Archive for category: Essays/Opinion

Two Americas: A primer for Europeans

05 Sep
September 5, 2008

On the heels of The Wire becoming a hot ticket on British television, The Guardian asked me for a curtain-raiser on season five — the media season — with a Baltimore dateline in their Sunday edition.  By this point, it had become clear that The Wire was something of a phenomenon over there; American dystopia plays better the farther one travels from America, apparently.  And too, it had become clear that many viewers in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe were content to believe that The Wire was representative of the urban U.S. in its entirety.  Moreover, some of them were expressing a good bit of schadenfreude in this.

So in The Guardian, I tried to walk the line between affirming what I thought was truthful in The Wire and making clear the geographic limitations of the drama.  Not sure it worked at all, or that anyone took the point.  But in my mind, at least, it boiled down to an interior stance: We can say this shit about ourselves.  And at times, we will.  But fuck you if you’re thinking the worst of us and enjoying it a little too much.

DS

FROM THE U.K. GUARDIAN

Reprinted with permission.

BALTIMORE, Md. —- it’s been an ordinary week in Maryland’s largest city. The August heat broke and one can nearly sleep with a window open; the Orioles are again down in the cellar in the American League East; the city murder rate is a bit behind last year’s blood-letting, and if it holds into the fall, politicians and police commanders will compete to claim credit.

The stories in the Baltimore Sun remain fixed on the surface, each of them premised on the givens: schools will open next week and provide more or less the same inferior education as previous years; Johns Hopkins is building its biotech park expansion where the East Baltimore ghetto used to be and the ghetto is migrating due east and north-east; the biotech park will be great for white folk with college degrees, for those with union cards, the factories are still closed and the port is still losing cargo to Norfolk; a shooting here, a cutting there …

All in all, an unremarkable summer.

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Justifiable

15 Apr
April 15, 2008

Published in Sports Illustrated

Reprinted with permission.

In their series’ five years on NBC, the producers of Homicide: Life on the Street have used police tape to cordon off  fictitious murder scenes on streets and back alleys all over Baltimore.  But the show had never tried to stage a crime at the city’s best- known setting: Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The idea that Peter Angelos, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, and the Maryland Stadium Authority would permit Homicide to portray some grisly murder there, made-for-TV or not, seemed hopelessly far-fetched. But in what producers David Simon and Jim Yoshimura describe as a moment of  “pure, unencumbered genius,” they jiggered the plot so that the ballpark brass not only embraced the idea but also happily allowed Orioles pitchers Armando Benitez and Scott Erickson to make cameo appearances. In this season’s second episode, which is to air on Friday, the victim and the killer are both obnoxious men with thick Long Island accents. Each is a New York Yankees fan. “Someone should check the Maryland Annotated Code,” says Detective John Munch, who is played by Richard Belzer. “I’m not sure this is actually a crime in Baltimore.”

One of the happiest memories of my years working on NBC’s Homicide was the meeting with Orioles officials to propose the above storyline.

“A murder?  Why would we show a murder at the ballpark?”

“It’s Yankee fan who gets killed.”

“Okay, but still…”

“Another Yankee fan kills him.”

Long pause, smiles in the room.  Sold.

 

 

The Wire’s Final Season and the Story Everyone Missed

17 Mar
March 17, 2008

From the Huffington Post, March 17, 2008
Reprinted with Permission

Well now, it’s been a week since The Wire‘s final episode and a certain calm has descended, leaving a little less agita and a little more reflection. A moment for one last question:

That wasn’t too vicious, was it?

Sure there was a fabulist and, yeah, he snatched the big prize. Couldn’t resist, sorry. That was a bit beyond the historical reality; at the historical Baltimore Sun, he was a mere Pulitzer finalist. And okay, the city editor, the honorable fellow, the one for whom journalism was an ethos, he got slapped down and thrown to the copy desk. We did that, too, because hey, to criticize such a newsroom culture did indeed carry those risks in Baltimore.

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From Time Magazine: End The Drug War

17 Mar
March 17, 2008

by Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, David Simon and William F. Zorzi Jr.

