The Great Television Writers: Part 2 – David Simon

By Martin Keady · March 26, 2018

The Wire is the Citizen Kane of television, revolutionizing television and televisual storytelling just as Citizen Kane revolutionized cinema and cinematic storytelling. Or at least it should have. The irony is that, like Citizen Kane, The Wire was so remarkable, so revolutionary, that it was virtually impossible for anything else to follow it, let alone top it. Instead of the stream of Wire-type masterpieces that might have been expected to follow it, The Wire still stands alone magnificently, the greatest television series ever made and possibly the greatest television series that ever will be made. And that, in large part, is down to the unique vision of its creator, David Simon.

“The Bard of Bodymore”, as Simon has been dubbed, is not quite a native of Baltimore, the city that he made world-famous. Instead, in an irony that will not be lost on Wire-heads everywhere, he was born in 1960 in Washington DC, the administrative and political capital of America which, although it is less than 40 miles from Baltimore in physical distance, is repeatedly shown in the series to be a million miles away culturally.

The most remarkable part of Simon’s childhood in Washington was truly remarkable. His father, Bernard, had originally been a journalist (as Simon himself would become) but then became the public relations director for B’nai B’rith, a Jewish cultural and social organization that describes itself as “The Global Voice of the Jewish Community”. Consequently, it has often attracted the ire of anti-Semites, notably in March 1977, when Bernard Simon, along with more than a hundred other people, was held hostage by a group of gunmen led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, a former official with the controversial Muslim group, Nation of Islam. Although the Hanafi Siege (as it came to be called, after the particular branch of Islam that the gunmen supposedly adhered to) ended with only one death — that of a radio journalist – and Bernard Simon and the other hostages were released, the episode must have had a profound effect on the young David Simon, who was still in high school when it happened. At the very least, it is not fanciful to imagine that, having experienced a siege himself so directly, Simon later had no difficulty in empathizing with others who felt themselves to be in a siege, or hostage, situation, like so many of the characters depicted in The Wire.

Having graduated from the University of Maryland, Simon found work as a police reporter at The Baltimore Sun newspaper in 1982. His work as a journalist, and specifically his work as a journalist on “the crime beat”, was to become the basis of almost all his future writing. Indeed, the first steps towards creating The Wire were taken while he was still a crime reporter.

Simon had been a journalist for more than five years when his growing dissatisfaction with how the world of journalism was changing and becoming more corporate (or how it had “stopped being fun”, as he himself put it) led to his taking a year’s leave of absence to write what would prove to be an extraordinary book. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) is a masterpiece of non-fiction, depicting with a novelist’s eye for detail the real nature of crime in America, particularly murder, and not the way that it had been traditionally depicted on television and in films. Indeed, in the book itself, Simon cites the continual mocking of the episodes of Kojak that he and the detectives would watch while on the night shift as one of his prime reasons for writing it. Instead of the simplistic, relatively easily solved crimes portrayed on shows like Kojak, Simon showed how a genuine homicide investigation could be long, complicated and even on occasion boring. Nevertheless, he brought fascinating, warts-and-all life to the world of the “murder po-lees” and in the process became a celebrated author.

Homicide was so successful (it won numerous awards, including the prestigious Edgar award) that it was soon optioned by the NBC network to provide the basis for what was supposed to be a similarly ground-breaking “cop show”, Homicide: Life on the Street, which Simon worked on as a writer and producer. By any standards other than of The Wire, Homicide is a pretty good detective drama, especially the first few seasons, which used much of Simon’s book as direct inspiration. However, as the series developed (it was to run from 1993 to 1999), Simon grew increasingly frustrated as it seemed to move away from the kind of “no-shit storytelling” that he himself had pioneered in his book. Consequently, he vowed that if he ever got the opportunity to work on a TV series again, he would ensure that he was in complete control of it and that it would remain unflinchingly true to the source material – the real-life stories – that had inspired it.

That series, of course, was The Wire. It capitalized upon the success of The Sopranos (the John the Baptist to The Wire’s Christ) to show how a 21st-century police drama could break all the supposed “rules” of a TV cop show, and instead depict the grueling, often thankless work of homicide detectives. However, before The Wire could be made, there was another key ingredient that needed to be added, and that was the world that Simon depicted in his second great work of non-fiction, The Corner.

The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997) was not written by Simon alone. Instead, it was co-written with Ed Burns, a former Baltimore policeman who had served on the force for 20 years before becoming a teacher. The book itself is not as satisfying as Homicide, partly because the parts of it written by Burns (Burns and Simon each wrote individual chapters) are simply not as powerfully written as those by Simon. Nevertheless, in working on the book together, and on the subsequent TV mini-series that it was adapted into, Simon and Burns forged not only a close friendship but a working partnership that was to be absolutely fundamental to the creation of The Wire.

