Interview: David Simon doesn’t want to tell you how to watch ‘The Wire’

Senior Television Writer
04.06.12 123 Comments


As you know if you’ve been reading me for more than five seconds, I think “The Wire” is the best drama to ever air on television. I’m also an enormous fan of the rest of David Simon‘s oeuvre, all the way from his book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” all the way up through “Tremé,” which will be back on HBO this fall.

But I was very disheartened to read yesterday’s New York Times interview with Simon, in which he seemed to suggest there was a right and a wrong way to watch his shows, and he disapproved of anyone doing it the wrong way. This passage seemed particularly contentious, to both myself and a lot of people I follow in Twitter, be they fellow TV critics or other TV showrunners who are fans of “The Wire.”
“The number of people blogging television online – it”s ridiculous. 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.”
Then Simon reached out to me this morning, acknowledging that he came across badly in the interview but also feeling that certain points weren’t properly conveyed, either by himself or by the way the interview was edited. We wound up talking for nearly an hour about the idea of people coming to “The Wire” late, the pluses and minuses of weekly episode reviews, and more. It goes on a while – not surprisingly, I spent a lot of time discussing the part about the episode reviews, which is probably of less interest to the majority of you than it is to me – so I feel I should actually put the last comment from Simon up first, and then go into the full transcript. His main point was that a number of his comments came out of a discussion of Grantland’s March Madness-style bracket of “Wire” characters, which he felt was too reductive of all the things he was trying to say with that series, which led to this:
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. 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.
And now back to the beginning.
So what’s your concern with the interview?
I’m not trying to disown any of it. It was really done at the end of March after all the bracketology, and that at some point came up, and I was like, “Oh, that stuff,” and then we were talking about that in my head, but maybe not in his head. I read it and I said, “That is contradictory on its face. Why would I not want people to come to ‘The Wire ‘late when I feel it’s the delivery system that saved the show?” And that applies to every show I do, because when you’re building it in the early stages of it, the nature of it can’t be self-evident. It needs time for people to find it.
What I was expressing disappointment at was specifically the guys doing all the bracketology on Grantland, where these guys weren’t around when the show was fighting for its life, and now that it’s all there on the page, and you can consider all of that and argue about that, they want to break it down like a deck of cards, and argue over whether the jack of spades is better than the jack of hearts.. “The Wire” wasn’t about whether Stringer was better than Omar, or this scene better than that scene, or season 2 versus season 3. That’s what we were trying not to build. I was expressing distaste for that.
And somehow, my critique of all that bracketology stuff became – either through my own neglect of making clear what pronoun I was using, or because the Times didn’t want to reference where Grantland came up in the conversation – something else. I called up the guy and said, “Those were my quotes, but I wasn’t talking about viewers.”(*)
(*) I checked with the interviewer, Jeremy Egner, who emailed that after he spoke with Simon, “I went back through the notes, transcript and recording to make sure I hadn”t omitted something that would have made his complaint more explicit. I didn”t. He also didn”t mention Grantland by name, though it was clear that was the sort of thing he was talking about-and it”s the most recent example I know of-so I included a link to it in the interview.”
Because on Twitter yesterday, a lot of people took it as you saying people are only allowed to watch “The Wire” in a certain way.
You can watch it any way you want. I know I’m not allowed to speak for how people want to watch “The Wire.” But let me put it on its head and ask, am I allowed to say what I think has value in the piece for me, and for the other people who worked on the show? For us, telling us how cool Omar was four years after the entire thing is on the page – if that’s the point, then our ambitions were pretty stunted to begin with. I was asked a question about what I thought about the show’s longevity, and about the “Wire” mania that was going on in March when the brackets sprung up, and I answered to that. Other people’s mileage may vary and will vary, but if you’re asking me whether or not that stuff is meaningful, I think in some ways it diminishes “The Wire.” if you go online, you’ll find some people who made very smart critiques of that nonsense. I read those(**) and went, “Yeah, man, those guys get it, and the fellows wasting time breaking this thing down to its components, what a shame.” I would have loved to see an idea or an argument that the show undertook come up in any of that bracketology, and it never does. Once you get done arguing over who’s the coolest, or what scene makes you laugh the hardest, there’s no room left to argue any of the things.
(**) Simon later emailed me a link to one of those pieces, and added, “That people have fun with the show is okay on its face. That this stuff singularly crowds out any continued discussion of our real problems and the show’s interest in arguing those problems is the disappointing part.”
You and I have talked before about what our motivations were for making the show. We understand that we’re in the entertainment industry, but that’s not what we were really interested in. It’s going to be different than somebody really experiencing the show in real time, I get that. But I can’t answer for anybody other than me. I don’t have much regard for which was the coolest season, which was the coolest character. Sorry. That’s the case. The fact that I’m reading this stuff on Grantland, and going, “Man, this is what it comes down to? You work on something for 8 years and it comes down to this?” That was contemporaneous to me talking to the Times, and it came up in that interview. So I thought I was still talking about that. Simple as that.
This is coming across like, “If you didn’t watch from the beginning, you’re not allowed to watch it.” That’s crazy talk. If I believe in that, then I don’t have a job. Nobody’s going to get to this stuff early enough. Word of mouth and time itself is the only thing that saved the Wire, and makes shows like “Tremé” plausible. It either works or it doesn’t. I felt it was contradictory on its face.
There were also comments you made about what you feel are the flaws in the concept of weekly episode reviews. Were your sentiments there accurately conveyed?

