I Love David Simon, But…

David Simon can’t seem to open his mouth without revealing what a prick he is, and how proud he is of his eminent prickitude. Let’s stipulate that he’s made brilliant television, and to a certain extent I agree with the words of Steve Brier: “I abide arrogance in people who have something to be arrogant about.” I proselytize about The Wire to no end, and I’ll follow his career and devour everything he does.

But he’s got two obnoxious beefs that run through his work that I’d like to highlight: he hates New York and he has disdain for people who watch television. Of course these statements are overdrawn, but only because Simon overdrew them first himself. Here’s a clip from a talk he gave a couple of years ago at Eugene Lang College at the New School:

There is no city more vain about its position in popular culture, more indifferent to other realities, more self-absorbed than New York City…. You guys think you know urban America, you don’t know shit anymore.

Granted this is a rant and certain allowances must be made for imprecise language, but it’s still surprising to see someone who has done some of the most humanistic work in contemporary culture speak of a city as though it itself has the uniquely human qualities of vanity, indifference, and self-absorption, and then to proceed to correlate the development of these qualities with the extent of crime and suffering currently in the city. If he were to argue that New Yorkers were exceedingly provincial, I’d agree with him. If he were to argue that the national media is New York-centric, and that this is because of all the money that flows through Manhattan, and that this reality informs stories that do and do not get funded and told, he’d get no argument from me. But that’s not what he’s arguing in the clip above, or in this excerpt from an interview he did with Alan Sepinwall comparing New Yorkers’ reaction in the aftermath of 9/11 to the perspective of New Orleanians after Katrina:

Although who isn’t self-absorbed when their town has a near-death experience? Were New Yorkers not talking about 9/11 for years afterwards? Was it not a subject of intense discussion and self-awareness? Did New Yorkers not sound to outsiders self-absorbed and preachy when they spoke of 9/11? The sense of entitlement that New Yorkers feel and that they’re not willing to grant to someone else who’s had a life-changing experience is really remarkable. But that’s the nature of empathy: it only goes so far.

Simon starts this bit off sympathetic to those whose city has been through trauma, but can’t help himself from throwing a dig in against “New Yorkers” and their “sense of entitlement.” Fact is, the vast majority of New Yorkers I know who were here on 9/11 wanted immediately to find ways to both remember what happened on that day and get on with the normalcy of their lives. Thought it’s an unscientific claim, I’d bet that as much of all that “never forget” stuff came from outside the city as from the city’s citizens; New York has no singular claim on 9/11 fetishism. Simon seems to be arguing that New York’s location at the center of American economic and cultural power not only crowd out other stories but also delegitimize to a certain extent the stories and voices that do come out of the city. This perspective flattens and ignores the extent to which human and social conflict propels this city forward just like it does any other city, and it does absolutely nothing to help bring stories from other locales to light (perhaps besides fuel Simon’s considerable intellectual fire).

Simon’s beef about New York in Treme flows in-part from his sense that New Orleans didn’t get the national love that New York did after Katrina, and this argument filters into the perspectives of Creighton “Fuck You You Fucking Fucks” Bernettte and Davis “This Can’t Happen in New York” McAlary as well as the intense parochialism exhibited by many of the characters on the show. It also leads to groan-inducing expository lines like the one delivered by Annie’s friend in Episode 9 of Treme when Annie leaves Sonny, her boyfriend and musical partner: “Fucking is fucking, but music? That’s personal.” In New Orleans, such a perspective is to be celebrated because the music, food and culture are wonderful and bohemian and largely uncapitalized, the city’s people have been shat upon for generations by government and corporations, and not many people outside the city “get it.” In New Orleans, other rules prevail. In New York, if you’re a New Orleans-bred trumpeter like Delmond Lambreaux, you seem like a turkey paralyzed by an Oedipal complex if you explore music beyond that which is at your roots.

