David Judah Simon is an American author, journalist, and a writer/producer of television series. He worked for the Baltimore Sun City Desk for twelve years and wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and co-wrote The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood with Ed Burns.
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I'm David Simon, a Baltimore-based journalist, author and television producer. I'm a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and the creator of HBO's The Wire, which depicts the political and socioeconomic fissures in an American city. My other television credits include the NBC drama Homicide and HBO’s The Corner, Generation Kill and Treme. My most recent project, Show Me A Hero, an HBO miniseries, depicts the 1987-93 housing desegregation battle that divided Yonkers, N.Y.
I'm currently in production on the upcoming HBO drama, The Deuce, which follows the legalization and subsequent rise of the porn industry in New York from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s. I've also authored two books of narrative non-fiction, "Homicide" and "The Corner," and am a 2010 MacArthur Fellow. AMA.
I'll be on just a shade after 12:30 PM ET. Go ahead and ask me your Q's though.
I'm here and answering your questions. Have at it.
That's it for me today, but that was cool. Appreciative of your questions and interest. Let's do it again sometime. Be well.
Hi David, I'm a moderator over at /r/thewire where we praise you all day! Thanks for stopping by.
We recently did a rewatch on the subreddit where I did a write up for each episode and tried to analyze the finer details in the series.
Can you please explain the train. It seems to revolve around McNulty's sobriety or mental state and his thrill of the hunt but that's all I can really grasp.
Also, how did you come to work with Steve Earle in both Treme and The Wire?
Would you ever do another short war series like Generation Kill?
I would love to see "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer" by Nathaniel Fick as somewhat of a prequel to Generation Kill.
And lastly, did you ever realize that you were launching so many great careers and do you still keep in touch with any of your old friends from any series?
Thank you so much for everything you do.
1) I'm often amazed at how the comic lines sometimes land. It's somehow easier to write and execute dramatically. Comedy, on execution of intent, is hard.
2) Steve is a hoot. I contacted him cold after reading of his own struggles with addiction and asked to use his song "South Nashville Blues" -- with amended Baltimore lyrics -- in the credit sequence of "The Corner." And so began an improbable friendship and professional relationship.
3) Barely thought I was launching a career of my own, outside of newspapering. I keep in touch with everyone I can.
Oh, and Generation Kill stands. There are other stories to pursue.
Hi David, thanks for doing the AMA. I can genuinely say that The Wire directly inspired me to pursue the career path that I’m in today. I first watched the show while in college, and it informed me about many issues that I had previously been unaware of or apathetic too. Bubbles story arc connected with me so deeply that I took my first sociology course and began volunteering with homeless populations. Today I’m working as a substance abuse and mental health care coordinator in the field of community health, where I primarily work with lower income and homeless individuals.
The content you create has an impeccable ability to educate the public about real world issues through compelling storytelling that is absolutely unmatched. Thank you for the work that you do and inspiring me to pursue a career in a field that I previously wouldn’t have considered.
At this point what do you believe needs to happen to start making an impact in combating the growing opioid epidemic in our country?
Edit: Spelling & Grammar
DS: I believe the abuse of narcotics -- whether street drugs or pharmasale -- is the result of a fundamental existential crisis among working and middle-class Americans in the same way that it was once that for the underclass. We need to return to an economic model that values labor, and the human lives that comprise labor.
Hi Mr. Simon,
As a criminal prosecutor (who's still somewhat salty about not getting that court-themed sixth season of The Wire), I constantly marvel at how little seems to have changed since that show's conclusion seven years ago. Indeed, the cyclical nature of our criminal justice system, and the idea that attempts at reform are often futile, seems to be one of the underlying themes of the show.
What signs of hope, if any, have you observed since 2008? Do you believe that policing and criminal justice reform are moving in the right direction?