They were. They were absolutely conveyed. I think there’s a fundamental disconnect with what certain types of longform television are now trying to build and the way in which they’re consumed by the audience. And I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t know how to resolve that. It’s beyond my paygrade to resolve it. I can’t figure out what the alternative is. These things do have to air at a certain moment, they have to air in pieces, but a greater percentage of the audience is acquiring them singularly through DVDs or downloads, and they’re not experiencing it in weekly installments in the way that television was traditionally acquired.

When we make the show, do we have anybody in mind? Do we have either viewer in mind, or the person who’s trying to assess the show weekly? We don’t. We’re just trying to tell a story. So what is the solution? I don’t know, but I do know this: when people who are blogging the show, I find in looking at some of those things, when people try to assess the opening chapters of a book as if they are the book, the efficacy of the exercise is damaged. And that happens, which is to say there are people who do it and do it with a certain amount of restraint. There’s a skill to doing anything, and since this is a new dynamic, the people who are doing it acquire the skill to different degrees. Some people understand they’re covering early chapters, and there’s a certain caution, who write about what they’re seeing on the screen with an awareness that these are the early installments, and there’s a different dynamic at play here.
And there’s other people who bring to bear assumptions about a show based on a previous show, assumptions based on where they think it’s going in the future, about where they think the show should be. You would never see anyone review a novel in similar fashion. No one would read three chapters of a novel and go, “What so and so’s trying to say here.” No book reviewer would try to assess any work based on the entry point of a piece of a prose. Is television prose? No, but you can’t tell me there isn’t some correlation between the way certain television shows now are being structured and the way multi-POV novels are being structured.
If you watched the first half hour of “Generation Kill” and the Marines were being crude with bathroom humor and barracks talk and they’re cynical about the chain of command, and this guy becomes racially provocative and offensive with another Marine, you might think one thing. But you get to the end of episode six or seven, and this same Marine is explaining that’s how they provoke each other. That it’s all a stance that unit cohesion allows for the most vile kind of racial banter. And you find out that there’s this low-grade contempt for command throughout the recon community indicative of the way their unit works. They’re taught to question authority as few Marines are, but you’re not going to get that in the first hour. So certain scenes are going to seem to be one thing. The Sergeant Major turns out, it’s his job to be a dickhead. But it’s only in the last episode where it’s revealed that it’s all been a front, that he’s trying to make them angry at him on purpose, using things like the grooming standard. These things are known and planned out by people who are in charge of that, but they can’t be evident from the beginning. Some people do with caution, great. But if they don’t, then the story gets assessed for what it actually isn’t.
Okay, but whether or not someone would review a novel before they finished the final chapter, they would have reactions as it went along: “I like this character,” “I don’t like this character,” “this plot twist was interesting,” etc.

And they may stop watching the show. And that is a risk where you can either make the show palatable to maintain the maximum amount of viewers, and now you’re operating under the calculations that made network TV drama so unimportant. Once you’re trying to keep everyone in the boat, you’re losing what’s important in drama. And one of the differences I’ll concede between a book and TV is people are investing maybe more money in a boxed set. If they have to take HBO, and the show runs over two or three months, and you’re one of the reasons whether they’re going to keep or cancel HBO, or just making you put your ass in front of the TV to catch it, at a certain point, if people become disenchanted with a television story, there may be more incentives to quit. Whereas once you’ve bought the book in a bookstore, you’ve got to be pretty unhappy with first few chapters to not finish the book. At least me. Once I’ve committed to reading a book, if the guy can write a little bit, I’m going to try to see where he’s going. And people’s expectations about the first chapters of a book are not such that they demand all of the answers and certitude up front. I concede that. We’ve been living with books for so long that our expectations for the first chapters are plausible. Whereas television has always delivered the powerful pilot and the cliffhanger, under the belief, “You have no reason to come back to this story unless we give you a reason.” Where you might pick up a book because you liked the author or the subject matter, and you’ll stick with it for the same reasons.

