Interview: David Simon doesn't want to tell you how to watch 'The Wire'
As you know if you've been reading me for more than five seconds, I think "The Wire" is the best drama to ever air on television. I'm also an enormous fan of the rest of David Simon's oeuvre, all the way from his book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," all the way up through "Tremé," which will be back on HBO this fall.
"The number of people blogging television online — it’s ridiculous. They don’t know what we’re building. And by the way, that’s true for the people who say we’re great. They don’t know. It doesn’t matter whether they love it or they hate it. It doesn’t mean anything until there’s a beginning, middle and an end. If you want television to be a serious storytelling medium, you’re up against a lot of human dynamic that is arrayed against you. Not the least of which are people who arrived to “The Wire” late, planted their feet, and want to explain to everybody why it’s so cool. Glad to hear it. But you weren’t paying attention. You got led there at the end and generally speaking, you’re asserting for the wrong things."
Let me say this: my apologies to anyone for saying, or trying to say, "You're not cool if you didn't get to 'The Wire' early, and I only want you to watch the show on my terms." What I was saying is "The Wire" has been off the air for 4 years now. That it would be celebrated with things like who's cooler, Omar or Stringer, at this late date, and that the ideas of the show would be given short shrift, those were the target of my comments. And through a miscommunication — probably my fault, I have no way of knowing — I have apparently told everybody that I don't want the show watched except on Sunday night at 10 o'clock, which apparently is the exact opposite of things I've been saying in interviews for years. It is contradictory of everything I've said before. I'm reading it in the paper and I'm not making sense to myself. Sorry. My bad.
They were. They were absolutely conveyed. I think there's a fundamental disconnect with what certain types of longform television are now trying to build and the way in which they're consumed by the audience. And I don't know what to do about that. I don't know how to resolve that. It's beyond my paygrade to resolve it. I can't figure out what the alternative is. These things do have to air at a certain moment, they have to air in pieces, but a greater percentage of the audience is acquiring them singularly through DVDs or downloads, and they're not experiencing it in weekly installments in the way that television was traditionally acquired.
And they may stop watching the show. And that is a risk where you can either make the show palatable to maintain the maximum amount of viewers, and now you're operating under the calculations that made network TV drama so unimportant. Once you're trying to keep everyone in the boat, you're losing what's important in drama. And one of the differences I'll concede between a book and TV is people are investing maybe more money in a boxed set. If they have to take HBO, and the show runs over two or three months, and you're one of the reasons whether they're going to keep or cancel HBO, or just making you put your ass in front of the TV to catch it, at a certain point, if people become disenchanted with a television story, there may be more incentives to quit. Whereas once you've bought the book in a bookstore, you've got to be pretty unhappy with first few chapters to not finish the book. At least me. Once I've committed to reading a book, if the guy can write a little bit, I'm going to try to see where he's going. And people's expectations about the first chapters of a book are not such that they demand all of the answers and certitude up front. I concede that. We've been living with books for so long that our expectations for the first chapters are plausible. Whereas television has always delivered the powerful pilot and the cliffhanger, under the belief, "You have no reason to come back to this story unless we give you a reason." Where you might pick up a book because you liked the author or the subject matter, and you'll stick with it for the same reasons.
I concede it's better to have people talking about what you're doing than not. But sometimes, if the thing is assessed in real-time, it absolutely has value. It certainly does. Where it becomes a little debilitating is when they're done without any context of — how should I say this? — when the New York Times assigns somebody to write a book review, just go back to that analogy, if the fellow's doing his job, he not only reads other stuff, particularly if it's rooted in some non-fiction like "Generation Kill" or "Tremé," about the issue so that they can assess the credibility of the work at hand. They might even read other stuff by that author and see what his methodology is, where this book fits into the logic of what he's trying to do career-wise. There's a lot of research that actually goes into a good book review. Because people are experiencing it, whoever decides to do these blogs — and I guess this is true of any reviewer, if they pick the wrong reviewer and it doesn't work, it doesn't work — so I'm not saying anything that isn't otherwise true.
I concede that. Nobody knows the inherent problems of doing this more than me. You're absolutely right. I live with those problems every day. And I don't think I'll ever start anything that people will acquire with a level of comfort and understanding from the beginning. I don't think I'll ever build a machine like that — I don't think, from my point of view, it's worth building. But I readily concede the problem inherent in that. Way back when you brought this subject up, I said I don't know what the solution is. I only know what isn't being achieved and what's being lost, when the weekly assessment of what happened becomes more than the weekly assessment of what happened, or what you're feeling in the moment.
I wouldn't say that. I would just say it means what it means and it shouldn't mean more. And yet it often stands in the dialectic about what a drama is or isn't. The one thing I think a showrunner shouldn't do is react very much to it, even if they could. Even if they go back and adjust. If they're still in production. I don't think that kind of biofeedback is good between the people Do you think it is?
