Spend time with David Simon and you’ll hear many nostalgic memories about arguments.
There’s the fight he had with producer Jimmy Finnerty about whether Simon’s investigative reporting for the Baltimore Sun would jeopardize Homicide: Life on the Street, the NBC show based on Simon’s book. “He says, ‘Don’t run the fucking articles!’ And I said, ‘That’s not an option.’ And Jimmy says—I wish I could do his accent—‘You fuckin’ writer motherfuckers, you don’t know when to shut up.’ We start screaming: ‘Who the fuck are you?’ ‘Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck are you?’ ”
There’s the debate that swallowed up three writers’ meetings on The Wire, about whether a drug kingpin should use prepaid phone cards or sim chips.
There’s the first real conversation he had with his wife and former Baltimore Sun colleague, Laura Lippman, when he spilled coffee on her news blotter.
There are the debates his family had growing up, the ones about which Treme co-creator Eric Overmyer told me, “If my family was arguing like that, it would mean somebody is about to be shot, killed, or divorced.”
And Simon will certainly argue if you call him argumentative.
Simon’s eating a salad so large he can’t finish it, and we’ve been discussing how much television has changed over the last decade. We’re at Liuzza’s, a New Orleans local, surrounded by the black-and-gold Saints footballs that are everywhere this week, just before the Super Bowl. Though he’s fighting a cold, Simon offers sharp insights about the rise of DVDs, the value of a niche audience, and things are prickly but companionable, until suddenly we stumble onto the topic of journalism.
He’s telling me how hard he’d worked to get The Wire “from the entertainment pages to the op-eds,” deliberately dropping outrageous remarks to interviewers about drug legalization in season three, public schools in season four. He made no headway: The Wire was worshipped by critics, but it was no Sopranos, with broad cultural sway.
Then came season five, which critiqued newspapers, and “we couldn’t get more ink,” Simon says. “Nothing was funnier!” And his tone goes black, until he’s practically snarling across the table at some specter of journalistic iniquity. “You’re clearly not interested in the world. Why don’t we talk about you for a while?”
And somehow, no matter how much we try to get back to the subject of our conversation—Treme, Simon’s new series about New Orleans, which debuts April 11—we keep getting swept into the past. Simon gives an extended defense of arrogance, about how it’s the essence of the writer’s impulse and if people say they’re not arrogant, they’re the arrogant ones. Which is true. But he also argues against arrogance, telling me that the most corrupt reporters are the types who try to “nail some politician’s pelt to the wall,” while the best are “simply curious”—it’s kind of an onslaught, and our conversation stumbles into a rabbit’s warren of old disputes, on back to the ancient troubles of the Baltimore Sun. Simon is like this in person: a stickler, a moralist. And while he hates this reputation as a battler, he knows it has an upside.
“It doesn’t hurt me to be known as the angry guy,” he says with a glance at the HBO publicist, Diego Aldana, who has joined us for lunch.
“How scared are they at HBO when they get me on the line? My agent was able to have conversations with people and they were unnecessarily nervous about contradicting—” He shakes his head, smiling. “Our intentions. And I found that to be very funny.”
As we walk out into the parking lot, I say I find it strange that after as many years in television as he ever had as a reporter, he still doesn’t seem to identify as a showrunner. “Who would claim to be that?” he snorts. It’s a reference to a line in The Untouchables.
“There aren’t a lot of writers on my shows who want to write for television,” he says. “It just happened.”
But as he turns the ignition in his car, he pauses. “Yeah, I know,” he says, pulling into traffic. “It’s a weird self-identification. It’s not honest. I can no longer say, as I used to say in interviews, I’m a newspaperman, I just don’t have a newspaper. It’s not the job I do.”