But I think that’s less true with every year. I think it’s a minority, but a growing minority of viewers, that I think – I hope – now watch the early hours of a television show with the sense that something might be built, and that it might make sense in the end. If I’m wrong about that, then “The Wire” was just fire in a bottle, and it won’t be replicated with any consistency. But maybe not. Maybe in some ways, the expectations of the audience in terms of television are changing.
Okay, but maybe the weekly reviews aren’t trying to sum up the meaning of the piece before it’s over, but providing a reaction to how the author is responding to each episode as it’s airing. Is there value in that, as far as you’re concerned?

I concede it’s better to have people talking about what you’re doing than not. But sometimes, if the thing is assessed in real-time, it absolutely has value. It certainly does. Where it becomes a little debilitating is when they’re done without any context of – how should I say this? – when the New York Times assigns somebody to write a book review, just go back to that analogy, if the fellow’s doing his job, he not only reads other stuff, particularly if it’s rooted in some non-fiction like “Generation Kill” or “Tremé,” about the issue so that they can assess the credibility of the work at hand. They might even read other stuff by that author and see what his methodology is, where this book fits into the logic of what he’s trying to do career-wise. There’s a lot of research that actually goes into a good book review. Because people are experiencing it, whoever decides to do these blogs – and I guess this is true of any reviewer, if they pick the wrong reviewer and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – so I’m not saying anything that isn’t otherwise true.

What I’m trying to say is at the end of the piece, what the goals actually were become self-evident. But only at the end. For example: if “Generation Kill” is trying to tell the story of the Iraq War, and if you think that going in, and begin blogging that going in, you’re going to be wholly disappointed for every hour of the show, including the last. That’s what I mean to say. If I come to it with the expectation of what story you mean to see, where you must concede going forward that you don’t know what the full intentions of the story are – unless you already ready the book, and then you are primed – and you make a wrong assumption of what it’s about, that’ll color everything you think about the rest. If your point of view and field of vision is limited to 18 Marines who are bickering and profane and arguing about petty stuff and how to write up the incident when the coffee maker blows up, and your sense of it is “I don’t know what’s going on in the Iraq War,” then it doesn’t matter what you blog. And there’s a lot of that. There’s an awful lot of people coming to it and saying, “This is a show about this,” and I’m not seeing it. It begins with presumptions that no professional reviewer would make. It happens on a small scale, scene by scene, and you watch this going, “Wow, this guy thinks we’re building something we have no intention of building.” If there’s ever a moment of reconsideration, it’ll be only when the whole piece is built, at the end.
If television reviews could be done at the end of each season, they could say more and do more. And I don’t just mean they’d just be full of praise. They could even be more critical of things, and say, “This show’s ambition was X, and it failed to achieve X, and here’s why.” It’s only possible to do it at the end, and that’s all I’m saying. Often, people experiencing each chapter in real time feel the need to tell you where they think it’s going, or why it shouldn’t go there, or why it should go somewhere else.
But the book analogy is never going to be perfect. Even if more and more people consume this stuff on DVD, on HBO Go or whatever, there are still people who are going to be watching it on a weekly basis – some people even do that with the DVDs – and they’re going to have reactions and make assumptions before they get to the end: that Prez is a racist moron, for instance.

I concede that. Nobody knows the inherent problems of doing this more than me. You’re absolutely right. I live with those problems every day. And I don’t think I’ll ever start anything that people will acquire with a level of comfort and understanding from the beginning. I don’t think I’ll ever build a machine like that – I don’t think, from my point of view, it’s worth building. But I readily concede the problem inherent in that. Way back when you brought this subject up, I said I don’t know what the solution is. I only know what isn’t being achieved and what’s being lost, when the weekly assessment of what happened becomes more than the weekly assessment of what happened, or what you’re feeling in the moment.

