Baltimore-based writer and producer David Simon was in New Orleans this morning. He’ll be back in Maryland tonight, but right now, the creator of some of the darkest, grittiest shows on television is in a far more unexpected place – a ballroom with Victorian décor in Greencastle Indiana. Simon is the keynote speaker for DePauw University’s Undergraduate Communications Honors Conference.
“I’m very honored to be here,” said Simon. “It’s vaguely amusing to me that I’ve become this public gadfly of media issues, because what I am on some level is a reporter who got chucked out of his newsroom.”
The room is packed with students, most of whom likely know Simon more from his critically-lauded television drama The Wire than the dozen years he spent as a reporter on the crime beat of the Baltimore Sun.
From the crime beat to The Wire
In 1988, cynical about his newsroom and the people running it, Simon took a leave from the Baltimore Sun. During this time, he wrote the non-fiction crime book Homicide: A Year on The Killing Streets. The book was eventually adapted into an award-winning NBC drama.
“I lived in a city where half of the adult black males, in a city that is 65% African-American, were unemployed,” explained Simon. “That’s not a viable economic model, somebody should be looking at that. I lived in a city where probably 82-83% of the kids who attended school did not finish high school.”
“Yet the same newspaper that was pursuing these Pulitzers, these special little topics, these ‘we’re going to surround this and give you a five part series on lead paint poisoning’, this same newspaper no longer had a poverty reporter. That beat went uncovered. They no longer had a labor reporter. No one covering the city courthouse for a period of maybe 5 or 6 years.”
His next book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood was co-authored with writer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher who would go on to work with Simon on The Wire. The Corner was again non-fiction, but written in the style of a novel.
The Wire began airing on HBO in 2002, and focused on a different social class or segment of Baltimore each season, with plotlines and characters entangling as the series progressed. The first season looked at the housing projects and low-level drug trade of the city.
“It really was a piece about the end of empire, the emptiness at the center of America’s urban soul,” said Simon. “You could walk down the street and look at the row houses, look at the plywood, and know something is not right here.”
Not Just Another Cable Crime Show
The Wire was unique in many ways. The series featured a mostly African-American cast, a rarity in cable dramas. It was difficult to distinguish the professional actors from the “real life” Baltimoreans who occupied some roles, such as androgynous ex-gangster Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, and former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich.
The slang of the police, as well as the drug dealers, were equally impenetrable on first listen. And avoiding the conventions of the typical “cop show”, the characters were incredibly complex in nature.
Police officers and politicians were sometimes villains, and a favorite hero of the show was a stick-up man named Omar Little, who stole only from those involved in the drug trade; a kind of Robin Hood character.
The Story Of Obama and Omar
In 2008, Omar was brought further into the public consciousness when then-presidential-candidate Senator Barack Obama named The Wire as his favorite television show, and Omar his favorite character. “He’s not my favorite person, but he’s a fascinating character,” Obama told the Las Vegas Sun. “He’s this black, gay gangster who only robs drug dealers, and then gives back … he’s the toughest, baddest guy on this show, but he’s gay, you know. And it’s really interesting.”
“Coming To The Campfire With A Story”
“The impulse is the same,” said Simon. “I got into journalism because I was interested in coming to the campfire with a story about how the world worked as I could best surround it with facts. I still pursue that process even though the end result is I’m not going to use the facts per se, I’m going to strain the facts through a fictional character. But having said that, let me be clear – it’s not journalism.”
After The Wire, Simon produced the miniseries Generation Kill, which focused on the experiences of a group of Marines during the first 40 days of the Iraq war. His most recent project is Treme, a post-Katrina drama set in New Orleans. The series was recently picked up by HBO and will begin airing in 2010.
“It’s a story about musicians and other people trying to reconstitute their lives after the storm in 2004, with heavy emphasis on the cultural aspects,” said Simon. “It’s not the Wire in New Orleans, it’s something different.”
But it’s impossible to imagine a David Simon piece not having the one trait that makes the sometimes crushingly-sad The Wire bearable.
“The characters themselves sometimes stand up for their own dignity and for the dignity of community,” said Simon. “And whether they win or lose, I think that it’s very affirming, and I think there’s a great deal of humanistic affection in the piece.”