The drug prohibition, which destroyed policing in many respects -- never mind what it did to families and communities -- is being openly challenged. This is essential to any possibility of reform. In fact, many smart police are glad to see it happen; it's the only chance to restore any sense of professionalism and legality to the craft of legitimate law enforcement.
What's your take on the Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter situation?
DS: Black lives matter. So do blue lives. But the context of the "black lives matter" credo is that unlike blue lives, or white lives -- which have de facto mattered in our country for generations -- African-Americans have been far too vulnerable to unnecessary and hyperbolic response by law enforcement. This is simply so, and is now evidenced by the smart phone revolution.
I don't know. I keep calling his agents, but he's quite busy with one big film project or another.
What do you think changed a lot in Baltimore since you made The wire in a bad and better way ?
DS: Complicated question. The policies of drug prohibition and mass incarceration are being openly challenged, and the revolution of the smart phone camera has exposed the policing tyrannies that were exacerbated by those policies. This is a necessary sociopolitical passage. On the bad side, the drug war has collapsed the skill set and efficacy of the Baltimore Police Department.
High school English teacher here and I use an excerpt from Homicide every year as a run-up to my Lord of the Flies unit- the part where the police raid the rowhouse and discover the dozens of people living in utter squalor. I've ended up purchasing and then giving away at least 10 copies of the book.
If there were one book you'd have each high schooler in modern America read, what would it be?
DS: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee. Photos by Walker Evans.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
Hi David, I heard you mention a possible project portraying the Spanish Civil War (I think it was on Marc Maron's WTF Podcast) do you have any updates on this? And what was your inspiration for this? I've read Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' and would love to see a project like this, especially with you at the helm.
I am pursuing this project with Spanish producers and others, and talking further with HBO. There is a worthy project to be done on the Lincolns and the cause of premature anti-fascism. It still speaks to the geopolitical compromises we make today as a nation.
If you had to create a couple more seasons for The Wire, what themes/angles would you have included?
David Mills suggested immigration, but to research it upon his argument, we would have had to halt production on season four and five, which would have kept us off the air for too long after season three. He was right though. It would have been worthy. It could only have come before the concluding arc of seasons four and five, which were linked by the Marlo investigation. And five -- the critique of why we don't attend to anything that matters as a people -- had to end the entire arc, so....
Hi David, I'm a fan of all of your work and have always had one plot-related question left over from The Wire that I would love to have answered.
(Major Wire spoilers ahead)
At the end of season 5 of The Wire, it seems pretty obvious that Marlo isn't ready to quit the Game after his blood-licking scene. Earlier in the final episode, Pearlman tells Levy that they'll take Marlo's case back off the stet docket if they even catch a whiff of Marlo on the street, even if it means putting cops behind bars. To me it seems pretty likely that Marlo won't play ball, and this will end with McNulty and Freamon being charged once they're forced to show the dirt in their case. How ambiguous was that supposed to be? Do you think there's any pieces of the story I'm missing there?
You have it all. I have to go Socratic on you? What do YOU think happens a year or two down the road? Maybe so. Maybe not.
What social issues are you planning on tackling in The Deuce that surrounded the porn industry in the 1970s?
Misogyny, for one.
Hi David - thanks for doing this AMA.
I was wondering, with such an incredible variety of characters in The Wire, if you had any specific favourites?
I loved writing Jay Landsman. He was so damn real as a Baltimore police sergeant in my head. Kudos to Delaney Williams.
Hi David, big fan of The Wire. Just wondering what are some of your favorite tv shows and films? Furthermore, how have they influenced your own work?
Big question. But go with one: "Paths of Glory," by Kubrick is in the DNA of every Wire season just about. Look for the French generals. I was honored a few years ago to write the introduction to the reintroduction of Humphrey Cobb's classic novel as well.
Hi David, firstly Homicide is the best book I've ever read, a genuinely amazing piece of work, thank you.
Secondly, what was the most interesting thing you learned during your time with the homicide police?
That human beings get used to anything, and that even the most grievous imagery and thought can become quotidian.
