Snarky Behavior

I saw David Simon last week…

April 1, 2008 · 2 Comments

Like most white people, I’m a huge fan of The Wire.  So when David Simon came to Columbia University’s School of Journalism, I went to see what he had to say.  It was a lot.

Two and a half-hours later, I was punching myself for not taking notes.

The most curious thing about Simon wasn’t that he was exactly the crass curmudgeon I expected.  It was the fact that the creator of the most compelling television drama ever just isn’t a remarkably creative person.  Which isn’t meant as a slight against him, I think. Let me explain:

Simon, at his core, is a journalist.  That much is clear. He is able to convey context and subtext by asking the right questions, by doggedly pursuing the why and how come of any issue.  The characters he wrote in The Wire are remarkably authentic because Simon based them on real people he had met in Baltimore, either in a bar or on the street.  People he had researched and interviewed relentlessly until he understood their particular challenges and motivations.  He mentioned that writing fiction in this fashion, based on real people, demanded a level of accountability to authenticity that is unparalleled in any other craft (this is especially the case in his next series based on the Iraq war).

The second aspect about Simon is that he is extremely fatalistic and deterministic.  On several occasions, he has mentioned that his stories were based on Greek tragedies or Western movies.  Simon is convinced that any institution will inevitably betray and doom the individuals who commit themselves to it.  And so once he has his characters sketched (based on real people), he can project their fates based on their endowed context and relationship within larger institutional or societal arrangements.

When you remove free-will, or pit it against fate, fiction becomes a much easier task.  Simon isn’t a Picasso, he is Wyeth… he doesn’t deconstruct reality and reproduce it abstractly through his own lens, he presents representational art.

Indeed, it is when Simon strays away from what he really knew of Baltimore (the homeless homicide plot, the Hampsterdam experiment) when The Wire was weakest.  But who needs imagination when reality is so compelling?

And THAT IS THE SINGLE BIGGEST TAKEAWAY FROM THE SHOW.  A journalist found a captive audience via television, by repackaging unreported newsroom material.

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