“What drugs have not destroyed, the war on them has”

David Simon, creator of the searing new HBO series "The Wire," on why even the best cop shows are phony and our anti-drug mania amounts to a permanent war against the underclass.

Topics: HBO, Television,

"What drugs have not destroyed, the war on them has"

HBO’s new series “The Wire” is as much a polemic against the drug war as it is an indictment against traditional cop-show conventions. Over the course of a season, “The Wire” follows the frustrated attempts of federal agents and Baltimore police to topple an elaborate drug organization run by an elusive crime lord named Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his conscience-stricken nephew D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.). When first we meet D’Angelo, he’s on trial for murder — a rap he beats after one of the star witnesses is coerced into changing her story by Uncle Avon’s crew. In attendance for this bogus verdict is Detective James McNulty (played with charismatic intensity by Dominic West), a pit bull homicide cop who takes D’Angelo’s victory as an insult to his professional ego. McNulty is subsequently brought in by the presiding judge to do a postmortem on the case, revealing that this was only one in a slew of uncharged homicides attributed to the Barksdale clan.

McNulty’s outspoken complaints about the verdict inadvertently invoke the wrath of his boss, who skewers him for bringing his department’s ineptitude to light. Forced to do damage control, the deputy commissioner (the great Frankie Faison) orders a joint task force to infiltrate Barksdale’s operation in a move that’s more P.R.-minded than anything else. Hamstrung by a half-assed investigation, McNulty doggedly pursues the Barksdale crew on his own — putting his career at risk in the process. Even while his P.R.-minded superiors are content to sweep the case away, McNulty persists and eventually opens up a Pandora’s box of bureaucratic intransigence, red tape and possible corruption within the department.

“The Wire” is co-written by ex-cop Ed Burns and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, who imbues the show with the kind of stark realism and street-level grittiness he brought as a writer to critical faves “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and HBO’s “The Corner.” (Simon also wrote “Homicide,” the book that the TV series was based on, and he and Burns coauthored “The Corner,” another nonfiction work about Baltimore.) Shunning the black-and-white simplicity of most TV police dramas, Simon examines the parallel lives of both the drug dealers and the cops, finding a morally skewed universe where the dealers are pragmatic entrepreneurs and the cops are apathetic political animals driven more by ambition than altruism. Reflecting the nihilistic vision put forth in “Traffic,” “The Wire” depicts the drug war as a perpetual, misguided exercise in futility. At the end of the day, the show argues, junkies will be junkies, dealers will be there to supply them, and the system will always be one step behind both of them. As one overzealous detective lectures another in the opening episode, the term “drug war” is a misnomer: “wars end.”

Simon recently spoke by phone with Salon from his offices in Baltimore. “The Wire” airs on HBO every Sunday night at 10 p.m.

What’s behind the basic plot of “The Wire”?

It’s very loosely based on the experiences of my co-writer, Ed Burns, who was a 20-year veteran of the police department here in Baltimore. He did a lot of these protracted investigations, often of more than a year’s time, into violent drug traffickers. It was largely based on his experiences and his frustrations in the department. And then it was also based on my experiences at my newspaper, which became a sort of hellish, futile bureaucracy. And then while we were writing the scripts, Enron was happening. And the Catholic Church. It became more of a treatise about institutions and individuals than a straight cop show.

Like “The Corner,” “The Wire” deals with the drug epidemic in Baltimore. Why do you keep coming back to this subject and this city?

I’ve lived in Baltimore coming up on 20 years. I know it. I actually went to the mayor and told him, “This is gonna be a pretty bleak show. If you’re sick of this shit, we’ll take our business elsewhere.” But to his credit, he said, Do it. Baltimore is one of the most drug-involved cities in the country. It has been for years. The police department we’re portraying is not particularly exaggerated for the late ’80s, early ’90s. It was that dysfunctional.

Was the show originally developed for HBO? And how do you think it would fare on network TV?