Hi Mr. Simon!
Are there any aspects/elements of New Orleans you wanted to capture in Treme but were unable to, perhaps due to time constraints, or difficulty of transferring a sometimes intangible and elusive reality to the screen?
Honestly, there are genuinely great musicians and culture bearers who were left unchronicled in what became, we hope, a document of sorts about a singular cultural world. Every now and then, I run into one or two and I want to go prostrate with my apologies.
Hi David. Just wondering what you favorite show was to work on.
Also, who was your favorite person to work with?
I got to write a few lines of dialouge for Dr. John. He Mac'd 'em up, to be sure. But still...
Can we overcome or is the USA just doomed to mire and stagnate in corruption for the next 100 years? Baltimore here and feeling pretty cynical :/
Big question. But it doesn't matter how I answer, does it? Every day we still gotta get up and kill a few snakes. Or not. But that's the choice. Camus had this surrounded, if you read that guy.
Where do you see print journalism heading in the next decade? Any examples of recent work that you find interesting?
I want and we need to see an on-line revenue stream for journalism established that ensures that professional reporters can earn a living covering the quotidian beats of institutionalized America. When stuff is funded, it's good and fixed and every day. Citizen journalist is not a phrase I take seriously in any sense. I think Pro Publica and Mother Jones and a number of on-line elements show great chops; but the money still isn't right. People need to pay and copyright has to matter again, or it can't grow as it needs.
How much of your writing is directly lifted from real-life crime cases, and how much is purely creative?
I dunno. Some and some. Half and half? Not keeping score. Rule is: Some of it happened, some of it was rumored to have happened, some of it never happened. But all of it could have happened. If we are talking about the miniseries that are non-fictional accounts, then that's different. Those hew to realities.
What's your bucket list project or subject that you'd like to tackle?
A history of the CIA from post-WWII to 9/11/2001. And a narrative of the American leftists who fought in Spain and paid early for our stated ideals. Also, a small feature film about David Maulsby, a rewrite man, and Jack, a gorilla at the Baltimore Zoo. I'll say no more about that.
First of all, thank you for making Treme. It was an incredible gateway not only info all things New Orleans, but jazz, food, culture and American history. Any plans in the future for a project that shines a spotlight on another part of American culture that goes relatively unnoticed?
Amazed we got away with three and a half seasons of that. In some ways, Treme is the project of which I am most proud because it is operating with the most improbable currency in television: Culture and its role in our American collective. Way easier to keep an audience if you put a gun or a brassiere in a guy's hand than a trombone. But Treme was as carefully executed and serious as anything I've done that benefits from the regular props and tropes.
What was the last great book you've read?
"Homage to Catalonia" Orwell. It was a reread in light of a project I am now struggling with, but man....
Your work shows such wisdom on the drug epidemic on a macro level. What is your perspective on a micro level? What can families do to combat the influence of drugs and violence?
All of us as citizens can nullify any jury on which we are asked to serve if the defendant is charged with a non-violent drug offense. The sooner we refuse service of this destructive and brutalizing drug war -- which is, in effect, a war on our poor -- the sooner we might free law enforcement to do its actual job. If you are picked for a jury and it is a drug case only, without overt acts of violence, vote to acquit regardless of the evidentiary material.
I'm currently in the middle of reading Homicide. Did you base the character of Lester Freamon on the real life detective Harry Edgerton?
There are some elements of Edgerton in there, I suppose, but no, Ed Burns threw an awful lot of a lot of people into Freamon.
Hi David, my question is, do you think real journalism is doomed, and can you elaborate on why or why not?
I do not. I think it is necessary and at some point, the culture as a whole will begin to exert market demand for more and better. But it has to happen online. Cutting down trees and delivering them to doorsteps and mailboxes is, indeed, anachronism. We all see this.
I am thinking about doing a documentary on some wrestlers that I know as the progress at different parts of their career - are there any little tips, tricks, or anything else that I should do/need to live by?
