Exclusive David Simon Q&A (page 20)
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Exclusive David Simon Q&A Q: Do you read the online message boards, discussion groups, and web sites?  Do they make you laugh or cry?  [Jim King]

A: We don't look at them to get ideas about what we should do with our characters or plot.  My sense of what viewers say they want from serialized drama is what they experienced before and enjoyed before.  This is understandable, but it is not the role of the storyteller to keep telling the same stories over and over to gratify his audience.  Too much of television - if not prose writing - involves a commercial calculation wherein writers begin to conclude that if they can keep their serial running for season after season, or keep their books in the display racks at the storefront and do so by repeating their best riffs and rerunning their best character moments, then they are succeeding.

It is good to have lots of viewers or readers.  Having some is certainly an economic necessity.  But if writers forget that their primary purpose is to move a story forward and to remain original in content, then they are, well, hacks.  Consequently, in scanning the web or any other interactions with our audience, we are cautious about allowing any feedback to induce us to appease or please viewers.  Frankly, and not to sound parental or anything, but viewers generally don't know what is good for them as an audience, or for The Wire.  Given their own way, they'd eat dessert all the time and leave the vegetables on the plate.  So I'm afraid we are not at all open to suggestion or petition when it comes to character or story.

We do look online to get a general sense of viewer reaction and whether or not our themes are getting through or whether we need to explain ourselves a little better, or perhaps, a little less.  Some of the reaction to what we do delights us (we are, with only modest exception, human), some of it inspires indifference and some of it is simply off the point.

The only reaction that actually disturbed me enough to comment at one point was when a great many viewers seemed to feel that Carcetti was speaking for the filmmakers in his political demagoguery at the end of season three.  His eloquence, his effect on his audience, the camera gliding in on his face as he achieves the crest of a political summit - all of this clearly indicates that it is his moment and he is ascendant.  None of it was intended as a validation of his call to recommit to the drug war or a repudiation of the truths that Bunny Colvin confronted and ultimately, to his own sacrifice, tried to address.  That many viewers thought so proves the power of get-tough-on-crime political showmanship and helps to explain why this country continues to pursue failed policies for generations and why voters tolerate such waste and insanity.

I probably should have said nothing, but the misapprehension of that key scene just threw me.  I thought that viewers who had seen Colvin wrestle honestly with the problem for episodes on end would not be so easily beguiled by a solitary moment of political theater.  I guess I went all Candide on myself and forgot my own premise.

The other aspect that takes up a lot of discussion on the internet seems to be race.  I'm not particularly interested in race as a point of discussion and in fact, I think The Wire speaks to sociopolitics, economics and issues of class more than race.  Even when the racial aspect is referenced in the plotting, it is usually in a manner that mocks someone's over-obsession with it, or messes with someone's racial preconceptions.

This is not to say that racism isn't a residual problem in this country and will not remain a problem for a long time to come.  But what really ails America, in my opinion, is this:  Raw, unencumbered capitalism is an economic force and a potent one.  But it is not social policy and amid a political culture of greed and selfishness, it is being made to substitute for social policy.  The rich get richer, the poor get fucked, and the middle class of this country - the union-wage consumer class that constituted the economic strength of postwar America - is fast disappearing as the need for union-wage work disappears.

Raw capitalism - absent the moderating aspect of a political system that cares for the great mass of voters (or non-voters) who uphold that system - is not good for most of us.  It is great for a few of us.  We are building only the America that we are paying for, and ultimately, it is going to be an ugly and brutal place, much like the city-state depicted in The Wire.  So when Congress fails to raise the minimum wage for the first time in fifteen years because they will do so only if at the same they can eliminate an estate tax for the wealthiest 8,000 families in the country, as they did this month, I at least manage a smile to know that the content of my little television drama is not the stuff of hyperbole; if anything we've been gentle about what the American future is.

Race and race-consciousness - which seems to occupy so many viewers, black and white - seems almost beside the point when all of us, regardless of our melanin, are being subjected to such diminished opportunities and when the political structure is so indifferent to the social and economic fabric of the nation as a whole.  I guess the more they keep us arguing about such chicken-and-egg stuff as say, whether crime is the result of individual failures of responsibility - nature - or whether it results from denial of opportunity and societal dysfunction - nurture - the less time we spend examining who is marginalizing whom in this country and to what possible and profitable end.  Yet whether Stringer Bell was born a bad guy or was made a bad guy by events seems to be what viewers want to debate endlessly.

The answer, I would suggest, is that he was both and I offer that answer in the hope that such horseshit debates about good-versus-evil and whether or not all these crazy ghetto Negros in Baltimore are depraved or deprived can be discarded in favor of a discussion about why there are still entrenched ghettos (black, Hispanic, and yes, white, now that the union wages are gone) in a city that was once a great port and manufacturing center within the greatest economic power the world had ever seen.

Debate that for a while, perhaps.

Q: Thanks, David.  [Jim King]

A: No, thank you for the opportunity, Jim.  And thanks for maintaining the Yahoo group and Homicide: Links on the Sites.

Posted August 16, 2006

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