We went straight to HBO with it. Part of it was that I already had the existing relationship with HBO, and secondly I didn’t want to have the arguments. My experience with “Homicide” was that you’d write a very good episode that didn’t end in any kind of gratifying, emotionally uplifting way, and the notes would be consistently the same: “Where are the life-affirming moments? How can our viewers hope?” I mean, the name of the show’s “Homicide.” [Laughs.]

["The Wire" is] sort of a visual novel. We knew exactly what we wanted to say about the bureaucratic aspects of the drug war. It is about what happens in this land of ours when product ceases to matter, when the institutions themselves become predominant over their purpose. Pick up the paper: You take a job, you go down to Houston, you move your family there, you find out they gutted the company and stole your pension. It’s like whatever you believe in, whatever you commit to that’s larger than you or your family, will somehow find a way to fuck you.

Without being preachy, “The Wire” is rather critical of the way our government has fought the drug war. What have we been doing wrong?

We bought in to a war metaphor that justifies anything. Once you’re at war, you have an enemy. Once you have an enemy, you can do what you want. I don’t think that the government will ever find a meaningful way to police desire and human frailty. I’m not supportive of the idea of drugs, but what drugs have not destroyed, the war on them has managed to pry apart.

[The government] created war zones where the only economic engine is the self-perpetuating drug trade. It survives no matter what, and they expect people to walk away from it. The naiveté is just incredible. They’ve spent 34 years taking these neighborhoods and basically divesting them from the rest of America. We’ve embraced a permanent war of attrition against the underclass and it can’t work.

You know what’s reduced drug use in Baltimore? Crack cocaine, ’cause it kicked the living shit out of a generation of people, and now you got heroin addicts who consider themselves lucky because they’re not smoking crack. The fact remains: Violence and drug use would not be reduced in New York, Philadelphia, Washington or Baltimore in any respects because four or five separate mayors discover a new form of policing. It’s because something pharmacological happened.

And, of course, that theory is rarely explored in the media.

No, it’s great: When crime goes up, it’s not in our control. When it goes down, they jump in there taking credit. I’m real down on their drug war, and I’m approaching it from somebody who admires good police work.

Writing for a larger audience, do you feel you might be able to rectify some of these inequities, as opposed to when you were a journalist?

I don’t think anything’s gonna get better. I don’t buy in to that “We wrote a five-part series and now they’re gonna pass a law” — just so the law could fuck it up worse. I’m just trying to come to the campfire with a good story that feels very real. I think some people may have problems with ["The Wire"] because the expectation is of a cop show and of delivering either arrests or denouements at the end of every episode and basically exploring good and evil. Good and evil at this point bores the shit out of me.

“The Wire” distinguishes itself from a lot of other police shows with its down-and-dirty style. If you could put your finger on it, what’s the key to achieving that kind of verisimilitude?

As a reporter I made a point of getting out of the newsroom. And I tried to spend more time with the people who were getting policed. I think one of the things that makes this thing feel real is that the bad guys in most cop shows are basically fodder for the cops: They’re to be chewed on and spit out and rendered as archetypes. And I got no interest in that. Even the guys who have the capacity for being sociopaths have to be considered in human terms. It doesn’t mean you give ‘em a puppy, but it’s about making everybody whole. Cop shows don’t have room to do that. In one sense, the whole cop-show thing has been so calcified and entrenched that you basically have to take a chainsaw to it in people’s minds.

In doing research for both of these series ["The Wire" and "The Corner"], you spent time in some of the most dangerous housing projects in Baltimore. What was that like?

You know, I’m gonna sorta subvert that and say I’ve never had any real problem introducing myself to people anywhere in Baltimore or asking their help. I felt very little resistance to anything I tried to do or anywhere I tried to go in the city, and that goes back to my time at the Sun. It ain’t Beirut. We were treated as gracefully by people in some of these struggling places as I was in other parts of town. It has been so mythologized: People think you hop into your car and you immediately get ripped off, carjacked and shot three times in the head. I mean, we went to the same corner every day for a year and we got robbed once. It was by people who didn’t know us, who were from another neighborhood; they thought we were white guys trying to buy dope, so they thought they were gonna get money or some vials. I don’t want to go to the notion that I’m some fucking war correspondent.

