TV

David Simon is Ruining The Wire

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How the creator of The Best Show Ever is slowly eroding his masterpiece.

A disclaimer before we start — and I know I'm going to sound like one of those terrible people who start sentences with "I'm not racist, but" before complaining about Mexicans not speaking American. But that's the way it's going to be: I love The Wire. I think it's great. I've seen it multiple times, lent out my DVDs to so many people that I've forgotten who to bug to get them back, still have the vital Heaven and Here blog book-marked, and was this close to sticking out a failed relationship with someone just because I was in the middle of introducing her to the show.

But.

David Simon. Let's talk about him for a second. Actually, you can't really talk about The Wire anymore without him being the center of the conversation. Which makes sense seeing as it's "his vision" and all, but there's a price to be paid when dealing with work by such a heavy-handed, fiercely political auteur as Simon. Namely, you can't trust the show anymore. It's starting to feel like propaganda. (Yes, present tense — probably as many people are watching The Wire now as did when it was on the air.)

There's that theory that an artist should keep his or her own fat mouth shut, that every piece of commentary ruins what came before, that nothing can be so eloquent as the art itself. So every explanation distracts and detracts from the original message. It's why Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan is careful not to tread on the fans' interpretation of plot points. And why David Chase took a sabbatical after The Sopranos' cut to black. And why David Milch made the incoherent John From Cincinnati, presumably so people would think he was fucking crazy and leave him alone.

But David Simon? Dude can't keep his mouth shut.

Here he is this summer, responding to attorney general Eric Holder's light-hearted suggestion that Simon bring back the show for a sixth season. And here he is, a few months ago, commenting on Baltimore Police Chief Frederick Bealefeld criticizing The Wire. Simon's an eloquent and righteous asshole, for sure. And we love him for it. But his presence is slowly eroding the grand aesthetic of the show. He's diminishing the scope of The Wire with every ranting letter-to-the-editor or blog-post response.

Since the sole reason for the show's existence is its ultimate Grand Message of Social Reform, and every comment out of Simon's mouth is in service of that same Message, there's no more nuance in the show, no more conversation. In retrospect, it's become a lecture — a grand and important one, sure — that loses its impact once you feel lectured at. Simon isn't quite there yet, but he's slowly morphing into that long-winded blowhard who stands drunkenly in front of his painting, waiting for onlookers to suggest that the tulip represents "family," just so he can yell, "It represents death, you piece of shit!"

Here's a very short snippet of a very long interview with Simon by Bill Moyers from this past April:

"When you tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats, and part of that's the delivery system of television."

But it's these characters who are fading. Carcetti is no longer Carcetti — he's any idealist politician whose goals slowly erode because that's how it works in our shitty political system. Frank Sobotka is no longer a dockworker — he's any blue-collar worker forced into illicit activity because of the failing economy. The characters are no longer characters. They're symbols, chess pieces.

Deadwood's Al Swearengen, meanwhile, is still motherfucking Al Swearengen. 

What I'm saying is: it's getting harder to re-watch the show and not continually ask, "What's David Simon trying to say here?" rather than worrying about the characters themselves. You start to feel him hovering over every plot point, Peter Venkman on the dials, zapping you if you don't guess the right card. That makes The Wire seem like a high-school-lit symbolism quiz, rather than a grand piece of art — and maybe forces us to reconsider what the show actually is, instead of just simply quoting Pop Culture High Scripture that The Wire is the greatest show of all time.