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By Randal Stevens · April 22, 2010
Two weeks ago, HBO premiered the first episode of the highly anticipated TV series, Treme, the latest creation from David Simon. Assuming you haven’t been comatose for the last 8 years (and if you have been, welcome – please avoid Twitter like the plague, James Cameron’s box office record has been topped by James Cameron, and our country’s economy will be in the shitter for at least as long as it took you to recover from your vegetative state), you’ve no doubt heard of one of Simon’s last projects, The Wire. The show, which ran for 5 reasons and fostered one of the most passionate fan bases not responsible for soccer riots, followed the war on drugs in Baltimore told through the viewpoints of the cops, the dealers, and everyone in between. It also happened to be the best fucking television show in the history of everything that ever happened. Treme follows the residents of a neighborhood in New Orleans trying to rebuild their lives three months after Hurricane Katrina. Two episodes in, it is similarly brilliant. So far, it seems that David Simon has cemented his legacy of exuding more genius than Einstein and Da Vinci doing it doggstyle on Bohr’s king size. And I hate him.
Don’t misunderstand me, though – I don’t hate-hate Simon like, I want to murder him in a dark alley and mail Polaroids of it to his family members on the anniversary of his birth. No, no, no, I mean I love-hate Simon like, I fully recognize his unbridled genius and need to murder him in a dark alley because it’s unfair that he keeps living. Simon is to TV what Martin Luther King, Jr. was to American civil rights. Both men have revolutionized their respective fields and left legacies while working within systemic social confines in which they were racial minorities (hey, as a white guy working in inner-city Baltimore, Simon was definitely a racial minority). Both men were also so groundbreaking in their work that they were and are considered dangerous: King was dangerous to those trying to uphold the racial status quo and Simon to those trying to uphold systemic stereotypes. King made huge strides and inspired generations of people to follow in his footsteps, though he was unfortunately killed for his work. Simon holds the decided advantage of still being alive, so he can add to his legacy. With Treme, he seemingly has. However, by working in TV where hundreds of brand new shows premiere every year, it’s very possible that Simon’s legacy could be topped – by himself. He’s that good.
Now, I’m sure there may be some of you out there saying, “well, I’ve seen The Wire and I don’t think it’s as great as everybody else does.” Please punch yourself in the face and never procreate. But I’ll humor you. Even if we “handicap” Simon’s prestige by removing The Wire from the equation, his resume is still more impressive than a 10-foot tall, mini-gun-equipped Jesus riding a flaming unicorn propelled by rockets and it all began with “Homicide.”
To be clear, I’m talking the non-fiction novel “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” and not Homicide: Life on the Street, which is based upon the book. There’s certainly something to be said for the multi-Emmy Award-winning cop drama that ran for seven seasons, but it was the novel, originally published in 1991, that first exhibited Simon’s ability to weave an engrossing story while educating people on the oft-neglected and largely misunderstood flip side of America’s coin. In “Homicide,” the light of edification is shone upon the detectives of Baltimore’s homicide division, whom Simon followed around for a year from 1988 – 1989. From page 1 Simon makes it clear to readers that art, in the form of standard cop dramas, does not actually imitate life. From the crime scenes, which rarely yield any type of earth-shattering evidence, to the interrogations, during which suspects rarely succumb to guilt or intimidation, to the path to trial, which will ultimately see less than 20% of suspects convicted, Simon paints a picture of a crumbling city with an oddly untouched pride fit to be served by only a specific breed of man.
Any fan of cop dramas or interested in writing them would be well served by reading “Homicide” and taking some tips on what makes characters memorable, relatable and three-dimensional despite (or perhaps, because of) their flaws and eccentricities. Take, for instance, Donald Worden, a 25-year veteran of the force who affectionately names his partner, “shit head,” but whose name commands respect on even the worst drug corners in the city. Then there’s Harry Edgerton, the black son of a New York jazz musician, whose meticulous and protracted work on cases spurns ire from his fellow detectives. There’s also Oscar “Rick” Requer who exhumed the wrong body during a multiple murder investigation. Twice. Each detective is equal parts offensive, respectful, loyal and passionate about their jobs, having long ago adopted a somewhat obscene gallows humor that acts as a crutch in what could possibly be one of the bleakest jobs on earth. The fact that everything in the book is 100% truthful takes away absolutely nothing from Simon’s ability to tell a tale as opposed to regurgitate facts.
Of course, the detectives are products of their environment – and not the only product, I might add. Baltimore had as bad a reputation then as it does now and it’s within the context of an inner city abandoned by industry and overtaken by a code of the streets that allows the narrative to outshine most fiction. The detectives excel professionally not because of case-cracking DNA evidence (which is found in less than 10% of criminal cases even today), but because the detectives overflow with that unteachable kind of smart and are tireless workers, often spending up to 16 hours in the office per day and never willingly quitting on a case even when leads have dried up and the files have been perused dozens of times. Not only does this allow us to see a case unfold step by step, but it also raises the important and perhaps unanswerable question of what good are these admirable men doing in such an unchangeable socio-economic system?
But this is only half of why I love-hate David Simon, or at least, only half of what I will present. Check back soon where I complete my thesis on why David Simon is such a brilliant writer that I hate him by talking about the aforementioned Treme.