You’re supposed to think that Chaffin is a racist in the first hour of “Generation Kill.” By the time you finish, you realize Chaffin loves Holsey like any other Marine, and he loves the Latino Marines, and he is loved in return. It is all façade: it’s a bunch of alpha males challenging each other using the most provocative effrontery to hone their unit solidarity. But you don’t’ get that right away. By the end, you realize Sixta is a good Sergeant Major. He’s playing the dickhead for a solid reason, but in the first hour, he’s just a dickhead. You can’t build anything that has any reveal – if reveal or change or catharsis is a part of drama – if you’re setting up people to like people in the beginning and like them at the end, to know them at the beginning and know the same things at the end, if that’s the goal to maintain a maximum audience, how do you serve drama? If you believe in what the best drama can convey? I don’t know. I just know that these are the problems inherent in this.
And to add to that, the greatest indulgence is often the person who’s blogging surmising that they know the intentions or purposes or the voice of the people making the film. In the first hour of “Tremé,” John Goodman goes on a rant that a number of reviewers, not just bloggers, but writing the initial review of “Tremé” contended was my voice, my anger: the angriest man in television venting yet again. But he’s actually speaking the words of a very noted and famous blogger who was quite passionate and was speaking in tones that all New Orleanians accepted as quite rational. It was three months after their city had understood a near-death experience. And more important, David Simon didn’t have anything to do with writing that scene; Eric Overmyer wrote that scene. And people wrote with assurance about what they knew. And there is actually a discipline to reviewing the same there is to everything else. If everything’s about what I feel in the moment, then great. But if everything’s about what I feel in the moment and know to be true, that’s something else. And the other thing is, is John Goodman a reliable narrator? Merely because he says it doesn’t mean the writer thinks it. By the end of the piece, it’s clear that Goodman is a manic character suffering from fundamental mental illness. If it’s the voice of David Simon, David Simon thinks he’s a pretty crazy guy. (Laughs) I’m being flippant now, but should everybody stop blogging? Is that what you’re asking me?


I wouldn’t say that. I would just say it means what it means and it shouldn’t mean more. And yet it often stands in the dialectic about what a drama is or isn’t. The one thing I think a showrunner shouldn’t do is react very much to it, even if they could. Even if they go back and adjust. If they’re still in production. I don’t think that kind of biofeedback is good between the people Do you think it is?

Not really, no. I didn’t like “The Killing,” but I wrote something last month saying that Veena Sud shouldn’t be making the show in response to me; she should be making the show she thinks is the best one to make.

For herself! Right. I haven’t seen “The Killing,” I’ve heard some people say it’s great and others say they don’t like it, but I don’t know if it’s good or not. But whatever she does, she’s got to tell a story she believes in, and she’s got to get to the end going, “This is what I wanted to say with the hours they gave me. And If I’m doing less than that, I’m not serving anybody.”

To have someone taking your temperature every week and saying whether you’re healthy? It’s one thing to say that you’re running a temperature, and another to say, “This thing is sick and here’s why.” Maybe you’re right. Maybe you don’t have to make it to the end to make a judgment. But you have to admit it’s pretty subjective. The only thing it’s good for from the people making the show is if people don’t understand something you were hoping they would understand, then you’ve failed, and you should try to avoid making that mistake again. Or if you’ve hit something so hard and you’re unsubtle, that’s also good biofeedback. That’s when it’s valuable.
Has that ever happened with one of your shows?

Generally not, because with me, I’m only doing 10 or so, and I’m usually out of production. But when I worked on “Homicide,” we were always still in production when it aired, but there wasn’t the weekly blogging of shows then. But another example of where that happens, internally at HBO, is you have executives reading the scripts and watching the cuts. If they give me notes about what I should be saying about New Orleans or the characters, I’m not really interested. I gotta confess. I listen, because sometimes somebody sees something and you have to keep an open mind. But if I don’t know what to do with New Orleans or these characters, I have no business making it in the first place. What they’d like to see happen with this character, those notes are not helpful for the most part. Chances are, six writers in the room have already debated every possible outcome and discarded 10 of them and are doing the 11th. He’s opening up a door you already closed a month ago. But what can help you is if he says, “I didn’t get this. What are you trying to say with this scene.” And that happens all the time, and that’s tremendously valuable, or if he says, “This guy said this three times. Do you need the third scene?” And you go, “Did he say it three times? Sonuvabitch. We overwrote this. Cut one of those.” And that happens all the time, and that is the value of an outside voice.

And they’re not looking at the story about what they want it to be or not to be, but about the flaws in the execution. That can be done in real time, and that’s the legitimate criticism in blogging. I can see that. “When this happened, the dialogue was stilted here.” That’s totally legit and usually correct, and coming from people who’ve watched a lot of TV and know how to write about it. But when they’re writing about what ought to happen in the story of New Orleans post-Katrina I only want to hear from someone who knows what happened in New Orleans at that time.
If it doesn’t happen while you’re in production, has it ever happened in between seasons? You and I have had some discussions in the past about how I and others reacted to Sonny in the first season, and he’s presented in a much more sympathetic context in the second. Was that just the natural, planned evolution of that character, or you responding to viewers not seeing him the way you did?

