It’s always interesting when two people you like and admire collide in the public sphere. David Simon, creator of the best television show of all the time, “The Wire,” and Bill Simmons, sports writer, podcaster and editor of Grantland.comcame to a somewhat-reported blog-scuffle recently over Grantland’s treatment of the eponymous HBO show.
Simmons created a bracket for “The Wire,” a March Madness-style tournament to determine the show’s best character (Omar won, as he should have). Then in an interview Simon responded pretty unpleasantly to the notion of people “hacking” the show into “pop culture nuggets.”
He seemed to take particular offense to Simmons’s interview with President Obama, in which he asked “The Wire”-Viewer-in-Chief about his favorite character (also Omar).
In a post on his blog titled “The Audacity of Despair,” Simon went on to explain:
So if anything is to be said about that show, well, here is a rare chance to break some ground. He might swallow hard, seize the moment and say something along the lines of, “Mr. President. I know you’ve said you’re a fan of The Wire. Well, one of that show’s basic critiques is that the drug war is amoral. More Americans are now in prison than ever before, and the percentage of violent offenders in prison is lower than ever. We are now the jailingest society in the world, incarcerating more of each other than even totalitarian states. How can we go on supporting this?”
The Simon critique has so much truth to it. As someone who caught up with the show just in time for the fourth season, I think the point he made to the New York Times writer (essentially, “Where were you people when the show was struggling to stay on the air”) is absurd on its face. Simon, you had a show of novelistic scope on a premium cable channel that no one gets. Of course it’s going to take some time for people to discover it. You created something incredibly complex and narratively difficult, a story that you have to start from the beginning, that you can’t pick up like any random episode of “CSI: Miami.”
On the other hand, something that’s bothered me when evangelizing about “The Wire” is that I encounter people who I don’t think actually understand the implicit critiques the show is making about our society, our institutions, and the reckless downside of American capitalism in all its many forms.
What makes “The Wire” so valuable is not just its writing, acting, or storytelling brilliance but the dire picture it paints of societal crisis and how mundane that crisis can sometimes look. It’s the most indispensable piece of art of the 21st century so far not because Omar is a great character (though he is) but because of the questions the show poses about our inner cities, public education system, blue-collar workforce, political processes, and—omnipresent—the prohibition of drugs and militarized enforcement of that prohibition.
As someone deeply interested in all of those questions, I can see how it would be annoying to hear the show reduced and talked about with the kind of devoted yet airless worship of a serial like “Lost.”
Having said that, David Simon has failed to come off in any interview I’ve ever heard from him as not a humorless prick. His worst tendencies as a writer and artist get exacerbated when he feels victimized and his words become a directionless spray of shrapnel at his critics (for evidence of this, see Season 5’s depiction of the Baltimore Sun’s newspaper culture, which is the only time “The Wire” ever slips into easy caricature). Like many brilliant writers, Simon has his prickly, self-indulgent side, which is fine by me.
While I take Simon’s side on the obnoxious “fanboyism”, as he puts it, of “The Wire,” Bill Simmons certainly doesn’t deserve the Wrath of Simon the way some do. One of the reasons I enjoy Simmons is that unlike his well-coiffed ESPN colleagues and the bulk of the legion of sportswriters who’ve come before him and surround him today, he doesn’t leave his sports commentary in this room walled off from the rest of society. He’ll talk about homophobia in sports or traumatic brain injuries or racial issues with no reluctance, and it’s refreshing. Even if he’s not tackling the “amoral drug war” in his podcast, even if he doesn’t ambush the President with that question, he’s still clearly an insightful and thoughtful guy.
(But wow, what a great question that would be to ask in a—what do they call ‘em?—debate! How many thousand of dollars do you want to bet that the moderators of the Romney-Obama debates never come within a million miles of talking about the drug war?).
Therefore even if I agree with Simon, even if I think I’m verifiably part of the problem of the, “great divestment in journalists who once covered issues – well-trained and committed men and women who might have, say, spent careers charting trends in criminal law and their effect, or who might be writing critical pieces about the rates of incarceration and what they’ve done to urban America. The bodies that once did such things – or at least harbored ambitions in that direction — now don’t see the actual street. Instead, they go to cubicles and snatch pieces of celebrity froth and mock outrage off one website, add a fresh witticism and repost. Then they fire off another 140 characters or so alerting you to the fact that they’ve reposted. There’s a real future in that, apparently. Some even call it journalism.”
Even if I can agree with all that, I’d still rather hang out and talk about “The Wire” with Bill Simmons.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times