Angry, grudge-bearing, vengeful and passionate? That seems to be his public image, says David Simon, former Sun cop reporter, author and co-creator of television’s “The Wire,” “Generation Kill” and “Treme.”
But he insists that isn’t really him.
“I just don’t even recognize the guy who’s supposed to be so angry,” he says over a recent breakfast at Spoons restaurant in Federal Hill. “I’m just the guy who’s interested in an argument.”
Simon has argued eloquently, forcefully and at length in multiple media about issues great and small over the years. And he’s done so with friends, colleagues, sources, bosses, mayors, prosecutors, and formatively with his parents and siblings, over the Simon dinner table back when he was growing up in Montgomery County.
But until recently he hasn’t had a personal blog, the gladiatorial arena of choice for America’s political and civic commentariat. A disciple of nuance and fidelity, Simon has criticized the blogosphere as a poor substitute for the professional in-depth writing about matters of civic moment traditionally done by newspapers, back in the day when more of them had fat revenues and big staffs.
A few months ago he caused some fierce fan blowback by complaining in a New York Times interview about websites where enthusiastic “Wire” scholars rank their favorite characters, scenes and seasons – paying scant attention to the important issues the show raised about the war on drugs, say, or the other pathologies of urban America.
Simon’s efforts to clarify his remarks through the work of other journalists were less than satisfying, he says. So he launched a blog with the cheeky title The Audacity of Despair, on a website address he’s owned for several years but never used.
True to form, he’s gone beyond setting the record straight. He’s used Audacity to dissect political and civic issues ranging from the Trayvon Martin case to the use and abuse of homicide statistics by Baltimore law enforcement officials.
During breakfast the other day, Simon was as intent on stating his case as ever – to the point of not having the patience to finish some of his sentences. Here are excerpts from that discussion, edited for length and clarity.
On being David Simon:
What I’m fascinated by is there’s a little David Simon out there now with a little trademark after him, in a weird way. But I don’t even recognize that guy. And you know he is, you know, angry, grudge-bearing, vengeful, psycho, you know, passionate. And I don’t feel any different about life than I ever did. My friends are still my friends. I still work with the same people and I’ve been in HBO now for 13 years. I’m friends with people from The Sun. I’m (still) playing poker with the kids I grew up with. I haven’t left a trail of bloody and enraged (people.) You know, life for me is pretty normal. I’m happy to see the game on Saturdays.
But then there’s this David Simon creature who exists sort of in two dimensions as a sort of public persona. And I’m kind of fascinated by that guy. Because sometimes he says the same things I do, but it’s always in a tenor that I never really (intended). Maybe that’s the way the Internet plays it or the way that it appears, but I’m fascinated by the guy. Now I go into a room in L.A., and its like, this is the angriest man in television. Watch out. Better not give him notes on his script or he’ll kill you. It’s probably helped me in a certain way.
But I’m still fascinated by that creature because it doesn’t feel real to me. I’ve always been comfortable getting mad in an intellectual way. Not even mad. I’ve always enjoyed a critique of something out there in the civic environment. Arguing it, discussing it and debating it. So I just don’t even recognize the guy who’s supposed to be so angry. I’m just the guy who’s interested in an argument.
Why he started his own blog:
I had no use for it until I was talking to this [New York] Times reporter and I was particularly in-eloquent about something that I was trying to say that I thought was legit, and it came out in such a way that all of a sudden I looked at what I had supposedly said in the paper and I had the sensation of being like, ‘We’ll that guy’s an idiot.’ So I realized at that moment, this is what DavidSimon.com might be for. . .
I like an argument. I’ve always liked an argument. I don’t get angry in arguments. I get angry when an argument veers into the ad hominem or it becomes juvenile, but if it stays on facts? I love that. I’ve always loved that. That was my Friday night dinner, was arguing current events, politics, you know, civics. That was my household.
So sometimes I get drawn into (blogging). And all of a sudden I look up and I haven’t done any writing on what I’m supposed to work on and I’ve been screwing around with the blog for four hours. And that’s not good. So there’s another part of me that thinks, what have I wrought?
On what Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer set out to do with “Treme,” HBO’s saga of life in post-Katrina New Orleans:
New Orleans is an American city with all of an American city’s problems, and it suffered a near death experience. When we started working on the show we didn’t know on what terms New Orleans was coming back, or how.
There were a lot of people who thought a Disney version of New Orleans was going to come back, especially when they talked about and actually went to the effort of closing down the housing projects.
They were trying to make a very different New Orleans, and one that is not actually the organic New Orleans because the culture is rooted in the black community, or a big healthy dose of it is rooted in the African-American community.
So then we got to watch, and it became more and more interesting to me that the culture is what is bringing that city back. It’s the only thing that works. It’s the great engine. Everything else failed. The political leadership failed in the wake of the storm. The programming designed to get people back in their homes was a disaster. The police department was no help. The state’s attorney’s office in the years after the storm was a complete disaster. The school system was terrible before the storm and Balkanized after. Everything else failed. Culture didn’t fail.
On how “Treme” is in some ways a sequel to “The Wire”:
One of the things that I was shocked at after we did “The Wire,” was the number of times I heard somebody say, ‘Baltimore’s sure fucked up. Man, that’s a fucked up city.’ Because in no way did we mean to imply, nor do I think we ever did imply, that Baltimore was in any way unique in terms of its inability to recognize its own problems or solve its own problems.