Simon is even more disdainful of television watchers than he is of New Yorkers. He begins his interview with Alan Sepinwall, who has been among the best chroniclers of both The Wire and Treme, by insulting him. Sepinwall asked Simon what he was hoping to accomplish with the flashback scene that occurs in the season finale of Treme, and Simon snaps “it’s kind of self-evident, isn’t it?” before defending the choice from a critique that the interviewer doesn’t level. Simon adds:

So it’s kind of frustrating, for people trying to blog the show each week like yourself, people trying to comment on it or to anticipate the storyline, to debate the filmmaker’s choices. But it’s a no-win situation. We wouldn’t want to have people not discussing the show, but at the same time, you can’t take the discussion seriously until everyone gets to the end. At the end, people can reflect on what they’ve seen, and whether it added up…. I’ve come to realize that the only commentary I can take seriously are people who react to what’s on screen and how that reflects on the reality they know. That’s the only biofeedback that matters to me.. All the feedback of, “I wish the show would be this, I wish the show would be more of this, I wish this character had less to do, I wish this character had more to do,” that’s of no use. It’s of no use because we’ve already finished production, but on a more philosophical level, it’s of no use. Choices have been made based on the last half hour of film. Every season of ‘The Wire’ built to the last half hour, to the endings. This is my seventh time of having the initial reaction to our storylines be, “I don’t understand where they’re going. Why do they have this? This doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t like this character.” If you go back and watch the first episode of any season of “The Wire,” or the first episode of “Treme” or “Generation Kill,” knowing the ending, the choices will be entirely reasonable as a first chapter of something that is novelistic. If you experience it only as something that’s an episodic entity unto itself, I can’t answer that, because I don’t really think about that. I’m not irate about it, I just can’t take it seriously.

So, this is effectively a rant against the consideration as episodes of blocks of television that are constructed and presented as unique entities once a week, with beginning and ending credits, and an assertion that you really can’t say much of value about the arc of a season or a series or a character until you first see all that the “filmmakers” have to say. That’s just idiotic, and flies directly in the face of Simon’s own claims that the art he produces will not allow fundamental human truths to be distorted by the restrictions of form.

Simon acknowledges in the interview that there is space for criticism and discussion of his work, yet he repeatedly detours any question Sepinwall asks about arc and plot and characters and choices that might lead to some reflection and introspection about human nature into rants about how most viewers and critics are brainwashed by tv so deeply that we don’t really know how to watch a show like this:

I don’t mind if a character is selfish or insecure. I just don’t need all my characters to be winning. And in the same way that people often miscalculate or fail to acknowledge the equivocation between high-stakes and plot itself, I think people generally mistake their dislike of a character as poor acting.

Simon has, over the years, become ever more certain that he knows The Truth and that there’s a pretty good chance that you and I do not. Much like Creighton Bernette, who we see once in the classroom and learn immediately that he is a pretty crappy teacher, Simon is much more interested in polemic than in dialogue. His polemics are smart, interesting, entertaining and often right-on. But they’re also becoming gradually more obnoxious in how they proclaim Simon’s single perspective and urinate upon all others. This approach informed some of the fifth season of The Wire, which centered around a fairly simplistic and nostalgic rant about the demise of newspapers. And it’s present periodically in Treme, a show I love, but one whose perspective is represented by a title that doesn’t sport an accent mark even though it’s sometimes spelled with one.  If you don’t know how to pronounce Treme and aren’t sufficiently motivated to get it right, what you think doesn’t really matter.

6 thoughts on “I Love David Simon, But…”

  1. He’s an Orioles fan, right? This probably isn’t news, but pretty much everybody in the AL East hates you guys.

  2. Let’s call it the Gus Triandos theory. Works for me.

    (I hate the Yankees too even though my Tigers are no longer in the East).

  3. OK, Luke. You’re right. David Simon IS an arrogant prick, especially about NYC. The Lang video clip is off the charts about Manhattan (notice he doesn’t ever talk much about Brooklyn). It’s especially weird because he seems to revel in the fact that B’more has 5 times Manhattan’s homicide rate, as if that’s an urban badge of honor. His beef is beyond arrogance; it’s almost paranoid. It doesn’t mean he’s not a great filmmaker (he is; the last episode of Treme was brilliant); but it does mean you have to take what he says in defense of his filmmaking with a giant grain of salt. More’s the pity.

