The Angriest Man In Television

How David Simon’s disappointment with the industry that let him down made The Wire the greatest show on television—and why his searing vision shouldn’t be confused with reality

In one of the show’s most interesting set pieces, a remarkable police major, “Bunny” Colvin, frustrated by the absurdity of the city’s useless drug war, conducts a novel experiment. Without the knowledge of his superiors, he effectively legalizes drugs in West Baltimore, creating a mini-Amsterdam, dubbed “Hamsterdam,” where all of the corner dealers are allowed to set up shop. By consolidating drug dealing, which he knows he cannot stop anyway, Colvin eliminates the daily turf battles that drive up the murder rates and dramatically improves life in most of his district. Calm returns to terrorized neighborhoods, and his patrolmen, freed from their cars and the endless pursuit of drug-dealing corner boys, return to real police work, walking beats, getting to know the people they serve. The sharp drop in his district crime stats shocks the department’s leadership and makes Colvin’s peers jealous—and suspicious. They assume he’s cooking the books.

WATCH A SCENE FROM THE WIRE: A character walks through “Hamsterdam,”
an experiment in drug legalization

Again, it’s a tribute to the depth of Simon’s imagination that this experiment isn’t presented as a cure-all. He doesn’t minimize the moral compromise inherent in Hamsterdam. Many addicts see their severe health problems worsen, and the drug-dealing zone becomes a haven for vice of all kinds. Decent people in the community are horrified by the officially sanctioned criminality and the tolerance of destructive addiction. The experiment ends ignobly when news of the unauthorized experiment reaches the ears of a Sun reporter. City Hall reacts to the story with predictable horror, scurrying and spinning to escape blame. Colvin loses his job, and the city goes back to the old war, which is useless but politically acceptable.

Story lines like these reflect the truth about Baltimore; Mayor Schmoke’s own promising political career crashed and burned some years ago when he had the temerity to suggest a less punitive approach to the city’s drug problem. But they don’t reflect the complete truth: like Dickens’s London, Simon’s Baltimore is a richly imagined caricature of its real-life counterpart, not a carbon copy. And precisely because the Baltimore in The Wire seems so real, down to the finest details, the show constitutes an interesting study in the difference between journalism and fiction. Simon’s first book, Homicide, was a critically acclaimed work of nonfiction, from which some of the themes, characters, and even stories of The Wire are drawn. (It was also the basis for the 1990s NBC show Homicide: Life on the Street.) Which raises the question—if your subject is the real world, why deal in fiction?

The answer has something to do with Simon’s own passions and his deeply held political beliefs. “I am someone who’s very angry with the political structure,” he said in a long 2006 interview with Slate. “The show is written in a 21st-century city-state that is incredibly bureaucratic, and in which a legal pursuit of an unenforceable prohibition [the war on drugs] has created great absurdity.” To Simon, The Wire is about “the very simple idea that, in this postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We’re worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It’s the triumph of capitalism. Whether you’re a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It’s the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It’s viable for the few. But I don’t live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.”

This is a message—a searing attack on the excesses of Big Capitalism—that rarely finds its way into prime-time entertainment on national TV. It’s audacious. But it’s also relentlessly … well, bleak.

From the archives:

"The Code of the Streets" (May 1994)
In this essay in urban anthropology a social scientist takes us inside a world most of us only glimpse in grisly headlines. By Elijah Anderson

Interviews: "Street Life" (August 28, 1999)
Elijah Anderson talks about his book, Code of the Street, and the importance of looking honestly at life in the inner city

“I am struck by how dark the show is,” says Elijah Anderson, the Yale sociologist whose classic works Code of the Streets, Streetwise, and A Place on the Corner document black inner-city life with noted clarity and sympathy. Anderson would be the last person to gloss over the severe problems of the urban poor, but in The Wire he sees “a bottom-line cynicism” that is at odds with his own perception of real life. “The show is very good,” he says. “It resonates. It is powerful in its depiction of the codes of the streets, but it is an exaggeration. I get frustrated watching it, because it gives such a powerful appearance of reality, but it always seems to leave something important out. What they have left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.”

This bleakness is Simon’s stamp on the show, and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness. The imagination, values, and convictions of a writer play a big part in even the most accurate nonfiction, of course. Telling a true story well demands that the reporter achieve his own understanding of the events and people described, and arriving at that point can mean shading reality, even if only unconsciously. We view the world from where we sit. Truman Capote, in his nonfiction classic, In Cold Blood, finds a clue to the motives of the murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, in unrequited or unconscious homosexual desire. Norman Mailer’s preoccupation with mystical themes gives the senseless killer Gary Gilmore a romantic aura in The Executioner’s Song. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s fascination with masculinity and social status allows him to cast the early space program as a prolonged reprise of ancient single-combat rituals. In each case, the author’s unique perspective gives a “true” story a starkly original shape.

But the more passionate your convictions, the harder it is to resist tampering with the contradictions and stubborn messiness of real life. Every reporter knows the sensation of having a story “ruined” by some new and surprising piece of information. Just when you think you have the thing figured out, you learn something that shatters your carefully wrought vision. Being surprised is the essence of good reporting. But it’s also the moment when a dishonest writer is tempted to fudge, for the sake of commercial success—and a more honest writer like Simon, whose passion is political and personal, is tempted to shift his energies to fiction.

Which is precisely what he’s done. Simon is the reporter who knows enough about Baltimore to have his story all figured out, but instead of risking the coherence of his vision by doing what reporters do, heading back out day after day to observe, to ask more questions, to take more notes, he has stopped reporting and started inventing. He says, I have figured this thing out. He offers up his undisturbed vision, leaving out the things that don’t fit, adding things that emphasize its fundamentals, and then using the trappings of realism to dress it up and bring it to life onscreen.

The essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least not a complete one—because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing. Art frees you from the infuriating unfinishedness of the real world. For this reason, the very clarity of well-wrought fiction can sometimes make it feel more real than reality. As a film producer once told me, “It’s important not to let the facts get in the way of the truth.”

Fiction can explain things that journalism cannot. It allows you to enter the lives and motivations of characters with far more intimacy than is typically possible in nonfiction. In the case of The Wire, fiction allows you to wander around inside a violent, criminal subculture, and inside an entrenched official bureaucracy, in a way that most reporters can only dream about. And it frees you from concerns about libel and cruelty. It frees you to be unfair.

In a session before a live audience in Baltimore last April, for a local storytelling series called The Stoop, Simon was asked to speak on a topic labeled “My Nemesis.” He began by reciting, by name, some of the people he holds grudges against, going all the way back to grade school. He was being humorous, and the audience was laughing, but anyone who knows him knows that his monologue was, like his fiction, slightly overstated for effect, but basically the truth.

“I keep these names, I treasure them,” he said:

I will confess to you now that anything I have ever accomplished as a writer, as somebody doing TV, as anything I have ever done in life down to, like, cleaning up my room, has been accomplished because I was going to show people that they were fucked up and wrong and that I was the fucking center of the universe, and the sooner they got hip to that, the happier they would all be … That’s what’s going on in my head.
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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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