For herself! Right. I haven't seen "The Killing," I've heard some people say it's great and others say they don't like it, but I don't know if it's good or not. But whatever she does, she's got to tell a story she believes in, and she's got to get to the end going, "This is what I wanted to say with the hours they gave me. And If I'm doing less than that, I'm not serving anybody."
Generally not, because with me, I'm only doing 10 or so, and I'm usually out of production. But when I worked on "Homicide," we were always still in production when it aired, but there wasn't the weekly blogging of shows then. But another example of where that happens, internally at HBO, is you have executives reading the scripts and watching the cuts. If they give me notes about what I should be saying about New Orleans or the characters, I'm not really interested. I gotta confess. I listen, because sometimes somebody sees something and you have to keep an open mind. But if I don't know what to do with New Orleans or these characters, I have no business making it in the first place. What they'd like to see happen with this character, those notes are not helpful for the most part. Chances are, six writers in the room have already debated every possible outcome and discarded 10 of them and are doing the 11th. He's opening up a door you already closed a month ago. But what can help you is if he says, "I didn't get this. What are you trying to say with this scene." And that happens all the time, and that's tremendously valuable, or if he says, "This guy said this three times. Do you need the third scene?" And you go, "Did he say it three times? Sonuvabitch. We overwrote this. Cut one of those." And that happens all the time, and that is the value of an outside voice.
Here's the two things we didn't do with Sonny. If you think back to what anybody's plausible desire would be in creating a character, there's not a lot of interest or joy in a guy who has all these selfish and self-absorbed attributes of an addict and who can be moved to petty cruelty through his addiction, and to keep him that way. It would certainly be real to do that, and there are plenty of people who succumb to addiction and stay in its throes and live stunted lives to begin with. But there's certainly not a lot of drama in that. So we weren't going to keep him that way for the purpose of the show. That would be kind of silly. But we also knew he wasn't going to get the girl back — not that girl. And he wasn't going to become a great musician. And he still contended with that in season 2, and will be in season 3. It's a show in which you see a lot of great musicianship, who are consummate in their craft. Against that, we wanted someone who had genuinely clever and creative ideas, if not musical talent. And we wanted somebody who's quite marginal in their musicality, but who nonetheless was part of that universe. If nothing else, it could speak to the credibility of a musical community. Not all the children are above-average. Hence, Davis at times can be annoying in the vanities of his career, and Sonny can be downright hurtful and insecure. And those things didn't change. We didn't go, "Oh, let's rescue Sonny. Let's make him likable, give him some victories." So I don't know that we did anything with Sonny that we would have done otherwise. You're always reacting to the actors. Omar was always going to be Omar, but as Richard Price said, he wasn't going to utter all these wonderful Britishisms — "Oh, indeed," "Do tell" — until you saw Michael K. (Williams) act the part. Then you go, "Oh, great! He's got that tool in the toolbag." You are always reacting to an actor giving you shadings you weren't expecting, and if shadings aren't appearing, then you move away from that.
Yeah, sure. I'm always amazed when people refer to corruption in "The Wire" in the most simplistic way. I would see characters like Burrell or Rawls described as corrupt. Or political corruption. And I sort of never saw that. Corrupt, to me, is like graft. I realize that's my own definition, but I think that's a lot of people's own definition. If you actually parse what we were saying about institutions, they were trying to avoid pain, and to avoid criticism or political cost. If Burrell or Rawls could do that, they might be also trying for personal advancement in the case of Rawls, or holding onto his position in the case of Burrell. Even now, when people talk about "The Wire," they talk about it as being about a corrupt institution, and I never saw it that way. We had people doing things for money, stealing money. Clay Davis was corrupt, he was out for a buck. But a lot of these guys weren't out for a buck; they were political creatures. It was almost like they were in a Skinner box, where you get shocked when you try to take the pellet.
That's right. Koutris has different priorities. The Greek doesn't pay him. He thinks The Greek is an asset in the War on Terror, and The Greek is happy to let him think that. It's like the Whitey Bulger case, I haven't read enough on it, but it doesn't seem like that was over money. Those guys thought Bulger was giving them great stuff. He was an asset, and they allowed him to do the stuff he did because he was an asset. Koutris is a great example.
But to revisit the other thing, let me say this: my apologies to anyone who was saying, or trying to say you're not cool if you didn't get to The Wire early, and I only want you to watch the show on my terms. What I was saying is The Wire has been off the air for 4 years now. That it would be celebrated with things like who's cooler: Omar or Stringer, at this late date, and that the ideas of the show would be given short shrift, those were the target of my comments. And through a miscommunication — probably my fault, I have no way of knowing — I have apparently told everybody that I don't want the show watched except on Sunday night at 10 o'clock, which apparently is the exact opposite of things I've been saying in interviews for years. It is contradictory of everything I've said before. I'm reading it in the paper and I'm not making sense to myself.