  4. Oh God, I’m so glad I found this article. I just read Sepinwall’s interview with Simon and I felt it was almost impossible to hold back my disgust for the blatant disdainful, self-absorbed and downright arrogant remarks he made towards Sepinwall, NY and television and its viewers. It seems to be a staple of his that to defend his own work he feels the need to bring other shows down (like he did with Glee, Breaking Bad, the West Wing and numerous others all in a couple of sentences). He acted as if he invented the goddamn wheel while everybody else is still living in caves! Yes, a great deal of network television shows live by tired and mostly spectacle-based tropes (I’m looking at procedurals mostly) but that doesn’t mean that television isn’t a unique art medium on its own. He seems to equate “no guns” with “real drama” and “no rape” with “interesting character development”. Well, by those standards, The Wire certainly /wasn’t/ a fine drama… And along the same lines shows like Brothers and Sisters and Ghost Whisperer would be on par with Boccaccio’s Decamerone and Lost (hey, there were guns, right?), Breaking Bad and The Sopranos would be comparable to Patricia Cornwell’s body of work. Yes, that’s right: it makes no sense at all.

    His erroneous comparisons just screamed “I’m making intelligent tv and people are criticizing ME? Just fuck off and watch your stupid spoon-feeding trash like CSI!” It would be exactly the same if a prominent literary writer responded to every single question with “hey, you don’t like my amazing works? Too bad for you, because you’re the one missing out on this intellectual experience that no other writer could provide you with, ever. Then again, you probably don’t have the attention span nor the brain cells to properly enjoy let alone understand my work. Just stick to your trashy romance novels and whodunits.”

    Imagine the (justified) outrage among literary circles. Yet Simon gets away with drawing a complete black and white conclusion: Art – Me vs. Junk – Everything Else. I think his “The Wire” fame rose to his head (or he’s always been like this). Alan was way too kind in this interview (probably because he’s such a huge fan of Simon) even after Simon attacked him twice, and personally nonetheless. When I read the comments on his blog and saw they were all “whoa, good interview” and “God bless David Simon” I scoffed.

    Thank you for being the first journalist to proclaim that Simon’s behavior is that of a self-righteous pompous ass.

  5. Nice post Luke… this will sound stupid: I read it but don’t have time to watch the video, and am going to comment (huh, after reading my post, I seem to have plenty of time) anyway.

    Let’s keep in mind this guy is a director in the longest form motion picture medium. A certain amount of narcissism and absolute certainty are written into the job description.

    Being personable and giving good interview, maybe not so much. For me it’s important to separate any artist personally, from their work. If I didn’t, for example, I don’t think I could listen to Miles Davis, who was not a stellar human being. And I really want to be able to listen to Miles Davis and watch David Simon shows.

    Peeling away the arrogance, I think I understand Simon’s POV re: plot arc and certainly the quotes re: nuance in his characters…

    NYC bashing… it’s funny, I’ve lived here in the NYC area (this time) since 1989, and I’ve always found the sort of arrogance Simon describes to be imported from places like Ohio (I am a mid-westerner myself so I’ll try for a pass on being read as bigoted). Seriously though I believe this is a self-perpetuating myth – people come to the “big, bad city” from elsewhere. They’re scared and think they have to be tough and selfish to survive when actually they just have to be tough, and not scared. Toughness and arrogance do not equate. Most people who haven’t spent some time in neighborhoods inhabited by native New Yorkers base their impressions on what they’ve experienced… on TV and in the movies! Ironically this may include David Simon.

    Re: 9/11, I was here and while I couldn’t think about much else for a while, I don’t talk about it all the time or try to feel too special about it. It was horrific, a mass murder. It would have been worse if the criminals who did it could have made it so, but in the greater scheme of atrocities against large numbers of people, let’s face it, it’s kind of a minor blip on the radar.

    The thing that gets me is that, per this blog post, everywhere I go, I experience attempts by people who were not here, to appropriate the experience of this crime for their own ends. That drives me craaazy.

    Back to Simon, I think his basic thing is that he is very passionate about what he does, that what he does is social criticism, and that 2 things drive him to behave in the ways we are discussing:

    1. anything that might get in the way of his work (like uh, criticism), scares the shit out of him.

    2. any story that does not provide fertile ground for his work is of no consequence to him.

    He is not interested in NYC as fodder for his work, and therefore to him NYC is not interesting – basically, the city has become too safe, at least partially via paying the awful price of putting practically a whole generation of young lower income men in jail. I’m sure that isn’t lost on DS and that it has some bearing on his behavior re: NYC.

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