The creator of The Wire on why his 1940s-set new series The Plot Against America is actually about today.
Near the end of our interview, I ask David Simon when he last watched one of his shows — such as Treme, The Deuce or of course The Wire, arguably the greatest TV series ever made.
"I don't rewatch my shows," he cuts in. "Who would do such a thing? I don't reread my books. Eyes forward."
In other words, Simon does not reminisce for the sake of it. And he insists that his latest production — the haunting mini-series The Plot Against America, which adapts Philip Roth's novel about the US turning fascist in 1940 — is not backwards-looking at all.
"Very bluntly, we felt that we were addressing ourselves to the extant American political dynamic," he says from his home in Baltimore. That the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh could have run against and beaten Franklin D Roosevelt — the basis of Roth's novel — is "a lovely little artefact of history . . . but it doesn't mean anything, except for what has happened to us since 2016."
The Wire, primarily about policing and drug-dealing in Baltimore, offered moral complexity — the system was so corrupted that nobody had good options. The Plot Against America is simpler — there is still time to object. The series tracks a Jewish family in New Jersey as each member chooses between outrage and opportunism in Lindbergh's Nazi-sympathising America.
Through them, Simon wants to show voters "on a visceral level what it is to be the outsider in a society." His focus is the election of 2020, not the election of 1940. "What are we for, what are we against, how are we going to be counted? It's the question that I wanted everyone to have foremost in their minds as they go into a voting booth."
Now 60, Simon himself grew up in a Jewish family in Washington DC in the 1960s and 70s and says that, by then, anti-Semitism was no longer part of the social fabric. "Were there country clubs that wouldn't have had me? Yeah, and I wouldn't have had them," he summarises.
He turned down adapting Plot in 2013, because it felt irrelevant to Obama-era America. He returned to the idea in 2016, shortly before US citizens were stopped at US airports as part of President Trump's travel restrictions.
"We're not actually writing about the status of Jewish-Americans. In 2016, it's not the Jews [who are deemed not entirely American] — it's the Muslims, it's the black and brown people from overseas, it's the quote-unquote 'rapist Mexicans'."
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This is the paradox of America: "our ambivalence — as a nation of immigrants — to immigration. With every wave, we tell ourselves the same lie: they're not going to make good Americans." The country, far from being the exemplary melting pot, is, he says, "particularly vulnerable to that rhetoric".
Simon met Roth once in 2017 to discuss the project. The novelist, who didn't appear to have seen The Wire, asked him to change the family's name from Roth; Simon broached changing the ending. Eight months later, Roth was dead.
"Listen, I imagined myself getting to drive around Newark and Weequahic and everywhere else in Jersey in a scout van with Philip Roth," says Simon. "I thought I was going to have the time of my life being buddies with a literary lion. What did I know?"
Plot features standout performances from Zoe Kazan as the mother trying to hold her family together and Winona Ryder as her Lindbergh-loyalist sister. It starts slowly — because, as Simon puts it, the advance of fascism "doesn't happen as a single act of misrule or a coup d'état. It creeps, as we've seen." As America's mood darkens, so do the 1940s living rooms.
For Simon, the consolation of the Trump administration is that the White House has been "a festival of innate stupidity". He fears worse is to come. "The next Donald Trump will actually be good at politics. He might even be good at totalitarianism, as opposed to farcical . . . Can you imagine if a guy could actually lead? And was willing to use the affronts to democratic norms that Trump is clearly comfortable with? The next guy's going to be more frightening."
If you think the past four years, particularly the pandemic, have vaccinated voters against populism, Simon has bad news. "What we thought were our norms have been exposed as being incredibly vulnerable. Not just constitutionally but in terms of our electoral integrity."
"We're in a post-fact world," says Simon, who spent 13 years as a reporter on the Baltimore Sun. "If we're in a post-fact world, then we can elect anybody and they can tell us anything."
He backed Elizabeth Warren then Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and now supports Joe Biden, despite the latter's role in bringing in tough crime laws in the 1990s that contributed to the social breakdown seen in The Wire. "You can trace the drugs war back to the 1880s and the Chinese Exclusion Act and the first legislation about opium. The drug war has always been a function of racism and racist fears in America . . . Is Biden complicit? Absolutely. On the other hand, is Trump the solution?"
Simon, who once said "fuck the casual viewer", may not be the person to win over the casual voter. He is found daily on Twitter, calling those silly enough to rile him "shitsquibs" and "rubes", or promising to do unpublishable things to their mothers. He assures me this is not a sign of unhappiness.
"I don't think I've been professionally unhappy yet. Twitter is performance art. If people mistake the performance art for my actual spleen, they're just not enjoying the joke as much as I am . . . The 280-character limit on Twitter allows for a level of biting humour that really brings some of the worst shit to task, in the same way that 50 frames of Chaplin might."
Since 2012, he has posted 82,000 tweets, an average of 28 a day. "I do more of it, when I'm on set. There's nowhere to go. I'm sitting in the chair — all I have is my phone, now we're going to cause some trouble."
In the aftermath of George Floyd's death, some internet users criticised The Wire for having depicted the police heroically. Simon, for once, refuses to engage: "Anyone can think anything, and the show's going to stand for itself." He is no admirer of the slogan "defund the police", not least because of the basic need to "lock up the motherfucker who's shooting people".
But one of his next projects may satisfy those who demand a more negative view of the police: it tracks the Gun Trace Task Force, a police unit that stole cash and drugs from Baltimore residents.
"The idea that [the police] would manufacture their stats or lie about what they were doing — we had that [in The Wire]," says Simon. "But the idea of a completely rogue unit — that needed another few years of no supervision, and people being left to their own sense what profit they were entitled to, and how meaningless the drug war was, and how unaccountable they can be."
Baltimore is more violent than when The Wire was devised. "The clearance rate for murder when I was a reporter was 70 per cent. It's now 20 per cent. So nobody goes to jail. So instead of 220 murders a year, which we had a couple of decades ago, we now have 350, and it's the worst violence in the city's history."
Simon once calculated that the chances, as a white person, of being murdered in Baltimore were as low as in Omaha, Nebraska. Now the risk is spilling over the city's invisible walls.
"There have been a couple of robbery-murders in my neighbourhood in the last two years. Stuff reaches out, and there's no denying it. Then you have a choice: do you run away, do you live in a gated community, do you hire a separate police department so you can secure another America? A lot of people do — sometimes that seems to be half the state of Florida."
He has lived in Baltimore since 1984. Is he tempted to leave? Almost for the first time in our conversation, Simon hesitates. "Um, not yet. I don't know. I have a particular love for New Orleans [where Treme was set], and there may be a point . . . But you know, we're here now."
Baltimore is where he intends to celebrate the ousting of Donald Trump. In Simon's vision, that is only the first step to de-corrupting America.
The Plot Against America is available to stream on Neon.
Written by: Henry Mance
© Financial Times