The critical praise heaped upon HBO’s The Wire has at times reached heights of near-parody. Consider a sampling from the last few months, during the show’s fourth season. From The New York Times editorial page: " If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it." The San Francisco Chronicle called it a "masterpiece" and "one of the great achievements in television artistry." Slate editor Jacob Weisberg declared it "surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America." It would all be a bit absurd if it weren’t true. The series portrays the lives and work of Baltimore cops, drug dealers, union stewards, politicians, and —new in the current season — schoolteachers, with novelistic sweep and sociological depth. The series’ creator and guiding light is David Simon, a former police reporter for The Baltimore Sun and the author of two award-winning works of narrative journalism, Homicide and The Corner. The former inspired a long-running TV series for which Simon served as a writer and producer; he adapted the latter as a miniseries for HBO in 2000. The first season of The Wire aired in 2002, and HBO recently renewed the show for a fifth and final season. Campus Progress hosted a Washington DC advance screening of a Wire episode this fall, and packed a large hotel ballroom with enthusiastic fans of the show; after the episode they joined in a discussion with David Simon and Wire producer and writer Ed Burns. With the fifth season intensifying and moving toward its conclusion, Campus Progress spoke with David Simon by phone and discussed the creative process behind the show as well as its many resonances with the real and troubled Charm City.
Is it your sense that this year the show really broke through in terms of press attention and viewership?
A little bit. Our viewership is up, though I don’t think it’s ever been properly assessed. There’s a little part of me that suspects the Nielsens when it comes to minority viewership, and I think we get an awful lot of attention in the African American community that’s undercounted.
It’s a show that required people to catch up to it. You can’t stick one tape or three tapes in and think you understand what we’re doing; you have to watch a season. And I think over the course of three years and then a year of hiatus, I think people finally put the tapes in. This was the first year that Time Warner actually got all of the previous seasons out on DVD in advance of the new season’s premiere—it had never happened before. Largely what has created a fan base for this show has been word of mouth. Word of mouth is what got us across the frontier of the zeitgeist.
You have this stable of high-powered writers, but there’s obviously a real coherence and unity to the show’s story over the course of a season. How does the writing process happen in practice?
We have two kinds of writers on the show—we have ones who are in on the uber-story, who are there for the initial thematic meetings, and then are around to maintain the theme throughout, and then we have other guys who are coming in to write an episode or two with that theme already established. It’s not as if anybody is a second-class citizen—if [Wire writer] Richard Price wanted to spend the year in the writers’ room here, he’d be welcome, we’d hire him as a writer-producer in a heartbeat. But the thing is, Richard’s got a career. And so do [Wire writers] Dennis Lehane and George Pellecanos. At some point, Pellecanos needed to deliver a big book for his publisher. So what we try to do is get the most number of people in the room in the beginning, to talk about the overall themes and character arcs and then [producer and writer] Ed [Burns] and I are largely responsible for shepherding it.
The casting in the show has always been sort of stunning – just the array of actors, involved, particularly African American actors who I’ve never seen in anything else.
There is an awful lot of African American talent that is underutilized by the American entertainment industry. There were second and third choices for some of those roles that we didn’t take who were also excellent. It’s a reflection of just how mediocre the offerings are for African American actors and actresses. I think there are probably more continuing roles for African American actors on The Wire than all the rest of television combined. We have 50-60 continuing roles for African Americans—can you name 50 or 60 from the rest of the network lineups? You can’t. That’s an embarrassment. And we’re just trying to reflect Baltimore, a city that’s 65 percent black. We’re not trying to make a statement.
Are there other television shows you like?
I respect The Sopranos and Deadwood. I’ve seen episodes and studied the tenor of those two shows, but I haven’t studied them with any degree of precision, because I don’t want those shows in my head. Deadwood discusses society as a whole through this frontier town, so there are some thematic elements that are comparable in some ways to The Wire. So, much as I admire David Milch, I don’t want to have him in my head at all. Same thing with The Sopranos. I think [David] Chase’s ability to define character and to create this inverted family dynamic is just wonderful, and at some point after The Wire’s over, I’m going to be able to sit down and watch that show and really enjoy it as a fan.
The show’s vision of modern, de-industrialized urban life and crime, and of how institutions work in a city, is nuanced and complex, but certainly bleak.
I don’t think it’s bleak or not bleak. I think it’s accurate to the “Other America.” It’s not indicative of all America. We’re not describing Montgomery County or Orange County or Manhattan or the places where money has cauterized all the wounds of modern life and the self-inflicted pain of unbridled capitalism. Those are places where money and capitalism have achieved everything they can. This is the America that got left behind. We’re being as accurate to that America as other shows are when they depict affluence.
How literally should we take parallels between current Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Tommy Carcetti [the white mayoral candidate in The Wire]?
It’s not O’Malley. He was one of several inspirations, but [story editor] Bill Zorzi has covered politicians in Annapolis and Baltimore for his whole career. We were stealing stuff from guys whose names you wouldn’t even know.
So do you have a favorite version of [the show’s theme song] "Way Down in the Hole"?
I like all of them for what they do—each one reflected a season of the show and a tonality that we were trying to convey. If I were going to put one on to listen to it, it would either be the Tom Waits original [from Season 2] or the Blind Boys of Alabama [from Season 1]. But if I put one on to express what we’re trying to say about a given season, it would probably be the current version, because it’s 14 year olds singing and it says so much about the main characters this year.
Sam Rosenfeld is web editor at The American Prospect.
For more David Simon and The Wire, listen to Christy Harvey’s interview from “The Al Franken Show” here.