David Simon created the best television series in history—a critical opinion so dominant that when I tell a sound editor I’m writing about Simon, she cracks, “Isn’t his head big enough already?” A career as an HBO powerhouse was never his plan: Starting in his teens, Simon yearned to be a reporter, a devotee of H. L. Mencken’s “life of kings.” Then his nonfiction books became TV shows and his newspaper job (long story short) crumbled and Simon stepped sideways, into TV writing, never leaving behind his obsession with the facts. As recently as two years ago, Laura Lippman tells me, he insisted they drive in the direction of a fire he spotted in the distance: “He saw a huge black cloud over the Interstate. He couldn’t help himself, he drove straight to it, just in case it was a big story, me protesting all the way.”
The Wire aired from 2002 until 2008. It never got the ratings, but HBO stuck by it, and the gamble paid off: The show’s reputation has only deepened since the finale. Narratively, the series was a collaboration among writers including Simon’s college-journalism friend David Mills (who died of an aneurysm last Tuesday at age 48), ex-cop Ed Burns, and novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price. But ideologically, The Wire was pure Simon. It was the most pointed version yet of an argument he’d been making his whole adult life.
Like any person publicizing an artistic product, Simon had his pitch, which he made most succinctly to Nick Hornby in The Believer: “The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces.” In its structure, it was a response to cop shows: It made it impossible to watch Law & Order without knowing better. But at a deeper level, it built a case, dramatizing how each city system—the schools, the police, the mayor’s office—crushed individual attempts at change. Despite the show’s humanism (the way it lit up the lowliest kid dealers), The Wire was a very grim portrait of the city Simon loves—a pitiless exposure of “some shameful shit right there.”
Simon is rankled by censorious responses to his personality, which he sees as a way of reducing his politics to a grudge. But if one criticism got to him over the course of The Wire’s run, it was the notion that the show was so bleak as to be nihilistic, that it painted Baltimore, and by extension the poor black community, government, and urban neighborhoods themselves, as unfixable, endlessly corrupt.
Ask Simon about his new show, Treme, and you get a different pitch, one in which the city is heroic instead of tragic. “New Orleans manufactures moments,” he tells me, twice. Though the infrastructure has been mangled, “it’s a tourist economy with something organic underneath, the best we can be as Americans: It’s a triumph of the melting pot, right down to the rhythms of the street! It’s black, it’s white, it’s Cuban, it’s Haitian. It’s our greatest export.”
The first inklings of Treme came years before The Wire, in the late nineties, when Simon and Eric Overmyer were writing for Homicide. They dreamed of a show that “wouldn’t be about cops or lawyers or doctors.” Both men were music freaks; they made regular journeys to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, and Overmyer lived there part time. Years later, when Katrina happened, Simon’s first thought was that local junkies must be desperate. His second was the show. “I thought immediately, If we don’t sell this now … That sounds a little ghoulish. But, you know, it was an easier meeting.”
Treme (pronounced “treh-may”), named after one of New Orleans’s poorest neighborhoods, begins three months after Katrina. In the premiere, there is no crime. (Accurately: In those early months, crime dropped locally, rising in Houston and Baton Rouge.) The focus is on a cross-section of New Orleans residents (a professor, a cook, a bar owner, a lawyer, a Mardi Gras Indian) who, as in Simon’s previous productions, are mostly inspired by real people—a process Simon variously describes as “accessing the real,” “rooted in the real,” and “putting one over on the real.” There are characters based directly on locals, like Davis McAlary, whose adventures are those of local D.J. Davis Rogan. There are part-real-part-fictional characters, like Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), whose speeches include excerpts from local blogger Ashley Morris, who died in 2008. Jazz musician Kermit Ruffins plays himself, as do many other musicians. And then there are more purely imaginary figures, like two street musicians in the French Quarter.
In the wake of the storm, this group struggles to remake their lives. But despite the devastation, the wrecked homes and livelihoods, there is barbecue, and sex, and a caper involving a Tower Records store. With its scenes of musicians jamming, it’s far less bleak than The Wire—there’s a stoned, sunny feeling, almost light, at times.
