David Simon is going back to Baltimore's cops and drug pushers with his new show, We Own This City.
Early on in David Simon's new television drama, We Own This City, three cops sit in a van in Baltimore, surveilling a dealer. They drink coffee. The work is slow. One of the actors used to be in The Wire — Simon's other show about detectives and drugs in Baltimore.
It feels like a sequel and what showrunner would not want to revisit his greatest triumph? The Wire made stars of Idris Elba and Dominic West, while paving the way for a box set and streaming revolution that saw the best television supersede film and rival the novel for ambitious ideas.
Simon is different. This is not a victory lap. In fact, while The Wire is frequently — and correctly, in my opinion — called the greatest television show of all time, Simon believes it failed. The reason is that Simon was a showrunner on a mission: "The Wire was saying, 'End the drug war.'" His target was America's political addiction to a policy that tried to stop the illegal drugs trade by using the police, instead of offering users treatment. "And that drug war is still going," he says.
Simon wrote the series after 12 years working on The Baltimore Sun, and all that local knowledge made his writing breathe. It felt alive. One detective in We Own This City moans: "Working drugs? That s*** was pointless." For Simon, back on his beat with unfinished business, the message is still simple: "End. The. Drug. War."
Simon makes protest TV. And he's at it again. We Own This City is as close to a sixth series of The Wire as we will get. While The Wire was fiction rooted in reality, this is based on the shocking true story of a police unit who sold drugs, robbed civilians and beat people up. But the two shows share a DNA. As Simon states: "If you wait around for politicians to pass a better law because you made a f***ing TV show, you'll wait a long time. But at least we didn't waste our time making a comic book movie."
Here is what happened in Baltimore that led Simon to make The Wire and try to change things. In the 1990s a law was passed that declared parts of the city to be "drug-free zones". That meant that if you were loitering on the street, or even just walking, you could be arrested. "Hilariously unconstitutional," he scoffs. Some crew members on The Wire even got nicked. The mayor, who wanted to be the state governor, figured out that if you cleared streets, or made people so afraid they stayed at home, there would be fewer shootings. He could declare a crime miracle.
One year they made 100,000 arrests in a city of only 600,000 people. Yet Baltimore's murder rate kept growing, because the police focus was cracking down on petty offences, rather than on serious crime. This January 36 people were murdered in Baltimore — its deadliest January for 50 years. By way of comparison, 32 people have been killed in London this year.
"We're the most violent we've ever been," Simon says with a sigh. "We destroyed our police. That was my argument in The Wire. I wanted to highlight how the drug war not only destroyed communities but also law enforcement. Addiction was as high as ever. America lost its way."
People began to resent police who had only been taught to toss people in a van. Then those officers trained the next generation and that is why we end up with We Own This City.
"[When writing The Wire] did I comprehend police becoming gangsters?" Simon asks. "No, I didn't quite get there in my imagination." This month Baltimore police announced their chief of fiscal services was a suspect in a murder investigation. "Enough. This bingo card is full," Simon tweeted.
He seems resigned. What would he do? Well, The Wire provided ideas like Hamsterdam, which decriminalised drugs within a few blocks, thus taking crime off surrounding streets and providing focus for social services to help those in need. "So I am a defund the drug war guy," he says. "The police have been given a vile, destructive mission, and if you change the mission you restore a different concept of policing."
From The Wire to We Own This City, Simon has never written about the murky world of policing in black and white. "If there is to be any truth in the writing," Simon says, "all of the characters have to be human beings. Kid on a drug corner? Human. Cop? Human. The people in The Wire were not written for anyone who lives by a slogan. If you believe 'all cops are bastards', don't watch The Wire. If you believe 'everyone selling drugs is a subhuman villain', don't watch. At no time write off groups of people as being 'subhuman'. That's not just bad writing, it's bulls***. I'm not an 'abolish the police' sloganeer. Nor am I 'back the blue' — I live in that grey world where I actually look at problems and how you solve them."
The Wire ran from 2002 to 2008; during the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 Barack Obama said it was his favourite show, while Hillary Clinton picked American Idol. It tells of two Americas. Clarke Peters, who played the dignified detective Lester Freamon, said: "It exercised a part of your brain numbed by watching other crap." Andre Royo, who was stunning as the addict Bubbles, still finds it too raw to watch: "I'm going to wait till I'm 90."
The Wire has come far since it first aired when nobody really watched. It was nearly binned after three series, Simon says. Executives at HBO thought the death of Elba's Stringer Bell was a natural ending, and the ratings were low, yet Simon persuaded HBO to do two more. A sixth series was never discussed, but Simon wishes he had done a season on mass immigration from Latin America.
The show kick-started the boom in long-form drama. In fact HBO's desire to build a library to sell DVDs and subscriptions is one of the reasons The Wire was recommissioned, despite its ho-hum viewing figures.
The thinking was that a long show would be more rewarding for viewers. Royo, whose addict Bubbles certainly benefits from a full 60 hours, said that early on he asked Simon if he was worried about low ratings. "He said people would treat it like a book," Royo says. "And I thought, 'This white boy's crazy!' But he was right."
Eventually, word of mouth made The Wire a success. It stood out as different in the days before Netflix, Disney+ and co flooded the market with what feels like a new drama a week.
"The TV market has got more crowded," Simon says. "But what I find problematic is what you see with Netflix is when they launch a show — and they launch a lot of shows — some are well-conceived and some are trifling. But they're all promoted equally and, if they do not hit huge, they may not complete their run. If writers were able to complete their run, they might actually build something. But if they cut off after two seasons, they'll never know."
Twenty years on The Wire still resonates. In Baltimore, Simon says the show was liked by those lower down the political food chain; police on the beat and struggling teachers. They thought the show reflected reality. However, among council bosses, police commissioners and school chiefs — "those responsible for the institutions being critiqued", Simon says — there was general unhappiness. "The mayor really had a problem with us."
On the corners in the largely black neighbourhoods that formed the backbone of the show, The Wire was popular. "There were 400 shows being made about one America — and only one about the America that had been economically and politically left behind," Simon says. "We were filming in that America, so there was connection."
It was there that viewers met the show's strongest characters — Avon Barksdale, Stringer and the unique Omar Little, the whistling, gay stick-up man played by Michael K. Williams.
Williams died last year, and Simon misses his friend. When he wrote about him for The New York Times, he said: "He wanted his work to matter — not for fame or reward, but for leaving us all better humans in its wake." Which is a decent way to sum up the show that made his name. And the new show that still needed to be made.
We Own This City and The Wire are available on Neon.
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London