From Time Magazine, March 17, 2008

Reprinted with permission.

We write a television show. Measured against more thoughtful and meaningful occupations, this is not the best seat from which to argue public policy or social justice. Still, those viewers who followed The Wire – our HBO drama that tried to portray all sides of inner-city collapse, including the drug war, with as much detail and as little judgment as we could muster – tell us they’ve invested in the fates of our characters. They worry or grieve for Bubbles, Bodie or Wallace, certain that these characters are fictional yet knowing they are rooted in the reality of the other America, the one rarely acknowledged by anything so overt as a TV drama.

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A Final Thank You To Those Who Watched

10 Mar
March 10, 2008

FROM HBO.COM

On the occasion of airing The Wire’s last episode

March 2008

A last thank you to those HBO subscribers who took the time and care to accompany us on this journey. The Wire arrived six years ago to little fanfare and modest expectation. It demanded from viewers a delicate, patient consideration and a ridiculous degree of attention to detail.

It wasn’t for everyone. We proved that rather quickly.

But episode to episode, you began to understand that we were committed to creating something careful and ornate, something that might resonate. You took Lester Freamon at his word: That we were building something here and all the pieces matter.

When we took a chainsaw to the first season, choosing to begin the second-story arc with an entirely different theme and different characters, you followed us to the port and our elegy for America’s working class. When we shifted again, taking up the political culture of our mythical city in season three, you remained loyal. And when we ended the Barksdale arc and began an exploration of public education, you were, by that time, we hope, elated to understand that whatever else might happen, The Wire would not waste your time telling the same story twice.

This year, our drama asked its last thematic question: Why, if there is any truth to anything presented in The Wire over the last four seasons, does that truth go unaddressed by our political culture, by most of our mass media, and by our society in general?

We’ve given our answer:

We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them.

The Wire is fiction. Many of the events depicted over the last five seasons did not, to our knowledge, happen. Fewer happened in the exact manner described. Fiction is fiction, and it should in no way be confused with journalism.

But it is also fair to note that the problems themselves — politicians cooking crime stats for higher office, school administrators teaching test questions to vindicate No Child Left Behind, sensitive prosecutions and investigations being undercut for political motives, brutal drug wars fought amid a police department’s ignorance of and indifference to the forces involved — were indeed problems in the recent history of the actual Baltimore, Maryland.

Few of these matters received the serious attention — or, in some cases — any attention from the media. These problems exist in plain sight, ready to be addressed by anyone seriously committed to doing so. For those of us writing The Wire, a television drama, story research involved dragging the right police lieutenants or school teachers, prosecutors and political functionaries to neighborhood diners and bars and taking story notes down on cocktail napkins and paper placemats. To be more precise with their tales? To record it and relay it in a manner that can stand as non-fiction truthtelling? Yes, that’s harder to do. But there was a time when journalism regarded that kind of coverage as its highest mission. The true stories that The Wire traded in are out there, waiting for anyone willing to take the time. And it is, of course, vaguely disturbing to us that our unlikely little television drama is making arguments that were once the prerogative of more serious mediums.

We tried to be entertaining, but in no way did we want to be mistaken for entertainment. We tried to provoke, to critique and debate and rant a bit. We wanted an argument. We think a few good arguments are needed still, that there is much more to be said and it is entirely likely that there are better ideas than the ones we offered. But nothing happens unless the shit is stirred. That, for us, was job one.

If you followed us for sixty hours, and you find yourself caring about these issues more than you thought you would, then perhaps the next step is to engage and to demand, where possible, a more sophisticated and meaningful response from authority when it comes to such things as the drug war, educational reform or responsible political leadership. The Wire is about the America we pay for and tolerate. Perhaps it is possible to pay for, and demand, something more.

Again, accept our sincere thanks for making the commitment to watch a show as improbable and problematic as ours and for considering the arguments and issues seriously. We are surprised as you are to be here at the end, on our own terms, still standing. As a cast and crew, we’re proud. But the credit is not all ours. It’s yours as well for believing, year after year, in this story.

David Simon
Baltimore, Md.
March 10, 2008