Overmyer says that when they had their first conference call with HBO, after the first cut, they got a note, “not a bad note.” But Simon “went ballistic” and started lecturing the executives: “ ‘Don’t you network me! That could’ve been a note from CBS!’ He just went for fifteen minutes—and I thought, Oh, we’re dead.” Instead, HBO apologized to Simon—and ordered the pilot. “I think maybe David needed to pick that fight, to get himself going. I described the phone call to Tom Fontana, and we just laughed. It’s a strategy.”
I ask Simon what the note was. “What the HBO cat was saying was this: ‘We’re worried that not enough happens,’ ” he says. “The guy didn’t see the usual tropes of television on which to hang his hat. And that’s a fight that I had to have.” He smiles at the memory. “I went hyperbolic. I said, ‘Well, okay, we’ll put a murder in there!’ I was hoping he wouldn’t take me up on it, and in fact, the guy’s a mensch, and he went, ‘Oh, oh, that’s not what we want.’ ”
Treme is a departure for Simon in several ways—most obviously because it’s not about Baltimore, his life’s work (with one break to film the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, set in Iraq). But it’s a personal shift as well. After years as a bristling outsider, Simon is a big deal, enough of a celebrity that strangers “go civilian” in his presence, to use the phrase he himself used to describe meeting director Joel Coen. A P.A. on the set told me The Wire had changed his life, then added, “I can’t look him in the eye! I’m intimidated, like, This is the guy.”
“I’m in the David Simon business,” former HBO executive Carolyn Strauss assured Simon when he pitched Treme. And it’s true that for many, Simon is a hero and a brand, an odd role for a man convinced that power corrupts. “He couldn’t organize his own closet,” his old Sun editor Rebecca Corbett says of Simon’s days as a “phenom” at the paper. “And the idea that he’s running this big operation is amazing and impressive. He clearly has managerial skills that weren’t necessarily evident back then.”
There is a way to break the ice with Simon, but it’s not about journalism. It’s about music. “You always try to get a feel for one another’s iPod,” Tom Piazza, a novelist and the author of Why New Orleans Matters, says of his initial meetings with the other Treme writers. “It’s the lingua franca for all of us.”
The Treme creative team is stocked with music-obsessed Simon veterans, including Wire actors like Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters and writers like Mills and Pelecanos (whom Piazza describes as “a completely depraved music addict”). This group communicates in a weave of references so dense it’s easy to feel excluded. Lippman jokingly paraphrases a Nick Hornby line about a woman married to a music geek: “He made me feel like I was bad at listening to music.”
While filming a scene in a storm-damaged bar, Simon shoots musical notes to Peters like a flare—a Miles Davis melody. As the two discuss ways to play the scene, an assistant director jokes they should add a number.
“For this scene, the song would be ‘Beware, Brother, Beware,’ ” Simon says.
Simon’s and Peters’s faces light up, and they start chanting the Louis Jordan lyrics.
“If you go to a show and she wanna sit in the back row?”
They call out the words together: “Bring her down front! Bring her right down front!”
For many, Simon is now a hero and a brand, an odd role for a man convinced that power corrupts.
And then they’re off, singing snatches of “Jack, You’re Dead” and “What’s the Use of Gettin’ Sober,” the way other people might trade sports stats. Simon collects Professor Longhair albums and when he was younger played guitar and harmonica. His 15-year-old son, Ethan, from his second marriage, is the musician now: “To her great credit, his mother insisted he learn classical piano.” Simon then hired Davis Rogan to give Ethan “a rhythm-and-blues intervention.”
During a break in filming, I ask about the Mardi Gras Indians, the esoteric culture that inspired Clarke’s character (they’re the black performers who wear elaborate headdresses in the Zulu parade). Simon got C’s in college, but he is a brilliant autodidact. When you ask him about something—the Ninth Ward, the nature of R&B—he scrolls the answer out in dense detail. He’s lit with his desire to help you understand, but there’s also something brutal about his communication style, which can feel like lecturing.
