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Simon still searches for satisfaction
It was my great pleasure Thursday morning to interview one of my three journalistic heroes, David Simon, the creator of the HBO TV series “The Wire,” for my Real Talk podcast.
Simon, a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, longtime Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko and former Sports Illustrated feature writer Ralph Wiley are the three journalists who have most influenced my career and perspective. Royko and Wiley are dead. I never got to meet Royko. Wiley and I were great friends the last seven years of his life. He mentored me.
Over the past few years, I’ve become friendly with Simon. I write and talk about “The Wire” a lot. I work characters and themes from the show into my sports-column narratives. So it was an honor to interview Simon for nearly an hour.
I first asked him if “The Wire,” a show that exposes the immorality and stupidity of America’s drug war, had had the conversational impact he’d hoped.
“Not really, but the truth is, you know, I wasn’t satisfied when I was a journalist,” Simon said. “You would write stories, and they would go into the ether, and you would think that you had done a little something, and then they would come and argue about it and pass a law that made it worse, or not.
“In a way, a long time ago, when I was still at the Baltimore Sun, I gave up on the idea of impact as being plausible. And I had to sort of ground myself in the idea of you’re telling stories, and if you tell a story well, and it’s executed well, and it’s the story you intended, that’s pretty much all you can do. I got in trouble recently — and I think your first question might be referring to this — for actually answering somebody’s question, where they asked me what I thought about something, some reaction to ‘The Wire.’ And I answered honestly because they asked me what I thought, not whether I expected it, or whether I cared, or whether I gave it much thought beyond answering their question. But I did, I answered their question, and a little bit of hell broke loose.”
I concluded my interview with Simon by asking if the critical success of “The Wire” had become a burden, if it was interfering with people getting into “Treme,” his newest show on HBO.
“Listen, nobody watched any of my stuff when it was on the air,” Simon said. “That’s the other thing I was trying to convey to people: Which is, “The Wire” had less viewers every single season from Season Two on, dramatically. Less viewers in Season Three than in Season Two, less viewers in Season Four with the kids, who everybody loved, in retrospect; less viewers in Season Five. It became what it became after it existed and after it was off the air and after people found it by word of mouth and they found it by HBO Demand and they found it by DVD box sets.
“And nobody watched ‘The Corner.’ And the best thing I’ve ever done in terms of execution, and the thing I’m probably most proud of in terms of how close it came out to exactly what we wanted to say about the subject matter was ‘Generation Kill.’ And nobody watched that on TV. This is just a small anecdotal thing, but I think it typifies what the delivery system, the only delivery system that we’ve managed to be good at which is, you know the year after the DVDs came out, for ‘Generation Kill’ . . . we sold 160,000 DVDs. A modest, respectable number, but nothing great of ‘Generation Kill,’ the year that the box set came out. The next year, 100,000, so it’s shrinking, which is what it’s supposed to do. Every year it should be less and less. The year after that, 160,000, and in the first quarter of this year, 40,000. So it’s actually sustaining itself.
“How does it do that? Nobody is writing about it. It’s just word of mouth. Once the things exist, they exist. If “Treme” finishes its run and it exists, people will find it on its own terms, and if not, then no good can come from anything. If you don’t finish the stories, nothing good can come from anything. But they let us finish ‘The Wire,’ it existed and then people finally found it.
“I think I’ve pretty much demonstrated, I don’t know how to make a television show that people watch right away, or understand completely right away, or see a purpose for right away. Some of that stuff is late and some of it is to be discovered as you journey through the TV show and some of its to be there right at the end because you’re building towards the end. You’re building towards the last 20 minutes of any story or the last 30 pages of any book. So, I mean, I’m not going to blame ‘The Wire’ for ‘Treme,’ I’m going to blame the way we make television. When make television, were thinking of the whole thing and were thinking of what we’re going to say and we’re never going to make anything that’s commercially viable.”