We didn’t think we were critiquing Baltimore as Baltimore, we thought we were critiquing the experience of an increasingly urban people in this day and age. My argument has always been that how human beings live in cities together, compacted, is how we’re going to do in the future. And how we manage to govern ourselves, how we manage to share resources or not – it’s a big deal and it’s worth arguing about.
The idea that the city doesn’t have value, that when it works it isn’t in some way glorious – because it is – was the premise to “The Wire.” [That] didn’t convey to some people. “The Wire” was actually a very affectionate – a very clear-eyed, I thought, but affectionate – treatment of Baltimore, saying these are your problems, this is what’s at stake.
We never assumed anything other than that the city was worth saving. But culture isn’t in the street in Baltimore. It’s not visual. You don’t have Mardis Gras Indians marching down the street in Baltimore, and get to another corner and there’s a brass band set up there. So there was a way of arguing for the city with “Treme,” in saying here’s a city that’s just as screwed up–even more so because it just went under water – than the Baltimore we showed you. It’s got the same fundamental problems we depicted in “The Wire.” But pay attention to how people manage to endure.
On the challenge of writing about problems with no obvious or easy solutions:
I think that’s the temperament of people who go into journalism. We are very comfortable with a high level of – the world is fucked and if for any reason you think it’s going to be unfucked, good luck. Wait ten minutes and you’ll be dissuaded. And for the rest of the world? They’re really not inclined to stand on that precipice for very long. You want to think about global warming for ten minutes and not get a headache? Human beings do not want to live in that place of having that stuff on their shoulders.
On the chances for a fourth season for “Treme,” which has struggled to find an audience:
I’m waiting on a decision. We haven’t had a lot of buzz. HBO I think would have loved it if I could have finished up in three (seasons). I couldn’t. I couldn’t shape the story in three. They want to try to let me finish the story, but you know resources are always tight and programming is always tight. I should know by the end of the summer, I guess, because at some point we’re going to have to go back and prep.
We have to shoot “Treme” in a certain window (of time) for insurance purposes. Not because it would be a big deal because of the hurricane season, but because we pay a lot more if we shoot during the hurricane season. So we need to start by November and finish before June.
On why Simon’s television efforts may draw modest ratings but can live a robust afterlife on DVD shelves:
The revisionist history of “The Wire” is that “The Wire” was a hit. The ratings on “The Wire” went down every year. Somewhere around 2008, 2009, when it was off the air, it started [to become popular]. The DVD sales I believed peaked around 2011.
Now that’s just word of mouth. You couldn’t find anyone writing about “The Wire” or talking about “The Wire” after two seasons. It’s not like I had a plan. It’s not like I understood that television shows were going to become more like a lending library. You didn’t have to catch them anymore on the night that they aired. That really has been a profound change for that medium. I don’t know how you catch fire in a bottle, but I know that none of my stuff, ever, when it first goes on the air or when its early on the air, none of it captures an audience with any degree of rapidity at all.
Nobody watched “The Corner.” (Based on Simon’s book of the same name, about a year on a West Baltimore drug corner.) Nobody watched “Generation Kill” at all. (The seven-part HBO miniseries was based on Evan Wright’s nonfiction book following a Marine battalion through the first 40 days of the Iraq war.)
And “Generation Kill” was probably the best-executed thing I’ve been involved in, in terms of what we intended to do and how well we executed it. I wouldn’t change a word to make it more popular. I wouldn’t have done that to Evan’s book. But nobody watched it when it went on the air.
And then the DVDs came out in December of ‘08, and in the next 13 month period ending at the end of December it sold 160,000 units, which is you know modest, you know, legit but modest. No great shakes. And then it starts to fall off. There’s no more coming. There’s not a second season. One hundred thousand (DVDs) the next year. In 2011, 160,000. The first quarter of this year, 40,000.
So like everything else we do, you know: (DS channeling fan here) “I finally saw this miniseries, it’s called Generation Kill, I didn’t see when it was on the air but I got the box set. Oh man, you have HBO? You should get it.” I’m saying if you don’t finish the work and you don’t do the work and the work doesn’t exist for people to find it and to begin talking about it, then no good can come of it.
Because if we hadn’t finished “The Wire” – “The Wire” was nearly canceled, seasons four and five. It was canceled one year. I had to go back and beg for it. I had to beg for it twice. But I had to fly all the way to LA and really get down on my hands and knees after the third season. If it doesn’t exist, if it doesn’t come to its conclusion, if there’s only three seasons, it doesn’t happen.
On the elusive art of making a hit television series:
All I’m saying is I don’t know how to make a television show people watch the moment you put it out there. I’ve never done it and I’m never gonna do it. And I keep telling this to HBO and they keep saying “Oh the next one will be a hit.”
And at one point I literally grabbed Bardo (HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo) and I said, “Mike, read my lips. I can’t do it. I don’t know how, and I think if I did know how I wouldn’t want to. What I can do is figure out a story that’s worth telling, get you from beginning to middle to end, put it out there, and then if they find it they find it. But if you don’t put it out there I got no shot.” And so I’m hoping to get the last year (of “Treme”).
If I don’t, I don’t. I’ve been waiting for 13 years for them (HBO) to say, thank you very much it’s been lovely. I’m like the Wandering Jew, I have one bag packed at all times. I fully expect the window to close on my fingers at any moment. And if it does, okay. Everyone thinks of “The Wire” in retrospect as being this monolithic, you know, fire-in-the-bottle success, but it barely hung on to finish it’s run. Got out by the skin of our ass.
And then we were off the air for years before it started showing up in college syllabuses and stuff, that kind of nonsense. What are you going to do?