He goes into full Simon mode. Locking in eye contact, he explains the historical taboo against black people wearing masks; the way African-Americans adopted Native American culture as a coded gesture of rebellion; the origins of the chant “Iko Iko,” the song covered by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in the fifties. After several minutes, I interrupt, but he brushes it off, goes back to delivering information.
I ask if there was some point when he’d started to feel confident making television. He pauses, then says he can’t remember any such point. Or maybe he finds the question absurd, which is the same thing—it’s impossible to get Simon to talk about his life now the way he readily does about his days as a reporter. (A sample: “I was making less than 50K, but I couldn’t have cared less, because most people don’t get to do that! Don’t get to say what they think about their bosses, about the product in the paper, who’s good, who’s bad, who cooked a quote. It was a perfect profession for somebody who is willing to sacrifice a certain amount of tangible shit in life for the opportunity to—voice. And the editors who were great could handle those personalities: ‘He’s a fucking hothead, but he’s our hothead.’ ”)
When I asked why he doesn’t make documentaries, given his passion for authenticity, he frowns. “Because I’m not a documentary-maker.”
In a gold sedan outside the set, I sit down with Peters, the marvelously calm actor who played detective Lester Freamon on The Wire. Peters has known Simon since 2000’s The Corner, the HBO production based on Simon’s nonfiction book about Baltimore addicts. I ask whether Simon had changed with success.
Peters glances at my tape recorder. “Hey, I just had lunch with Simon,” I say. “I know he can be irascible.”
“Well, when I first met David, his social skills left a lot to be desired,” Peters says in his deep voice, smiling. “For whatever reason: Some people are nervous, regardless of their genius. I felt I could do nothing to please this cat.” Peters was closer to Simon’s nurturing co-producer, Robert Colesberry. But since Colesberry’s death, of heart disease, in 2004, Simon has dropped his guard—and Peters has come to respect him as a creative force. “He puts his head above the parapet to be shot down, and I stand with him. He makes me feel like an actor on a mission.”
Tom Fontana puts it another way. “Before I hired him on Homicide, when he was a reporter defending truth, justice, and the Baltimore homicide unit, anything he thought I did wrong on that subject was an insult,” he says. “He would be in my office and in my face and very prickly. But over time I came to love him for it. And when he got downsized, he came to me and he said—he said, ‘I want to make TV.’ And then he was my bitch. You just have to wait long enough.”
As Simon and I walk to the set, I ask him what he watches on television—has he seen Dexter, Showtime’s series about a serial killer who kills serial killers? There was a satirical reference to it on The Wire.
He’s only watched a half-hour of it. “It offends me, I have to say,” he says slowly, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t like pissing on anybody else’s work. I think it’s very well done; it may even have something to say about the culture of violence. But I think it’s a bit—cathartic, in a way that I don’t think anything dealing with that subject matter has a right to be. Does that make sense?”
“We were very purposely mocking the American obsession with the psychosexual nature of violence,” Simon says about season five of The Wire, which featured a fake serial killer. “Seventy-five percent of the victims in my city are people of color, and they’re killed for economic reasons. A lot of them are killed by the same people over and over again who are never caught. That’s the definition of a serial killer. And you can’t get anybody to devote resources to that. But if somebody makes one white girl disappear in Aruba … ” He flashes back to the critical response to season five: “Another thing the media didn’t get!”
Cop shows were both The Wire’s engine and its nemesis. They gave the show something to react against—the same way The Sopranos parasitically reinvented the mob drama or Deadwood the Western. Treme, which doesn’t have such structures to cling to, is a stranger creature. Overmyer and Simon each compare the series to Northern Exposure—the CBS early-nineties series about eccentrics in Alaska—but their hearts don’t seem in it, and it doesn’t really ring true. If Simon is pushing against anything, it’s his reputation as a scourge: This time, he will be making the case that urban centers are sources of joy as well as pain. And where his subject was for a long time the lives of cops, now he’s trying to access the inner world of musicians, who create pleasure even in the midst of destruction.
New Orleans, of course, is a risky place for such imaginative leaps. Long before Katrina, New Orleanians were wary of portrayals from the outside—even the most loving documentaries, locals told me, hadn’t captured the city’s essence.
