Television

In Defense of David Simon and the Legacy of 'The Wire'

In light of David Simon's recent comments on its intent to 'stir actual shit', we revisit how important The Wire should be.


The Wire: The Complete Series

Distributor: HBO
Cast: Michael Williams, Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick, John Doman, Dominic West
Network: HBO
Release date: 2011-11-20
Amazon
"To be clear:  I don’t think the Wire has all the right answers. It may not even ask the right questions. It is certainly not some flawless piece of narrative, and as many good arguments about real stuff can be made criticizing the drama as praising it.  But yes, the people who made the Wire did so to stir actual shit. We thought some prolonged arguments about what kind of country we’ve built might be a good thing, and if such arguments and discussions ever happen, we will feel more vindicated in purpose than if someone makes an argument for why The Wire is the best show in years. ('Buffy,' by the way, was the correct answer to that particular bracketfest.)"

-- "'I Meant This", by David Simon, David Simon.com,16 April 2012)

I know I shouldn't do this. Really, I do. It's been about four years now since Dominic West's Detective Jimmy McNulty uttered his final words on the side of a highway leading into the city of Baltimore, Maryland, right before HBO's The Wire faded to black for good and the drums anchoring "The Fall" echoed one last time on our television sets. Since then, writers, social commentators, critics, officials, fans, educators, bloggers, columnists, reporters and pretty much anyone else who has ever seen more than five seconds of the show have all taken to whatever outlet they can find to shower the 60 episodes that made up the series with superlatives and accolades, calling it not only the greatest TV show they've ever seen, but also recognizing it for the potential sociological values it brought to the forefront and the cynicism it incorporated so well into what has undoubtedly become a nation's reality. 

So, again, I shouldn't do this. People far smarter than I have dissected the show, made critical observations that will forever be above my pay-grade and ultimately written the final word on what The Wire's legacy will be. And for the most part, they are all correct. They are unquestionably, undoubtedly and most certainly right. Simon's five-season profile of how many strikingly different layers a city beholds underneath a simple first glance is the most poignant television series the medium has ever offered. It is the smartest interwoven piece of drama the small screen has displayed. It is the classic example of exactly what can be said and what can be accomplished if someone is given the opportunity to simply tell a story without boundaries, without politick and without any desire to adhere to accessibility.

"The Wire ... is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America", Slate's Jacob Weisberg wrote in September of 2006. "This claim isn't based on my having seen all the possible rivals for the title, but on the premise that no other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature". ("'The Wire On Fire", 13 September 2006)

Precisely.

What is there left to say, really? Nothing. I can't possibly write something that would spark your interest in giving the show a shot if you haven't already done so, and if you already have, chances are strong that you've probably scoured the Internet -- much like I have -- for every piece of commentary or reporting that has been attached to the show since its finale in 2008. Hell, even this very website has taken the time to revisit the characters, plots and what it all means when pieced together. ("'The Wire' As American Noir", by Trevor Dodge, PopMatters, 8 September 2010)

So I'm not even going to try to add anything to that discussion. Instead, I'll simply address the latest news the show's creator, David Simon, made while talking to The New York Times earlier this month, and how seemingly unfair the newspaper depicted the show's main source of brainpower.

"I do have a certain amused contempt for the number of people who walk sideways into the thing and act like they were there all along", Simon told Jeremy Egner. "It’s selling more DVDs now than when it was on the air. But I’m indifferent to who thinks Omar is really cool now, or that this is the best scene or this is the best season. It was conceived of as a whole, and we did it as a whole. For people to be picking it apart now like it’s a deck of cards or like they were there the whole time or they understood it the whole time — it’s wearying. Because no one was there in the beginning, or the middle, or even at the end. Our numbers continued to decline from Season 2 on.

"The number of people blogging television online — it’s ridiculous", Simon continued. "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". ("'The Game Never Ends: David Simon on Wearying ‘Wire’ Love and the Surprising Usefulness of Twitter", by Jeremy Egner, The New York Times, 5 April 2012)

Harsh words, aren't they? At face value, such observations seem to do nothing more than add to the already curmudgeon-like persona of Simon and the approach he has taken to confrontation since his masterpiece went off the air. And maybe someone making that stereotypical conclusion would be correct, and maybe Simon himself is more of a grouch than even his most passionate of fans have been led to believe. Maybe he went over-board with his words here and maybe the reporter caught him on a particularly unhappy day. 

