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 the BBC’s Culture Show: “Fuck the average viewer.”
When you want to write the truth, Simon argues, writing for those who know nothing sets the bar too low. “That’s how they taught us to write at the Baltimore Sun: ‘For the average reader with a seventh-grade education.’” But when he took a leave of absence to write Homicide, his account of a year with Baltimore murder detectives — it later became an acclaimed TV drama of the same name — he realized it was time for a new approach. “There came this point where I sat down with all my notebooks and I had to start to write,” he says, “when I thought: this whole notion of writing for the person who understands nothing, the average reader … He has to die! I can’t have him in my head. And so the person I started writing for was the homicide detective.” He wasn’t aiming to please his subjects themselves, he insists; many of the detectives emerge from the book as racist, homophobic, sexist or some mixture of all three. “My guy in my head was some guy in Chicago I’d never met. Not the average reader. Fuck him! I want to write for the guy living the event. When I criticize him, I want him to think, ‘That was fair.’ When I don’t criticize him, I want him to think, ‘He gets it.’” Generation Kill, meanwhile, unsparingly presents America’s finest fighters as video game-obsessed frat boys. But even though one of them was forced out of his battalion as a result of the original book, Simon maintains that the Marines involved are “in virtually every case” happy with their portrayal.
For the average reader or viewer, “the promise is that, as they go along, they’ll understand more and more, and maybe by the end they’ll understand most if not all of it.” This sounds daunting, but watching The Wire or Generation Kill, that’s not how it feels: the ingenious effect is to leave the viewer with the smugness-inducing sense of being smarter than before. “I love people who get to the end of the first episode and say, ‘That’s the show they’re calling the greatest show in television? What?’” Simon says. “The first season of The Wire was a training exercise. We were training you to watch television differently.”