But there are New Orleanians who see opportunity in Treme as well as danger. Rogan, for one, is delighted to have his life turned into an HBO story. He’d auditioned to play himself (“I’m not TV-shaped,” he gripes). But when Simon wanted to rename the character—telling him, “Davis, we’ll change your name, but the cognoscenti will know”—Rogan begged him not to. “I said, David, I can’t fill a nightclub with the cognoscenti! It’s a selling point for me.” They compromised, changing only the last name.
I spoke with Laura Lippman, Simon’s wife and a best-selling crime novelist, just after she’d attended Mardi Gras. The holiday had been “happy but chaotic,” she said—the Treme crew and Spike Lee’s HBO documentary crew were simultaneously filming the Zulu parade, and the result was a strange cinematic game of chicken, with Lee’s cameras filming the filming of Treme as the Treme crew tried to avoid filming them back.
Lippman and Simon first met when they were working for competing newspapers. One day, he worked at her desk. “He spilled coffee all over my news blotter,” she says. “I did a little basic reporting and confronted him: What the fuck?”
Unlike Simon, Lippman has no nostalgia for her old job. Reporting was just the family business—her father was a columnist for the Sun. In contrast, Simon grew up in an upper-middle-class Jewish household in Silver Spring, Maryland, where his father was the publicist for B’nai Brith and his mother counseled teenaged runaways. (He still identifies as Jewish, although he tells me the family joke is that “the shul we don’t go to must be Conservative.”) At the University of Maryland Diamondback, where he worked with David Mills, he debuted with a humor column that opened “Eat flaming death, you pig dog lackeys.” It was about student parking-ticketers. “They only cut two words,” he says with a rare glowing smile. “It was like getting published in the Post.”
Each went through a wrenching divorce, and Lippman has expressed doubts about two-writer marriages—“I think what I said is that it should be prohibited at least by social custom if not actual law”—but she and Simon have spent the decade together in a productive parallel rise, carefully maintaining separate press profiles. Like Simon’s writing, Lippman’s novels (especially her ambitious psychological thrillers) nest within the outlines of actual Baltimore crimes. Each spouse mentions a mutual slogan, adapted from sports radio host Jim Rome: “Have a take. Don’t suck.”
Read Lippman’s writing and you find traces of Simon, strained through her acridly funny, noir-tinged sensibility. In Lippman’s short story “The Crack Cocaine Diet,” two ditzy white girls vow to lose weight by scoring coke. “Where do we get it?” says one. “On, like, a corner?” suggests the other. “Right, Molly, I watch HBO too,” says her friend. (Simon made his own nod to Lippman in The Wire, incorporating two of her characters.)
If Simon is pushing against anything, it’s his reputation as a scourge: This time he will make the case that urban centers are sources of joy as well as pain.
But perhaps the most telling bit of potential Simoniana appears in Lippman’s first novel, 1997’s Baltimore Blues, the launch of her detective series, with its heroine, Tess Monaghan, who, like Laura, is a rower and an ex-reporter. Tess has a lover, “Jonathan Ross,” the ultimate sketchy ex who, McNulty style, keeps showing up drunk on her doorstep. “She realized every newspaper had a Jonathan Ross, a crime journalist who wanted to be a cop,” Tess thinks. Like Simon, Ross is Jewish and he specializes in homicide detectives; and as Simon did back then, Ross plays harmonica and has a diamond-stud earring. He’s a rather obnoxious figure (and, hilariously for any Wire fan, obsessed with Pulitzers), but he does get a heroic death scene, saving Tess from a speeding cab. When the cops arrive, they try to talk Tess out of labeling Ross’s death a homicide: “juking the stats.”
(Lippman tells me the character was not based on Simon—she says he blurbed the book, in fact—but Corbett, Simon’s old editor, says it was generally assumed there was a character based on him.)
