Behold the Hack, the veteran newsman, wise beyond his years, a man who’s seen it all, twice. He’s honest, knowing, cynical, his occasional bitterness leavened with humor. He’s a friend to the little scam, and a scourge of the big one. Experience has acquainted him with suffering and stupidity, venality and vice. His anger is softened by the sure knowledge of his own futility. And now behold David Simon, the mind behind the brilliant HBO series The Wire. A gruff fireplug of a man, balding and big-featured, he speaks with an earthy, almost theatrical bluntness, and his blue-collar crust belies his comfortable suburban upbringing. He’s for all the world the quintessential Hack, down to his ink-stained fingertips—the kind of old newshound who will remind you that a “journalist” is a dead reporter. But Simon takes the cliché one step further; he’s an old newsman who feels betrayed by newspapers themselves.
For all his success and accomplishment, he’s an angry man, driven in part by lovingly nurtured grudges against those he feels have slighted him, underestimated him, or betrayed some public trust. High on this list is his old employer The Baltimore Sun—or more precisely, the editors and corporate owners who have (in his view) spent the past two decades eviscerating a great American newspaper. In a better world—one where papers still had owners and editors who were smart, socially committed, honest, and brave—Simon probably would never have left The Sun to pursue a Hollywood career. His father, a frustrated newsman, took him to see Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s classic newspaper farce, The Front Page, when he was a boy in Washington, D.C., and Simon was smitten. He landed a job as a Sun reporter just out of the University of Maryland in the early 1980s, and as he tells it, if the newspaper, the industry, and America had lived up to his expectations, he would probably still be documenting the underside of his adopted city one byline at a time. But The Sun let David Simon down.
So he has done something that many reporters only dream about. He has created his own Baltimore. With the help of his chief collaborator, Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop and schoolteacher; a stable of novelists and playwrights with a feel for urban drama (including George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane); a huge cast of master actors; and a small army of film professionals shooting on location—in the city’s blighted row-house neighborhoods and housing projects, in City Hall, nightclubs, police headquarters, in the suburbs, the snazzy Inner Harbor, the working docks—he has, over four seasons, conjured the city onscreen with a verisimilitude that’s astonishing. Marylanders scrutinize the plot for its allusions to real people and real events. Parallels with recent local political history abound, and the details of life in housing projects and on street corners seem spookily authentic. (A New York City narcotics detective who loves the show told me a few years ago that street gangs in Brooklyn were watching it to learn tactics for avoiding cell-phone intercepts.)
Despite the show’s dark portrait of “Body-more, Murdaland,” local officialdom has embraced The Wire, giving Simon and his cast and crew free rein, opening up municipal buildings and cordoning off outdoor spaces. Many prominent citizens, including former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, have made cameo appearances. The dress, manners, and colorful language of the show’s cast, which is largely African American, are painstakingly authentic, down to the uniquely slurred consonants and nasal vowel sounds of the local dialect, Balmerese. The Wire seems so real that I find myself, a Baltimore native, looking for the show’s characters when I pass through their familiar haunts.
The show hasn’t been a big commercial success. It’s never attracted a viewership to rival that of an HBO tent-pole series, like The Sopranos or even the short-lived Deadwood. It isn’t seen as a template for future TV dramas, primarily because its form more or less demands that each season be watched from the beginning. Whereas each episode of The Sopranos advanced certain overarching plot points but was essentially self-contained, anyone who tries to plumb the complexities of The Wire by tuning in at mid-season is likely to be lost. If the standard Hollywood feature is the film equivalent of a short story, each season of Simon’s show is a 12- or 13-chapter novel.
Some years ago, Tom Wolfe called on novelists to abandon the cul-de-sac of modern “literary” fiction, which he saw as self-absorbed, thumb-sucking gamesmanship, and instead to revive social realism, to take up as a subject the colossal, astonishing, and terrible pageant of contemporary America. I doubt he imagined that one of the best responses to this call would be a TV program, but the boxed sets blend nicely on a bookshelf with the great novels of American history.
As The Wire unveiled its fourth season in 2006, Jacob Weisberg of Slate, in a much-cited column, called it “the best TV show ever broadcast in America.” The New York Times, in an editorial (not a review, mind you) called the show Dickensian. I agree with both assessments. “Wire-world,” as Simon calls it, does for turn-of-the- millennium Baltimore what Dickens’s Bleak House does for mid-19th-century London. Dickens takes the byzantine bureaucracy of the law and the petty corruptions of the legal profession, borrows from the neighborhoods, manners, dress, and language of the Chancery courts and the Holborn district, and builds from them a world that breathes. Similarly, The Wire creates a vision of official Baltimore as a heavy, self-justified bureaucracy, gripped by its own byzantine logic and criminally unconcerned about the lives of ordinary people, who enter it at their own risk. One of the clever early conceits of the show was to juxtapose the organizational problems of the city police department with those of the powerful drug gang controlling trafficking in the city’s west-side slums. The heads of both organizations, official and criminal, wrestle with similar management and personnel issues, and resolve them with similarly cold self-interest. In both the department and the gang, the powerful exploit the weak, and within the ranks those who exhibit dedication, talent, and loyalty are usually punished for their efforts.
There are heroes in The Wire, but they’re flawed and battered. The show’s most exceptional police officers, detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon, find their initiative and talent punished at almost every turn. Their determination to do good, original work disturbs the department’s upper echelons, where people are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo and in advancing their own careers. The clash repeatedly lands both of them in hot water—or cold water; at the end of the first season, the seasick-prone McNulty is banished to the city’s marine unit. What success the two attain against Baltimore’s most powerful criminals is partial, compromised, and achieved despite stubborn and often creative official resistance.
One measure of the complexity of Simon’s vision is that the powerful obstructionists in The Wire aren’t simply evil people, the way they might have been in a standard Hollywood movie. While some are just inept or corrupt, most are smart and ambitious, sometimes even interested in doing good, but concerned first and foremost with their next promotion or a bigger paycheck. They are fiercely territorial, to a degree that interferes with real police work. In the premiere episode, the very idea of a separate squad to target the leadership of the city’s powerful drug gangs—which one would assume to be a high law-enforcement priority—is opposed by the police department. It’s imposed on the commissioner by order of a local judge, who’s outraged when a witness at a murder trial in his courtroom fearfully recants her testimony on the stand. To spite the judge, the commissioner staffs the unit with castoffs from various police divisions. Some of the castoffs are so alcoholic or corrupt they’re useless, but some, like the lesbian detective Shakima Greggs, or the patient, wise Freamon, or the ballsy, streetwise McNulty, are castoffs precisely because of their ability. In Simon’s world, excellence is a ticket out the door.