‘The Wire’ at 20: ‘This Show Will Live Forever’

David Simon and Ed Burns discuss the legacy of their seminal crime drama,

Photo: David Simon’s “The Wire” struggled to stay on air during its run but has since been widely hailed as one of television’s greatest shows.Credit…Mark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

01 June 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

31 May 2022 |  Jonathan Abrams | The New York Times

David Simon concedes that it takes a special kind of [expletive] to say, “I told you so.”

“But I can’t help it, OK?” he said recently. “Nobody enjoys the guy who says, ‘I told you so,’ but it was organic. Ed and I and then the other writers, as they came on board, we had all been watching some of the same things happen in Baltimore.”

Two decades ago, Simon, a former cops reporter at The Baltimore Sunjoined Ed Burns, a retired Baltimore homicide detective and public-school teacher, to create HBO’s “The Wire.”

Fictitious but sourced from the Baltimore that Simon and Burns inhabited, “The Wire,” which premiered on June 2, 2002, introduced a legion of unforgettable characters like the gun-toting, code-abiding Omar Little (played by the late Michael K. Williams) and the gangster with higher aspirations, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).

They were indelible pieces of a crime show with a higher purpose: to provide a damning indictment of the war on drugs and a broader dissection of institutional collapse, expanding in scope over five seasons to explore the decline of working-class opportunity and the public education system, among other American civic pillars.

Michael B. Jordan, left, and Larry Gilliard Jr. in the first season of “The Wire.” The show’s drug dealers were as complex and three-dimensional as its police.

This was not the stuff of hit TV: In real time, the show gained only a small, devoted audience and struggled to avoid cancellation. But over the years, “The Wire” became hailed as one of television’s greatest shows, even as the systemic decay it depicted became more pronounced in the eyes of its creators.

Burns and Simon went on to collaborate on other high-minded projects for HBO, most recently “We Own This City,” a mini-series created by Simon and their fellow “Wire” alumnus George Pelecanos, based on the true story of the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. In separate interviews, Burns and Simon discussed the legacy of “The Wire” — Burns by phone from his Vermont home and Simon in person in HBO’s Manhattan offices — and why it couldn’t be made in the same way today. They also talked about the inspirations for the show and the devastating effect of America’s drug policies. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

Could you have ever imagined “The Wire” would have had this kind of staying power two decades later?

ED BURNS The first thing that comes to my mind is that this show will live forever, because what it tries to portray will be around forever. It’s just getting worse and worse. That’s all. And it’s expanding; it’s not just an urban thing anymore. It’s everywhere.

DAVID SIMON Ed and I in Baltimore, George in Washington, Richard Price in New York — we’d been seeing a lot of the same dynamics. There were policies, and there were premises that we knew were not going to earn out. They were going to continue to fail. And we were fast becoming a culture that didn’t even recognize its own problems, much less solve any of them. So it felt like, “Let’s make a show about this.”

I didn’t anticipate the complete collapse of truth, the idea of you can just boldly lie your way to the top. I did not anticipate the political collapse of the country in terms of [Donald] Trump. [The fictitious Baltimore mayor in “The Wire,” Tommy Carcetti] is a professional politician. Donald Trump is sui generis. It’s hard to even get your head around just how debased the political culture is now because of Trump.

From left, the director Clark Johnson, the executive producer Robert Colesberry, Simon and Ed Burns on the set of “The Wire” in 2002.
From left, the director Clark Johnson, the executive producer Robert Colesberry, Simon and Ed Burns on the set of “The Wire” in 2002.Credit…David Lee/HBO

The show seemed to hint at the collapse of truth with the fabricated serial killer story line in the final season, and how the media ran with it.

SIMON We very much wanted to criticize the media culture that could allow the previous four seasons to go on and never actually attend to any of the systemic problems.

We were going there, but I didn’t anticipate social media making the mainstream miscalculations almost irrelevant. You don’t even have to answer to an inattentive, but professional press. You just have to create the foment in an unregulated environment in which lies travel faster the more outrageous they are. If truth is no longer a metric, then you can’t govern yourself properly.

BURNS If you look at the map, half of the Midwest and West are drought-ridden, and we’re treating it like how we used to treat a dead body on the corner or a handcuffed guy. It’s like a news thing or bad automobile accident: “Oh my, look, that tornado ripped apart this whole town.” And that’s it.

There’s no energy. I’ve always thought about trying to do a story where the government has developed an algorithm to identify sparks, the Malcolm Xs and the Martin Luther Kings, these types of people, when they’re young, and then they just either compromise them away with the carrot or they beat them away with a stick. Because you need sparks.

You need those individuals who will stand up and then rally people around them, and we don’t have that — those sparks, that anger that sustains itself.


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