But then again, maybe The New York Times messed up.

Considered on their own, Simon's comments seem unjustified and disjointed. They seem unprovoked and they also seem a little egomaniacal. That's because The Times initially refused to acknowledge the following: The former (Baltimore) Sun police reporter was partaking in a discussion he thought was in part dealing with Grantland's recent March Madness-style competition during which readers were asked to vote on who they believed was the greatest Wire character. Idiotically (and somewhat off-puttingly) dubbed "Smacketology", Bill Simmons's pet-project pitted various characters from the various walks of life the show so brilliantly depicted against one another on its Facebook page. Fans voted. Omar won.  ("'Smacketology"Grantland, 5 March 2012)

For reasons I can't quite grasp, Egner left that entire element out of the questions and answers he posted, with the exception of a link that doesn't even come close to specifically suggesting the Grantland topic (ominously labeled as "the afterlife"). Since then, The Times has added an extra paragraph and a link to Simon's response to the ordeal on HitFix. 

"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", Simon told longtime television writer Alan Sepinwall. "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". ("'Interview: David Simon doesn't want to tell you how to watch 'The Wire'", by Alan Sepinwall, Hitfix, 6 April 2012)

What we seemingly have here is a case of irresponsible journalism (and no, The New York Times citing that his comments were edited in the walk-up to the body of the Q&A isn't a justification here, either). It's ironic, too, considering the attention Simon paid to the newsroom on The Wire's fifth and final season. A quick look at the special features accompanying that season's DVDs and you'll even find various members of the cast questioning modern-day journalism and the validity of its premise within current society. Even more troubling is the fact that this comes from The New York Tiimes, one of the most celebrated newspapers in the history of the medium. 

Simon was right in saying what he said to Egner. Part, if not most, of The Wire's relevance was and is rooted in provocation. Simon, Ed Burns and the rest of the minds behind it displayed an unparalleled level of fearlessness in the telling of their stories. They were precise. They ran deep. And they spoke volumes by oftentimes neglecting actual sound. The show's episodes were an indictment on exactly how far a culture can fall when the popular mindset is fueled by ignorance. The topics were not designed to be fixed and in fact, part of The Wire's brilliance is the constant admission that some -- if not most -- things are unfixable. Inner city schools. Corruption in politics and police. The drug trade. These aren't things of which that are easy to make light.

And that's why even though Grantland's contest was clearly aimed at having a little fun with the people who continue to swear by the greatness of this particular television program, Simon's reaction was not only justified, but almost imperative. To reduce the story to the kind of gun Omar toted around Baltimore, or how funny The Bunk can be when he has a little too much to drink is contradictory of the message the show was trying to explore during its best moments. The Wire wasn't designed to make us laugh, even during the times when it did just that. In fact, it wasn't even designed to make us cry, make us angry or make us uncomfortable. 

The Wire was designed to grant a society the always-essential, yet almost constantly ignored ability to question. It was designed to add perspective to a popular culture obsessed with selfishness and surface levels. Simon knew he wasn't going to change the world with his tiny television show, and in fact, for as pissed off as he constantly seems to be in interviews and profiles, no one has ever had a well-founded or tenable reason to question his motives behind producing that show. He simply had a story to tell and he wanted to tell it in the only way he knew how.

It just so happened that the particular approach he decided to take proved to be more poignant, more literary, more intelligent, more layered and more aggressive than most -- if not all -- of its predecessors. The Wire was a serious show, taking a look at serious problems. It's unfortunate, then, that both Grantland and The New York Times decided to try and simplify both Simon's creations (with the contest) and then Simon's intentions (with the Q&A). 

Much like the show itself proved during its run, things simply aren't that ... well ... simple. Regardless of whether you watched the show from its inception to the day HBO pulled the plug, or you had to wait a few years to play catch-up with DVDs, one thing here is certain: If these types of contests and manipulations are the things the legacy of The Wire now has to endure nearly five years after it went dark, it's clear there aren't nearly enough people out there who paid nearly enough attention to the issues Simon and his staff were trying to address. 

And considering how much of an eye-opener that show could have ultimately proved to be as the critics continue to anoint it and educators continue to study it, such a lack of enlightenment illustrates a reality far scarier than the street corners of west Baltimore.

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