBO, most recently “We own the city” A mini-series created by Simon and their “Wire” alumni George Pelecanos, based on the true story of the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt gun tracking task force. In separate interviews, Burns and Simon discuss The Wire’s legacy — Burns over the phone from his Vermont home and Simon in person at HBO’s Manhattan offices — and why it can’t be made the same way today . They also talked about the inspiration for the show and the devastating impact of U.S. drug policy. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
Did you ever think The Wire would have this staying power two decades from now?
Ed Burns My first thought is that this show will always be around because what it’s trying to portray will always be around. It just got worse. that’s it. It’s expanding; it’s not just a city thing anymore. It’s everywhere.
David Simon Ed and I are in Baltimore, George is in Washington, Richard Price is in New York — we see a lot of the same dynamics. There are policies, there are premises that we know will not make money. They will continue to fail. We’re rapidly becoming a culture that doesn’t even acknowledge our own problems, let alone solve any problems. So it felt like, “Let’s do a show about this.”
I didn’t expect the total collapse of the truth, your mind can lie boldly to the top.I didn’t expect the political collapse of this country [Donald] trump card. [The fictitious Baltimore mayor in “The Wire,” Tommy Carcetti] is a professional politician. Donald Trump is in a class of his own. It’s hard to even understand how degenerate the political culture has become now because of Trump.
The show seems to hint at the truth breakdown of the final season’s fabricated serial killer storyline, and how the media will work with it.
Simon We really wanted to criticize the media culture that allowed the first four seasons to go on without ever really focusing on any systemic issues. We’re going there, but I didn’t expect social media to make mainstream miscalculations almost irrelevant. You don’t even have to answer inattentive but professional media. You just have to create incitement in an unregulated environment where lies spread faster and more outrageous. If truth is no longer the measure, you will not be able to manage yourself properly.
burn If you look at the map, the Midwest and half of the West is arid and we treat it like we used to treat dead bodies in corners or people in handcuffs. It’s like a news event or a serious car accident: “Oh my, look, a tornado ripped through town.” That’s it.
There is no energy. I’ve always wanted to try and make a story that the government developed an algorithm to identify sparks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, these types of people, when they were young and then they either compromised they left with carrots, or they Knock them off with a stick. Because you need sparks. You need people who can stand up and rally people around them, and we don’t have that — those sparks, that ongoing anger.
The Wire has gained more audiences over the years, but the institutional decay it reveals seems to have worsened, is this a conflicting legacy?
burn In recent days, the Biden administration and the New York City mayor’s administration have said they want to increase the number of police on the streets. Interestingly, what they’re doing is the definition of insanity: you try something and it doesn’t work. You try again, it still doesn’t work. Time to try something different. They are still doing the same thing.
Admittedly, “defunding the police” is not the right way to make an argument. But it would be nice to move the money from the police to someone who can better handle some of these aspects. Then do something more dramatic, like creating an economic engine other than drugs to help people get up and start making their lives.
how should “We own the city” Considered related to “The Wire”?
Simon This is a separate narrative. We are very seriously involved in real police careers and real activities and real scandals that happen. So no, in that sense, it has nothing to do with the “The Wire” universe. This is the end of the war on drugs that we tried to critique in The Wire. If The Wire has a political message – I don’t mean the subject; I mean the subject. If it only had a straightforward political argument for policy – it would be “end the war on drugs.” If “We own the city” had a basic message, it would be “The end. This. Medicines. War.” Capital letters with a period between each word. If we don’t change the mission of American policing, this is just the end of an emphasis on the direction we’re always going.
Is ‘We Own the City’ aiming to provide a sharper criticism of policing than ‘The Line of Fire’?
Simon No, I don’t think there’s much of a difference between the two, except for the depth of bad cop corruption. Police work is as necessary and reasonable as ever.
In many cases, in many places such as Baltimore, the national clearance rate has collapsed Over the past 30, 40 years. This is no accident. That’s because they’ve trained generations of police officers to fight the war on drugs. It doesn’t take any skill to get around the corner, throw everyone against the wall, walk out of their pockets, find a hideout on the ground, decide everyone goes, fill the wagon. That’s not a skill that can solve murders.
