David Simon concedes that it takes a special kind of [expletive] to say, “I told you so.”
“But I can’t help it, OK?” he said recently. “Nobody enjoys the guy who says, ‘I told you so,’ but it was organic. Ed and I and then the other writers, as they came on board, we had all been watching some of the same things happen in Baltimore.”
Two decades ago, Simon, a former cops reporter at The Baltimore Sun, joined Ed Burns, a retired Baltimore homicide detective and public-school teacher, to create HBO’s “The Wire.” Fictitious but sourced from the Baltimore that Simon and Burns inhabited, “The Wire,” which premiered on June 2, 2002, introduced a legion of unforgettable characters like the gun-toting, code-abiding Omar Little (played by the late Michael K. Williams) and the gangster with higher aspirations, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).
They were indelible pieces of a crime show with a higher purpose: to provide a damning indictment of the war on drugs and a broader dissection of institutional collapse, expanding in scope over five seasons to explore the decline of working-class opportunity and the public education system, among other American civic pillars.
This was not the stuff of hit TV: In real time, the show gained only a small, devoted audience and struggled to avoid cancellation. But over the years, “The Wire” became hailed as one of television’s greatest shows, even as the systemic decay it depicted became more pronounced in the eyes of its creators.
Burns and Simon went on to collaborate on other high-minded projects for HBO, most recently “We Own This City,” a mini-series created by Simon and their fellow “Wire” alumnus George Pelecanos, based on the true story of the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. In separate interviews, Burns and Simon discussed the legacy of “The Wire” — Burns by phone from his Vermont home and Simon in person in HBO’s Manhattan offices — and why it couldn’t be made in the same way today. They also talked about the inspirations for the show and the devastating effect of America’s drug policies. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
Could you have ever imagined “The Wire” would have had this kind of staying power two decades later?
ED BURNS The first thing that comes to my mind is that this show will live forever, because what it tries to portray will be around forever. It’s just getting worse and worse. That’s all. And it’s expanding; it’s not just an urban thing anymore. It’s everywhere.
DAVID SIMON Ed and I in Baltimore, George in Washington, Richard Price in New York — we’d been seeing a lot of the same dynamics. There were policies, and there were premises that we knew were not going to earn out. They were going to continue to fail. And we were fast becoming a culture that didn’t even recognize its own problems, much less solve any of them. So it felt like, “Let’s make a show about this.”
I didn’t anticipate the complete collapse of truth, the idea of you can just boldly lie your way to the top. I did not anticipate the political collapse of the country in terms of [Donald] Trump. [The fictitious Baltimore mayor in “The Wire,” Tommy Carcetti] is a professional politician. Donald Trump is sui generis. It’s hard to even get your head around just how debased the political culture is now because of Trump.
The show seemed to hint at the collapse of truth with the fabricated serial killer story line in the final season, and how the media ran with it.
SIMON We very much wanted to criticize the media culture that could allow the previous four seasons to go on and never actually attend to any of the systemic problems. We were going there, but I didn’t anticipate social media making the mainstream miscalculations almost irrelevant. You don’t even have to answer to an inattentive, but professional press. You just have to create the foment in an unregulated environment in which lies travel faster the more outrageous they are. If truth is no longer a metric, then you can’t govern yourself properly.
BURNS If you look at the map, half of the Midwest and West are drought-ridden, and we’re treating it like how we used to treat a dead body on the corner or a handcuffed guy. It’s like a news thing or bad automobile accident: “Oh my, look, that tornado ripped apart this whole town.” And that’s it.
There’s no energy. I’ve always thought about trying to do a story where the government has developed an algorithm to identify sparks, the Malcolm Xs and the Martin Luther Kings, these types of people, when they’re young, and then they just either compromise them away with the carrot or they beat them away with a stick. Because you need sparks. You need those individuals who will stand up and then rally people around them, and we don’t have that — those sparks, that anger that sustains itself.
Is it a conflicting legacy that “The Wire” has gained a greater audience over the years, yet the institutional decay that it illuminates has seemingly worsened?
BURNS Recently, the Biden administration and the New York mayor’s administration said they want to increase the number of police on the street. It amuses me that what they’re doing is a definition of insanity: You try something, it doesn’t work. You try it again, it doesn’t work. It’s about time you try something different. They’re still doing the same thing.
Granted, “defund the police” is not the right way of presenting the argument. But rechanneling money away from the police to people who could better handle some of the aspects of it would be good. And then doing something even more dramatic, like creating an economic engine, other than drugs, to help people get up and start making something of their lives.
How should “We Own This City” be viewed in relation to “The Wire”?
SIMON It’s a separate narrative. We’re very serious about having attended to real police careers and real activities and a real scandal that occurred. So no, it’s not connected to “The Wire” universe in that sense. It is a coda for the drug war that we were trying to critique in “The Wire.” If “The Wire” had one political message — I don’t mean theme; if it just had a blunt political argument about policy — it was, “End the drug war.” And if “We Own This City” has one fundamental message, it’s “END. THE. DRUG. WAR.” In capital letters and with a period between every word. It’s just an emphatic coda about where we were always headed if we didn’t change the mission of policing in America.
