March 28, 2009


Arrogant? Moi?: He might be amused by The Wire's success in Britain but he isn't surprised by it. After all, David Simon isn't one for modesty. Oliver Burkeman meets him (Oliver Burkeman, 3/28/09, The Guardian)

One irony of The Wire's global success is that there are now, presumably, plenty of middle-class Britons more familiar with the drugs economy, failing schools and corrupt politicians of Baltimore than they are with any part of inner-city Britain. So faithful is The Wire to the specific vernacular of its setting, indeed, that there may be Londoners or Mancunians whose knowledge of west Baltimore drugs slang exceeds that of dealers in Philadelphia or New York.

They will have a new opportunity to embellish their vocabularies next month with the first UK publication of The Corner, the 1997 non-fiction book that inspired The Wire. Written by Simon and his collaborator Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective, it is a forensic document of one year in the inner city, told through the prism of a single street corner, and the addicts and dealers for whom it's the frontline in the struggle to survive. The publication is part of a high-profile year for Simon in Britain: he will appear at this year's Hay literary festival, while BBC2 will give The Wire its first airing on mainstream television.

Simon purports to be amused by his British success - "It's hilarious to me that there are two people walking through Hyde Park right now, arguing about The Wire" - but it would be wrong to imply he's surprised by it. Modesty isn't part of the Simon repertoire. He freely describes The Wire as revolutionary television, capturing "the truth" about the "universal themes" of life in the era of unrestrained capitalism; you sense that, ultimately, he considers the global adulation only fitting. When people call The Wire Shakespearean, he demurs, but only because he considers it a Greek tragedy instead: Aeschylus updated, with urban institutions as the Olympian gods, destroying human lives on a whim. "It's the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason," he has said. (In a show loaded with symbolism, it's no coincidence that the coldest expression of pure capitalism in The Wire is the criminal mastermind of season two, The Greek.) You can watch The Wire, of course, as no more than a gritty soap opera, charting the lives of the alcoholic-but-brilliant detective Jimmy McNulty, the sociopathic kingpin Marlo Stanfield or the heartbreaking dope fiend Bubbles. But don't imagine Simon isn't also operating on another plane entirely.

It's part of the price of admission to Simon's worlds, both fictional and non-fictional, that you'll have almost no idea what's going on for the first few episodes, or the first few hundred pages. Turning on the subtitles will help you only marginally with the Baltimore-speak of The Wire; within the first few pages of The Corner, Gary McCullough, the real-life inspiration for Bubbles, is shown concluding that "the issue is 30 on the hype", no explanation provided. The soldiers of Generation Kill - Simon's Iraq war mini-series, based on a Rolling Stone journalist's book-length account of being embedded with the US marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq - speak for minutes on end in impenetrable military lingo, and Treme, a show about the New Orleans music scene on which he's currently working, promises similarly opaque music jargon. This is quite deliberate. The key principle of Simon's storytelling was encapsulated in a remark that caused raised eyebrows when he uttered it, late last year, on BBC2's Culture Show: "F[***] the average viewer."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 28, 2009 7:32 AM
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