For documentary, I have no opinions that you should consider. Read up on Frederick Wiseman, whose work is so profoundly honest that it taught me to be a better print reporter. But again, I've only worked with film as a dramatist.
The section from The Corner on being an urban public school teacher described my experiences to a tee.
What systemic changes do you think could cause a shift in make schools more functional?
End any policy imperative that demands teaching to test. Combine a real reform initiative to address the worst protectionism of teacher's unions while allowing collective bargaining to secure the legitimate standing of teachers. And end charter schools with a recommitment to public education for all in America. It's not fair to ask parents in charters to risk the moderate gains made unless real reform is undertaken in public education. But right now charter schools are effectively lifeboats, and the American educational as a whole is a sinking ship. This is not a wholistic solution that anything, and it is, in the long-run, an abandonment of the idea that America gives every child the opportunity of a viable education.
Do you think The Wire could work better in today's tv landscape?
With our ratings, I don't think we survive the first season or two. It's a different world and HBO -- though its been like the Medici for me -- is now being heavily counterprogrammed by the world. I'm amazed I'm still in television, honestly.
Do you plan to focus on television as your media of choice for the time being or would you consider writing another book?
Bill Zorzi and I have been under contract to write a history of the rise of the drug trade in West Baltimore from the 1950s to the full embrace of the drug war. We owe pages. But yeah, HBO is kind of crack pipe at this point, isn't it?
Huge fan thanks for taking the time. I'm wondering how you see the media changing over the next ten years? I know you've spoken passionately in the past about losing local beat writers causing an increase in local government corruption and I'm interested to know if that's still your feeling and what you think the future holds if that is the case?
It is still my feeling. The national spotlight is still bright on those things that occupy the most eyeballs. But that isn't how a city, a state, or even federal institutions are carefully covered. An on-line revenue stream is essential and needs to be localized as well. Shame newspapers couldn't do what cable TV did with bundling between local, metro, and specialty journalism outlets. By the time anyone considered it, the horse of free content was already out the barn door.
Hi David! I'm a huge fan of your work. Your ability to capture real humanity from all angles is inspiring and always incredibly fun to watch. My question is, if you had a blank check and total creative freedom to create any show you wanted, what would the show be about? Thanks!
Answered above. A careful history of the OSS/CIA and American foreign policy from 1945-2001
Hi David. I'm a journalist covering schools with a good editor and time to devote to more in-depth stories (rare, I know). I deeply admire the path (s) you've taken and the work you've produced. If you were on the education beat, what would you be writing about?
As above, I view charter schools as 1) a legitimate short term response to a public education model that is unable to reform or improve itself and 2) a long-term abdication of any national commitment to public education for the whole of our people. I think in the tension betwee 1) and 2) there are a lot of systemic stories that need to be written. About those who are in a lifeboat, and those that have been left behind to drown.
Hi, David! I love and respect the work that you do to entertain in your industry. My question for you is about Oscar Isaac. He's slowly becoming a favourite actor of mine the more I see of him in movies and TV. I was wondering how he is to work with? He just seems to come off as a super nice and professional person, I hope that you can vouch for this to solidify his already great reputation. Thanks and good luck in the future!!
He's an astonishing talent and a consummate professional. I wrote an essay that's up on my blog, titled "What's My Line" that you might enjoy. Just google that title and my name, or Isaac, and it should come up.
Hi David, I'm a big admirer of your work.
When working on The Deuce, are you going to concentrate on fictional characters and stars of the porn industry in New York, or will there be historical people in it such as Jamie Gillis and John Holmes?
Fictional mostly. Although there will be references to historical moments and characters where appropriate.
How do you think the Wire had held up in terms of quality/relevance/etc., 10 years later? I'm currently watching it for the second time and was curious what you thought ...
We did our best to have real arguments and we tried not to lie. We needed to be entertaining to a degree, but we weren't as interested in entertaining people or sustaining the franchise as we were interested in the arguments undertaken.