Is a goal of “We Own This City” to provide a sharper critique on policing than “The Wire” provided?
SIMON No. I don’t think there’s that much difference between the two, other than the depths of the corruption of the bad cops. Police work is as necessary and plausible an endeavor as it’s ever been.
In many cases, and in many places like Baltimore, the national clearance rate has been collapsing for the last 30, 40 years. That’s not an accident. That’s because they’ve trained generations of cops to fight the drug war. It doesn’t take any skill to go up on the corner, throw everybody against the wall, go in their pockets, find the ground stashes, decide everybody goes, fill the wagons. That’s not a skill set that can solve a murder.
That’s not me saying, “Oh, policing used to be great.” No, I understand there were always problems with policing. But we’re one of the most violent cities in America. And all the discourse about abolish the police or defund the police — I’d be happy to defund the drug war. I’d be happy to change the mission, but I don’t want to defund the police. Good police work is necessary and elemental, or my city becomes untenable. I’ve seen case work done right, and I’ve seen case work done wrong, and it matters.
BURNS I’m sorry [Baltimore] was labeled the city of “The Wire,” because we could’ve taken that show into any city, in exactly the same way. Akron, Ohio, would have suddenly become the “Wire” city. So it’s a shame that it was pushed onto this little town.
Would “The Wire” be greenlighted if you pitched it today?
BURNS No, definitely not. HBO was going up the ladder at the time. They didn’t understand “The Wire” until the fourth season. In fact, they were thinking about canceling it after three. We caught that moment where networks were thinking, “Oh, we need a show for this group of people.”
But now, it’s got to be “Game of Thrones.” It’s got to be big. It’s got to be disconnected from stepping on anybody’s toes. I’ve watched a couple of the limited series on HBO, and they’re good shows, but they’re not cutting new paths. They are whodunits or these rich women bickering among themselves in a town. I don’t see anybody saying, “Hey, that’s a really great show.”
SIMON No, because we didn’t attend, in any real way, to the idea of diversity in the writers’ room. I tried to get Dave Mills, who had been my friend since college, to work on “The Wire.” But that would have been organic. It was just a friend; it wasn’t even about Black and white. But other than David, who did a couple scripts for us, and Kia Corthron, the playwright, did one, we were really inattentive to diversity. That wasn’t forward thinking.
Why were we inattentive? Because it was so organic to what I’d covered and what Ed had policed. And then, I started bringing on novelists. The first guy was George Pelecanos, whose books about D.C. were the same stuff I was covering. And I happened to read his books, and I was like, “This guy probably could write what we’re trying to do.” And then he said: “Look, you’re trying to make novels. Every season’s a novel. We should hire novelists.” And so we went and got Price. If I had it to do over again, I would have to look at [the diversity of the creative team] in the same way that I looked at later productions.
In retrospect, is there anything else that you wish that the show had done differently?
BURNS I wish that Season 5 took a different direction, as far as the newsroom was concerned, and didn’t debase the idea of investigation. But it’s fine. What we tried to get across is that the kids that we saw in [Season 4] were becoming, as they approached adulthood, the guys that we saw in [Seasons] 1, 2, 3 and 4. It was continuous. This is just the next generation.
Other than the fact that the issues it highlighted are still prevalent, why do you think “The Wire” has such staying power?
SIMON Nothing’s in a vacuum. I would credit “Oz” for showing me that there was this network out there that would tell a dark story and tell an adult story. “Homicide” [Simon’s first book] had been made into a TV show. But with “The Corner” [Burns and Simon’s nonfiction book centered on a West Baltimore drug market], I was like: “The rights are worth nothing. Nobody’s going to put that on American television.” And then I saw “Oz,” and so that was the moment where I looked at HBO and said, “Oh, would you like to make a mini-series about a drug-saturated neighborhood and about the drug war?”
And then the other places we stole from: We stole from the Greek tragedies, the idea that the institutions were the gods and they were bigger than the people. So, thanks to the college course that made me read Greek plays. Thanks to “Paths of Glory,” which was a movie about institutional imperative, the [Stanley] Kubrick film — I took stuff liberally from there. Thanks to a bunch of novelists, Pelecanos, Price, [Dennis] Lehane, who decided they were willing to write television. Obviously, the cast and crew and everyone.
But it was a show that was ready for where TV was going to end up, and that’s where a lot of luck is involved. The idea that you flick on your TV screen and decide you want to watch something that was made 10 years earlier or has just been posted; or you’ll wait until there are enough episodes to binge watch it; or you have insomnia, so you’ll watch four hours of a mini-series and just acquire it whenever the hell you want — boy, I didn’t see that coming.
BURNS It’s like a western: It’s mired in legend. But the legend is actually reality. Today, 20 years ago, 20 years from now — it’s the same thing. And each generation coming up, each bunch of kids coming up, discover it and inject more life into it.