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.”