Where Homicide had depicted America’s “war on drugs” from the perspective of the homicide detectives investigating murders, many of which were directly drug-related, The Corner showed the conflict from the other side, that of the “civilians”: the addicts, and their families, who were seemingly powerless to help them. By putting the two sides of the “war on drugs” together, and showing the links between them, Simon and Burns were able to begin establishing the world of The Wire, which would show “the war on drugs” in all its complexity, drama and – ultimately – futility.

So much has been written about The Wire that it can often seem as if there is nothing left to say about it. However, there are some specific aspects of its writing that are worth emphasizing, to show just how unique and comprehensive it was.

First, there is its verisimilitude – its literal likeness to reality. Having grown frustrated with what he regarded as the increasing “Hollywood-ization” of the Homicide TV series throughout its long run, Simon resolved to produce The Wire himself, shooting it all in Baltimore, where it was set, and using Burns as his invaluable sounding board, to establish the veracity of what they were attempting to show on screen. As Simon famously put it, “If it didn’t happen on the street, it didn’t go in the script”. Thus, even the most apparently outlandish stories in The Wire, for example, the entire storyline of series three in which a “rogue” police officer attempts to legalize drugs in one corner of the city, were all based on real-life incidents.

That extraordinary verisimilitude was further enhanced by the incredible use of locations, with real-life locations within the city – from the docks to the city schools to the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun – being used as the settings for the story. Thus, The Wire became a truly city-wide story, which exposed as ridiculous and trite the narrative devices used by so many other television shows, notably soap operas, in which a small group of people experienced an unbelievable amount of things (for example, having an unbelievable number of lost relatives who they were completely unaware of). Instead, with a whole city for a canvas, Simon could legitimately portray early 21st-century civilization (civilization literally meaning “living in cities”) in all its multi-faceted nature. He focused on a different institution or organization for each series – the murder police and drug dealers (series 1), the docks (series 2), the wider police department (series 3), the city schools (series 4) and finally the city’s newspaper (series 5) – and thus built up, layer by layer, a completely convincing picture of how people actually lived at the turn of the millennium.

Secondly, over the course of the series, Simon built up what he called his “Murderers’ Row” of Writers. The term “Murderer’s Row” had initially been applied to the crack collection of baseball hitters that the New York Yankees had assembled in the late 1920s, including legends such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Simon assembled the literary, or at least screenwriting, equivalent, in hiring critically acclaimed and commercially successful crime novelists to contribute scripts to The Wire, including Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone), Richard Price (author of Clockers) and George Pelecanos (author of The Cut and The Double, among many others). Simon was justifiably proud of his incredible collection of writers, which may be the most impressive collection of writers that have ever contributed to any film or television series, or indeed any form of literary output. Their brilliant dialogue (which used much of Baltimore’s own unique city slang), detailed characterization (humanizing both cops and “robbers”, or rather dealers) and above all their sheer story-telling ability all contributed mightily to the success of The Wire.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Simon maintained close control of the whole show, by performing the role of what would now be called a “show-runner” but in the early noughties would have been called an “executive producer”. Thus, he was able to stop the show from “jumping the shark” at any point and maintained a remarkable narrative arc throughout nearly 60 episodes and 60 hours of television, which, considered collectively, can be regarded as one of the greatest examples of human artistic activity, and one that is genuinely comparable to even the greatest works of art, such as Shakespeare’s plays or Wagner’s operas.

After five series, made over seven years, The Wire finally came to an end in 2008. But it has had the most remarkable after-life, as it has been shown and reshown around the world many times since. In Britain, it was particularly successful, as the entire five series were shown in one year on the BBC2 channel in 2009. They were very nearly a year of television in their own right, and the effect of seeing all five series, back to back, is probably the greatest television viewing experience that I, and many other Britons, have ever experienced.

Nothing that Simon has done in the decade since The Wire ended has come close to matching it, let alone overtake it. However, that is not to say that he has not made other powerful TV dramas. Everything that he has been involved with since The Wire – from the Gulf War II-set military drama, Generation Kill, to Treme, his exploration of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, and most recently The Deuce, a drama set in the porn industry of the 1970s and early 80s – has borne his inimitable stamp of quality and his absolute determination to tell the stories that are so often ignored by mainstream film and television.

However, it is The Wire that will be his lasting legacy and The Wire that alone justifies his reputation as “the Shakespeare of Television” (although Simon himself, a great lover of Charles Dickens, would probably prefer to be called “The Dickens of Television”). It belongs among the most rarefied works of art – those that are the absolute exemplar of their own art-form, such as Citizen Kane (cinema), Shakespeare’s plays (theatre) and Mozart’s symphonies (music). And in large part that is down to the unique world-view of a man who progressed from being a crime reporter to a prize-winning author to an iconoclastic TV producer, in the kind of uniquely American journey that he depicts so often in The Wire.

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

Images from The Know, WAMC, Collider and Rolling Stone.

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