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.