That’s not me saying, “Oh, policing used to be great.” No, I know there’s always a problem with policing. But we are one of the most violent cities in America. And all the talk of abolishing or defunding the police – I’d love to defund the war on drugs. I’d love to change assignments, but I don’t want to defund the police. Good police work is necessary and essential or my city will become untenable. I see case work done right, and I see case work done wrong, which is important.
burn sorry [Baltimore] Tagged as “The Wire” city because we can bring this show to any city in the exact same way. Akron, Ohio, would suddenly become a “wire” city. So it’s a shame it’s been pushed into this town.
If you pitched “The Wire” today, would it get the green light?
burn No, absolutely not. HBO was on the rise at the time. They didn’t understand “The Wire” until season four. In fact, they are considering canceling it after three. We captured the moment when the network was thinking, “Oh, we need to do a show for this group of people.”
But now, it has to be “Game of Thrones.” It has to be big. It has to be disconnected from stepping on anyone’s toes. I’ve seen a few limited series on HBO, and they’re all good shows, but they don’t break new ground. They were detectives, or rich women bickering in town. I didn’t see anyone saying, “Hey, this was a really good show.”
Simon No, because we’re not engaging in any real way with the diversity idea of the writer’s room.I am trying to get Dave Mills, who has been my friend since college, working for “The Wire”. But it would have been organic. It’s just a friend; it’s not even about black and white. But apart from David, who wrote a couple of scripts for us, and playwright Kia Corthron, who did one, we’re really not paying attention to diversity. That’s not forward thinking.
Why are we not paying attention? Because it’s so organic with what I’ve covered and what Ed has supervised. Then, I started hiring novelists. The first is George Pelecanos, whose book on DC is the same thing I’m covering. I happened to read his book and I thought, “This guy might write what we’re trying to do.” Then he said, “Look, you’re trying to write a novel. Every season is a novel. We should hire a novelist. .” So we went and got the price.If I had to do it all over again, I’d have to see [the diversity of the creative team] Just like when I see later works.
Looking back, is there anything you wish the show had done differently?
burn I hope season 5 takes a different direction, as far as the newsroom is concerned, not to discount the idea of an investigation. But that’s okay.What we’re trying to convey is the kids we see [Season 4] As they approach adulthood, they are becoming the [Seasons] 1, 2, 3 and 4. It is continuous. It’s just the next generation.
Aside from the issues it highlights are still pervasive, why do you think The Wire has such staying power?
Simon Nothing is vacuum. I think “Oz” showed me that this network can tell a dark story and tell a grown-up story. “kill” [Simon’s first book] It’s been made into a TV show. But with the “corner” [Burns and Simon’s nonfiction book centered on a West Baltimore drug market]I was like, “Right is worth nothing. No one’s going to put it on American TV.” Then I saw “Oz,” and at that moment I looked at HBO and said, “Oh, you want to make a movie about drugs A mini-series of saturated communities and drug wars?”
Then there’s what we stole from elsewhere: we stole from the Greek tragedy, believing that institutions are gods, that they are greater than the people. So, thanks to the college course that put me in Greek drama. Thanks to “Road to Glory,” a film about the necessity of institutions, [Stanley] Kubrick movies – I draw heavily from there. Thanks to a group of novelists, Pelecanos, Price, [Dennis] Lehane, he decided they would like to write TV. Obviously, the cast and crew and everyone.
But it’s a show that’s geared up for where TV eventually goes, and that’s a lot of luck involved. You flick on your TV screen and decide you want to watch something that was made 10 years ago or just released; or you wait until there are enough episodes to binge watch it; or you have insomnia so you watch four hours mini-series and then get it anytime – boy, I didn’t see it coming.
burn It’s like a western: it’s mired in legend. But the legend is actually reality. 20 years ago today, 20 years from now – it’s all the same. Every generation grows, every group of children grows, discovers it and breathes more life into it.