Lippman turned down Simon’s offer to write for season five of The Wire. When season four was in flux, Lippman did pitch “a real-life case of a guy who was a serial killer of his wives. David said, correctly, though it sounds awful, that there’s no larger issue. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry domestic violence isn’t big enough for you!’ But it wasn’t a story about institutional failure.”
Culturally, the two share few tastes: Lippman favors fiction, reality television, and Sondheim. But her greatest influence has been complicating Simon’s notions of truth. “She’s pulled me up on the certitude of memory,” Simon says. “The file drawers are full; stuff’s fallen out, nothing’s where it should be. She’s not inclined to write her own memoirs, but she reads a lot of them. She likes the good ones, but she regards them all as a little bit fraudulent. Sometimes in a good way.”
Simon’s shows are not memoirs, of course—one of his greatest curse words is “solipsism.” And yet his project with Treme risks similar criticisms of fraudulence, in essence ghostwriting a city’s memoir of dysfunction and recovery, fictionalizing real events in the name of a greater truth. Anyone else trying to do something so ethically complex might be called to account. But Simon’s reporter’s ethic, his political bona fides, have lent him a measure of trust.
When the set packs up, it’s getting dark. I climb into a van with the HBO publicist, Aldana, planning to see some jazz. Simon lingers nearby, hands in pockets. I ask what his plans are. “Possibly see some music,” he says. Does he want to come along? He nods. It occurs to me that Simon may actually be slightly shy.
As we leave, Simon tells me that this is the most dangerous neighborhood in New Orleans. He’s in a cheerful mood now, bouncing on his sneakers. We run down the abandoned street. It’s ice cold. “About 25 percent of the murders in the city take place here. But we’re used to it, from filming The Wire,” he explains.
He turns to Aldana. “We’re gonna get jumped by some yo’s!” Simon jokes, then calls out into the air, “And we’re gonna be like, ‘Hey, leave us alone—do anything you want to the girl!’ ” He turns to me: “Bet you don’t hear that a lot.”
We drive off toward the club. “Note this spaghetti,” says Simon, whizzing through a series of insanely interconnected ramps on the I-10. “This could only be constructed by the State of Louisiana on a government contract.”
Each time Simon and I have driven in New Orleans, he’s gotten lost. But eventually, we arrive at the Maple Leaf to see the Rebirth Brass Band, famous for their merge of jazz with funk. They also played Ethan Simon’s bar mitzvah.
Simon and I sit on the bench outside, as he sips an orange juice and vodka. His cold has gotten worse. (Earlier, I’d heard him moan to Lippman on the phone, “God, don’t even talk about lung cancer while I have this cough.”)
As a vendor shills barbecue, Simon tells me about other projects: a film about the Lincoln assassination he’s writing with Tom Fontana, a book about the drug trade, an HBO series about the CIA. He reminisces again about his years as a reporter, peppering a corrupt politician with questions. The guy derided Simon from the assembly floor, announcing, “This little person came up to me … ”
He loves the punch line, the politico privately telling him, “Thank you, Mr. Simon, for being fair.”
We discuss Lippman’s website the Memory Project, on which readers share childhood stories. Simon has long had a love-hate relationship with the Internet, that prime suspect in the death of newspapers. When I’d asked Simon how much he read comments online, he said he read sparingly: “It’s your job not to listen.” (Then I interviewed, separately, Overmyer and Treme producer Nina Noble. “I don’t read at all, and he reads everything,” Overmyer said, gesturing down the street at Simon. “Somewhat,” Noble said. “But not as obsessively as he does,” shooting Simon a glance.)
But lately, he’s been thinking about ways he can turn the web to his advantage.
“Fuck the exposition,” he says gleefully as we go back into the bar. “Just be. The exposition can come later.” He describes a theory of television narrative. “If I can make you curious enough, there’s this thing called Google. If you’re curious about the New Orleans Indians, or ‘second-line’ musicians—you can look it up.” The Internet, he suggests, can provide its own creative freedom, releasing writers from having to overexplain, allowing history to light the characters from within.