Hello Mr. Simon thank you very much for doing this. I, like many, loved The Wire and had two questions over it.
1. The Wire had many great characters but the one that stuck out the most was obviously Omar. My question is was Omar inspired by any real person or just imagination?
2. Secondly The Wire is thought to be one of the greatest if not the greatest TV Drama of all time, yet during the shows run the viewing audience was small. Why was this the case?
Thank you very much again for such a great show with what I consider the best ending to a TV show.
DS: Donnie Andrews, Shorty Boyd, Ferdinand Harvin, Cadillac & Low, Anthony Hollie -- Ed Burns could name a few more probably. Robbing drug dealers is not as unlikely an occupation as you might think.
Have you ever thought of doing a show that didn't rip out the hearts and souls of its viewers?
Occasionally I like to feel good about myself after an hour or so of TV.
I wanted to do a half-hour comedy called "Strongman!" about a reality-television producer and team that travels to despotic regimes to follow dictators. I even pitched it to HBO. Then that Sasha Baron Cohen fellow ruined my comedy dreams...
You were originally a reporter, what is your feeling about journalism today? Where do you go to get news that you feel is reasonably unbiased?
I'm less worried about bias than I am worried about scope and depth. I want to read the work of beat reporters who have labored in the same vineyard for more than four months. It takes years to learn an institution and fight your way past the veneer or bullshit. That model of journalism is deeply threatened. First, it was damaged by out-of-town chain ownership and Wall Street and then, by the arrival of the internet and the further evisceration of the revenue stream.
I remember seeing at one point Daniel Stern was cast in Show Me a Hero (http://deadline.com/2014/09/show-me-a-hero-hbo-latanya-richardson-jackson-natalie-paul-clarke-peters-daniel-stern-cast-827868/), but it must have fell through. Were you involved with this or was this mostly the casting director (Alexa Fogel)? Really love both your's and Daniel's work, is their any chance you would work together in the future or is that more of a casting thing?
Would love to work with him. Little known fact: He was a senior when I was a sophomore at the same high school in Maryland. I remember his performance in the school play. He was good even then.
Yes, it fell through but I was delighted to work for the first time with Peter Riegert, who rode to the rescue in the role. Peter is legend for Crossing Delancy, Local Hero and.....Shoenstein!
How can i convince my friends that I am not just a homer for Baltimore because I say that The Wire is the best show ever made?
You can't. And maybe you are a homer....
Hi David, thanks for doing this AMA. I'm paraphrasing a bit here... but you've said on a number of occasions that the main theme of The Wire is the failure of various institutions to solve social problems, and how people should focus on what's within their individual control instead.
As a strong skeptic/cynic, this has certainly always rung true for me. However, I'm wondering to what extent that theme wholly captures your own full worldview? Does any part of you believe that society and human institutions are heading in a better direction long-term (perhaps with fits and starts and setbacks)? Do you personally believe that working for positive change within institutions is worthwhile and not necessarily a fool's errand?
Or does The Wire's theme pretty much sum it up, period full-stop? :)
There was a moment when libertarians thought that I was a fellow traveler because they thought the critique of institutions validated their contempt for self-governance and collective societal action. Sorry. I was trained as a reporter and I regard a constant critique and challenge to institutions and institutional authority as essential and necessary. But I do not regard self-government and collective action and intervention in the affairs of modern society to be any less essential. Every day, good citizens get up, kill a few snakes, and try to make these governments -- our governments -- better and not worse. And the fight is never finished and it is never complete. And there is no sensible or coherent alternative. Welcome to democracy.
The wire is one of the greatest television series to date, have you incorporated an all encompassing pov in your other works like that of the wire? i.e. (police, streets, courts, schools).
Not to that extent.
Your realistic approach to the negative sides of the War on Drugs is beautifully explored in The Wire. How would you go about changing American Drug policy?