Does dealing with bleak material ever get depressing for you?

The trick is to take what can become a calcified universe and try to find some new way to do it. It’s kinda like blues music, you know. There’s 12 bars. It’s all the same. But if you’re listening it’s not. “Homicide” was still a show where you felt like they [the police] were doing God’s work, and I don’t buy that in the drug war. I think it may have begun nobly enough as this crusade against dangerous drugs, but it’s become a war on the underclass. Wonderfully drawn as they were, you never felt that the guys in “Homicide” were anything but a band of brothers.

Not to open old wounds here, but was it tough to see “Homicide” fail to find a larger audience?

Yeah, I wanted that show to get attention ’cause I wanted to sell books. [NBC] didn’t understand what they had in terms of the tone of the show. They would have meetings with the people who do the promos and Tom [Fontana] would complain that they weren’t promo-ing the show. They would say, “Well, nobody’s chasing anybody, there’s no violence, there’s no gunfights, and there’s no ticking time bombs. What do you want us to promo, people talking to each other?” Well, yeah. [Laughs.]

The pilot of ["The Wire"] is very much the anti-pilot. The one thing it doesn’t have is that sense of, “Are you gonna watch this show now? Are ya? Huh? Huh? Huh? If you don’t come back we might kill this guy.” That’s what you have to do on network, ’cause if they don’t come back, you’re cancelled. On HBO it’s like, “We’re in it for the long haul. Tell the story in a smart way and we will bring people into the tent or we will die trying.”

What first drew you to the world of police officers? You seem to have an endless fascination with how these people interact in and out of the workplace.

I think they’re just wonderful vehicles for telling a story about the greater culture and the greater community. They intersect with every problem and foible and dysfunction that we have — and they’re compelled to react to that. I’m actually interested in a lot of different stuff, but I got stuck on the police beat. I wouldn’t try to write a TV show about something I didn’t know. I think it’s a very funny and absurd existence to be a cop in America, particularly in a big city.

What is the cardinal sin most writers commit with cop characters?

They make them care. I mean, do you believe McNulty cares?

To be honest, I don’t know. It’s pretty ambiguous, actually.

Exactly. I wanted it to be ambiguous and I think there’s a frightening aspect to McNulty, which is this: He cares about making the case, clearly. But does he care about the people he’s making it for? Does he care about West Baltimore? Is he connected to these people in any empathetic way? And I’m not going near that until viewers are ready to accept the absolute truth of all the cops I’ve known, which is, the best you can hope for from a really good cop is that he cares about the game. To a good homicide detective, the murder is an affront to his intellectual vanity, and I mean that in the best possible way. “This fucker did this murder, I caught it, and he thinks he’s fucking better than me. Fuck him. He’s about to find out.” That’s a good cop. He could be class-conscious, racist, homophobic, sexist and still wanna solve the murder.

One of the best detectives I knew in Baltimore was a racist. He’d catch 12 murderers a year and all the victims would be black. But if a black family moved in next door, he’d run the father through the computer to find out if he had charges. It’s who he was. Whenever the cop lifts the blanket and looks down at the body and says, “Jesus, what a waste” — they never say that. [Laughs.] They never fuckin’ say that. I think most cop shows think the guys are doing it because it fixes the neighborhood: “I care that the world gets better, therefore I police.” Bullshit. So I wanna jettison all that.

Do you hope, in some way, that your shows might help to reform the institutions they explore?

I’ll tell you what, this would be enough for me: The next time the drug czar or Ashcroft or any of these guys stands up and declares, “With a little fine-tuning, with a few more prison cells, and a few more lawyers, a few more cops, a little better armament, and another omnibus crime bill that adds 15 more death-penalty statutes, we can win the war on drugs” — if a slightly larger percentage of the American population looks at him and goes, “You are so full of shit” … that would be gratifying.

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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