Inside, Rebirth is playing: a blast of beautiful, funky horns. Simon wades into the crowd of college students and old men. He jounces along, wagging his meaty shoulders. I stand a few feet away. He’s not welcoming; he’s not unfriendly either. He just seems to be in his own space. No one who works with him comes near—they stay at the bar, telling stories about rafting the Zambezi River.
When I get back home, I send Simon my question again: Why create drama, not documentary?
He writes a long note back. “We know more about what Huey Long represented and the emptiness at the core of American political culture from reading Robert Penn Warren than from contemporary journalistic accounts of Long’s reign. We know more about human pride, purpose, and obsession from Moby-Dick than from any contemporaneous account of the Nantucket whaler that was actually struck and sunk by a whale in the nineteenth-century incident on which Melville based his book. And we know how much of an affront the Spanish Civil War was to the human spirit when we stare at Picasso’s Guernica than when we read a more deliberate, fact-based account. I am not comparing anything I’ve done to any of the above; please, please do not presume that because I cite someone else’s art, I claim anything similar for anything I’ve done. But I cite the above because it makes the answer to your question obvious: Picasso said art is the lie that allows us to see the truth. That is it exactly.”
In his e-mail, Simon takes a side: He’s a dramatist. “It is one thing to look over the fence and admire what the other medium can do, but to demand that one be judged by the standards and purpose of the other is, well, ridiculous.” And yet one of Simon’s great contributions has been to blur these distinctions, merging nonfiction and fiction, history and punditry, creating a television genre that operates, in his words, “as if Frank Rich was given twenty hours for an op-ed.” He’s perfected a technique that might be seen (if you wanted to piss people off) as a highbrow analog to The Hills, to a more profound purpose.
Simon intends to leave a deeper legacy, unlike H. L. Mencken, that journalistic anti-hero of Baltimore, whose cynical insights stud Simon’s creations. For all his wit, Simon writes to me, Mencken couldn’t “travel through time,” because he believed in so little. In contrast, Theodore Dreiser “can’t write for shit,” and yet he speaks to “fundamental human truths. You still need to read Dreiser to understand our world.”
A month later, we met in New York, where David Mills, a week before his death, was cutting episode seven. Mills, a light-skinned black guy with a baby face, worked with a TV veteran’s laid-back precision, trimming a slack joke, cutting a “moist” performance. When Simon returned from a phone call, Mills told him he’d cut one of Simon’s pet lines.
“Those guys who wrote Deuteronomy, you think they had to deal with this,” Simon joked. “ ‘Ooh, there’s not enough parchment.’ ”
The two old friends were, in many ways, opposites: Mills wasn’t much of a reader, but was a tremendous TV buff from early on, a fan of The White Shadow and Hill Street Blues. He loved blogs (and had one himself) and was comparably conservative, having shifted right due to concerns about “individual responsibility, cultural pathology. It was a big issue we discussed during The Wire.” And yet there was an easy, teasing rapport between the pair, who had been hashing out such questions since they met in college. The next week, when Mills died suddenly on the set of Treme, Simon memorialized him with this statement: “He loved words and he loved an argument—but not in any angry or mean-spirited way. He loved to argue ideas. He delighted in it, and he was confident that something smarter and deeper always came from a good argument.”
As they negotiated cuts, Simon typed on his computer. It was the day after health-care reform had passed, and he was surfing the news. “’Baby-killer?’” he said, amazed. “They called the guy ‘baby-killer’?” He mused about whether the administration agreed to let those 34 Democrats vote “no,” to help them get reelected. “That’s the Lyndon Johnson way: You make deals until there are no more deals, then you threaten. It’s the way it’s always been done. I worried they wouldn’t know how to do it.”
I asked how he found out about Obama calling The Wire his favorite show. “The same way you did,” he said. That must’ve felt like a big deal—exciting, right?
He shrugged it off, grimacing slightly. “No, no, no, it wasn’t. Hey, you know—we’re just happy when anyone watches the show.”