I would decriminalize our drug prohibition and address it as a health problem essentially. I would take all the interdictions, enforcement, incarceration $$$$ and plow that back into economically isolated communities in the form of CCC-type community employment programs. Keynesian stimulus for the neighborhoods where little industry remained other than the drug corners.
What advice do you have for an aspiring screen writer? I'm quitting my full time production job to spend more time writing. Any tips to stay motivated? Big fan, btw.
Oh god. Good luck. Write a story you truly want to see told, and not something that you think anyone might let you tell.
How do you feel about Larry Hogan?
As a person, he seems okay. I was ashamed of him when his response to drowning women and children was to say that there was no room for refugees in my state. I think he shamed my state in that ugly moment.
What are the key differences in writing for network tv vs cable vs books?
Prose writing is a different creature entirely. In skill set, substance and pacing. It can do things that film can't -- and vice versa. Network TV? You have to write around the commercials and further, you have to appease an advertising base, and therefore you are wholly vulnerable to ratings. In cable, less so.
What's up David, just wanted to pay you my respect for coming up with the best piece of TV that is The Wire. Seems pointless to watch any other series after that because I don't see how it could ever be topped; it's simply perfect.
But I do wonder if you ever find yourself rethinking The Wire, wishing you did something differently, etc.? Or are you completely content and satisfied with how it came out?
No. Other stories to tell. Best way to endure creatively is to rip out the rear-view mirrors and just drive.
What was your biggest regret content wise about The Wire? Is there any material or message you wish you had included and/or approached differently?
I wish David Mills had come up with the idea for immigration as a theme immediately upon our conclusion of season three. I might have argued for an additional season between three and four.
I loved the scene in The Wire where Rawls is shown in the gay bar. The fact it was never brought up again made it a sort of inside scoop just for the viewer.
Was there ever a temptation to explore this in a storyline?
We talked about it. It seemed to undercut the ordinariness of the moment to cannibalize it for plot. Some people are straight. Some people are gay. Some people are, even to this point, discreet or closeted about their sexuality. Everybody has to be somewhere.
The language on The Wire used is so real and doesn't feel forced or cringe as so many programs that try to represent 'the streets' do. How did you go about that?
Ed Burns policed Baltimore for about 20 years and then taught middle school in the city for seven. I covered crime in the city for 13 years. And we were good listeners, I hope.
Hi David, Thanks for the AMA-- To me one of the most piercing elements of The Wire was the realism that the actors brought to their parts. How did you make the decision to cast the show in the way you did, and were there any casting decisions you feel particularly proud of or alternatively wish you had done differently?
We took the best actors we could and credit Alexa Fogle, who has worked with us on The Wire and every project since, for bringing them to our attention. In Baltimore, Pat Moran was brilliant with local and extras casting as well. I am always proud when we incorporate real participants into a professional cast of actors. You can do some of that. Too little and it doesn't lend real gravitas; too much and the overall acting suffers. But it's a neat trick.
If possible, would you have made another season of The Wire?
Answered above. Thx.
What can a common person do to stop the death of journalism?
Pay for it. Online. Pay a little bit each month. You did when they dumped it on the doorstep, and you can pay even less than that now to support the salaries of trained reporters and photographers and videographers.
Am I reading too much into the symbolism of the train track scenes in The Wire? Or am I missing the point perhaps? I've always seen them as representing the inevitable force of the war on drugs, or corruption in general. Try to stand in its way, and you could lose everything.
You're in the ballpark, I'm thinking.
Show Me a Hero was an absolutely amazing miniseries.
That said, why do so many people not realize that segregation still exists today? Policies like redlining still exist yet people continue to relegate it to the Civil Rights era or to a period piece like Show Me a Hero?
Because many people -- too many people -- are tired of taking about the enduring American pathology of race. But yes, we are still afflicted. Though make no mistake, history is arcing toward more, not less, justice on that score. We have problems. We are better than we were. We will get better still, slowly, but definitively.