The startling narrative compression of The Wire and Generation Kill means that no scene is ever a throwaway: miss a 10-second plot point in episode three and you’ll regret it in episode nine, when it’s suddenly crucial. “Even with shows that are somewhat sophisticated, you can take a phone call, you can have a conversation with your boyfriend or your spouse, and still pretty much grasp the show. The Wire will fuck you if you do that.”
Isn’t it arrogant to presume to retrain viewers in the art of watching television? “You know what would feel arrogant to me? What would feel arrogant to me would be asking you to spend 10 or 12 hours of your time a year watching my shit, and delivering something where we didn’t hold that time precious. Last year, with The Wire and Generation Kill, HBO gave me 17 hours of uninterrupted film — almost US$100 million of production value. What would be arrogant would be to waste that — to tell anything less than the most meaningful possible story. Whenever I see a good subject ruined with a bad film or a bad book, I feel: shit, now it’ll be harder to go back there again. How dare you presume to tell me a story, and then not tell me the best possible story?”
When he started researching The Corner, Simon had covered crime for the Sun for 13 years, but examining the drugs trade from the inside presented fresh challenges: two white guys hanging around the corner of Monroe and Fayette in west Baltimore were hardly inconspicuous. “We were initially regarded by many of the corner regulars as police or police informants,” Simon and Burns write. It didn’t help that some older dealers remembered Burns from his detective days. The police posed a different problem: those who didn’t recognize them kept threatening to arrest them, assuming they were buying drugs; those who did recognize them stopped to chat, incurring the suspicion of locals. It took five months until the corner regulars “were convinced that whatever else we claimed to be, we weren’t police. No one could recall seeing us buy or sell anything, nor did we seem to do anything that resulted in anyone getting locked up.” By the time The Corner had become first its own mini-series and then, along with Homicide, source material for The Wire, west Baltimore had come on board to the point that throngs of spectators got in the way of filming. According to rumor, real wiretaps went silent during broadcasts, as dealers suspended operations in order to watch.
If there’s a fault with Simon’s work, it’s that his characters can be so compelling, you forget to be angry about the situations he portrays. You find yourself laughing at the war-hardened wisecracks of Generation Kill’s Corporal Josh Person, say, or wondering at The Wire’s Marlo and his cold-blooded cool, without stepping back to take stock of the modern nightmares they’re enduring. Simon, on the other hand, is very angry indeed. “You are sitting in the deconstruction of the American Dream,” he says, indicating Baltimore. “Which is to say there was a fundamental myth that if you were willing to work hard, support your family, stay away from shit that ain’t good for you, you’d do all right. You didn’t have to be the smartest guy in the room. The dream wasn’t that everyone could get rich. It was that everyone gets to make a living and see the game on Saturday, and maybe, with the help of a government loan or two, your kid’ll go to college.” His anger is wide-reaching: deprivation in Baltimore, imaginary WMDs in Iraq and Wall Street scandals are all part of the same betrayal — of capitalist institutions “selling people shit and calling it gold.”