Here’s the two things we didn’t do with Sonny. If you think back to what anybody’s plausible desire would be in creating a character, there’s not a lot of interest or joy in a guy who has all these selfish and self-absorbed attributes of an addict and who can be moved to petty cruelty through his addiction, and to keep him that way. It would certainly be real to do that, and there are plenty of people who succumb to addiction and stay in its throes and live stunted lives to begin with. But there’s certainly not a lot of drama in that. So we weren’t going to keep him that way for the purpose of the show. That would be kind of silly. But we also knew he wasn’t going to get the girl back – not that girl. And he wasn’t going to become a great musician. And he still contended with that in season 2, and will be in season 3. It’s a show in which you see a lot of great musicianship, who are consummate in their craft. Against that, we wanted someone who had genuinely clever and creative ideas, if not musical talent. And we wanted somebody who’s quite marginal in their musicality, but who nonetheless was part of that universe. If nothing else, it could speak to the credibility of a musical community. Not all the children are above-average. Hence, Davis at times can be annoying in the vanities of his career, and Sonny can be downright hurtful and insecure. And those things didn’t change. We didn’t go, “Oh, let’s rescue Sonny. Let’s make him likable, give him some victories.” So I don’t know that we did anything with Sonny that we would have done otherwise. You’re always reacting to the actors. Omar was always going to be Omar, but as Richard Price said, he wasn’t going to utter all these wonderful Britishisms – “Oh, indeed,” “Do tell” – until you saw Michael K. (Williams) act the part. Then you go, “Oh, great! He’s got that tool in the toolbag.” You are always reacting to an actor giving you shadings you weren’t expecting, and if shadings aren’t appearing, then you move away from that.

In terms of viewers not getting what you were putting across, was there something from “The Wire” where you feel in particular your intent wasn’t what many people received?

Yeah, sure. I’m always amazed when people refer to corruption in “The Wire” in the most simplistic way. I would see characters like Burrell or Rawls described as corrupt. Or political corruption. And I sort of never saw that. Corrupt, to me, is like graft. I realize that’s my own definition, but I think that’s a lot of people’s own definition. If you actually parse what we were saying about institutions, they were trying to avoid pain, and to avoid criticism or political cost. If Burrell or Rawls could do that, they might be also trying for personal advancement in the case of Rawls, or holding onto his position in the case of Burrell. Even now, when people talk about “The Wire,” they talk about it as being about a corrupt institution, and I never saw it that way. We had people doing things for money, stealing money. Clay Davis was corrupt, he was out for a buck. But a lot of these guys weren’t out for a buck; they were political creatures. It was almost like they were in a Skinner box, where you get shocked when you try to take the pellet.

But to this day, when “The Wire” is discussed, people talk about it being in this corrupt metropolis, and I think it’s something more frightening, actually, which is that this is the way institutions persevere, and the way it becomes self-sustaining and self-aggrandizing, which is let’s avoid the pain of having anyone reflect on whether we’re doing our jobs or not. I didn’t think anyone at any of those institutions was indicative of classic graft. We were interested in other things. Not that graft isn’t there, but it wasn’t the main thing.
To this day, whenever I write that Agent Koutris wasn’t on The Greek’s payroll, some people have trouble believing that.

That’s right. Koutris has different priorities. The Greek doesn’t pay him. He thinks The Greek is an asset in the War on Terror, and The Greek is happy to let him think that. It’s like the Whitey Bulger case, I haven’t read enough on it, but it doesn’t seem like that was over money. Those guys thought Bulger was giving them great stuff. He was an asset, and they allowed him to do the stuff he did because he was an asset. Koutris is a great example.

But again, sometimes you make something, and it doesn’t convey what you’re trying to convey. The fault isn’t the people acquiring it, the fault is in you. But I get a sense that even from people who haven’t watched the show, “a corrupt Baltimore” has become the overarching phrase of what the show is about. If you don’t have a corrupt city, you’re fine. If you don’t have guys in each other’s pockets, then your city doesn’t have the problems of “The Wire.” Crime is under control and all the test scores are real. Don’t worry; it’s just Baltimore.

But to revisit the other thing, let me say this: my apologies to anyone who was 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. 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.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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