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David Simon and The Wire: The Audacity of Despair

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Yesterday I had the chance to see David Simon, creator of the greatest television show ever made forever and ever, The Wire. He was giving his lecture, The Wire: Audacity of Despair, to a tightly packed, moderately sized, room of about 140 people. I never thought I’d have the chance to see the genius behind the critically acclaimed television series, much less have any insights on what’s on his mind at any given moment. But there he was, in the flesh, talking to us about the country’s state of affairs and the processes behind The Wire. It was interesting to see the man talk loosely off the top of his head. He can connect the dots of his world so well, much like the connections and parallels that were made in the show. He really is as smart as the show suggests he is.

He started off the hour by jokingly asking the audience, “You do know the show wasn’t a hit, right?” “Where were you guys when we were begging the studio for one more season?” While everyone laughed, he continued on and elaborated mostly about the subject topic of The Wire’s final season, the media.

In a few words, the media is a mess. Simon gives an example of why there will never be any meaningful election or serious debate about social policy in the national presidential setting. It is because the media is concerned about which candidate has the pregnant daughter and which candidate has the crazy minister. There is never and will never be coverage of an honest debate about how to responsibly and reasonably handle the country. Before the internet had any effect on the print media landscape, he noticed the quality of journalism being put on some serious life support. He noticed it when the newspaper stopped asking the question “why?” in their editorials. Simon explains that the who, what, where, when, and, how are easy. Any 14-year old can figure those out. It’s the “why” that distinguished newspaper as an adult’s game. “Why was the New Orleans situation handled so poorly? Why was it still ran the same way when Gustav hit?” The moment the newspapers stopped asking “why?” was the moment we stopped holding our elected officials and leaders accountable for anything.

The Wire, a show that depicts bureaucratic failure on all levels, does not tell the story of two sides of good and evil. Simon argues that the dystopia portrayed in The Wire happens when one person looks at his neighbor and says, “I want an easier life than you.” It is in this mindset that foreshadows the The Wire’s tragedy. It’s like the man in the cubicle who only does enough not to get fired by his boss. The result is always a weak product. Except in this case, it’s cops who try to look good on paper instead of actually effectively doing good police work.

In the end, David Simon answered questions. It was interesting hearing him explain how he modeled Omar after the Greek mythological characters of Euripides, Medea, and Antigone. His reply to the question of whether he meant to portray the white characters as “doofus-ey” was a proud affirmation that he portrayed Black people that were all across the board, from positions of power to the drug dealers on the corners. Simon replied, “If you wanted a show that doesn’t portray white people as ‘doofus-ey,’ I’m sure there are 395 other shows on television you could watch.” When asked about who his target audience, Simon said that he didn’t put a lot of weight on race, his only concern was authenticity, that the scenes depicted spoke truths to the experiences of the cops, the dealers, the longshoresmen, the politicians, the lawyers, etc.

Simon would have stayed to chat it up with anyone willing, but he had a prior engagement with someone he hadn’t seen since high school. When he exited, I’m sure he inspired some of us to take our obligations as citizens a little bit more seriously.

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