David Simon: Television Man

article image
Zina Saunders / www.zinasaunders.com

David Simon was chosen as an Utne Reader visionary in 2011. Each year Utne Reader puts forward its selection of world visionaries–people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them.

David Simon Online Extras | 2011 Visionaries Home Page

Americans watch an average of 140 hours of television every month, much of it devoted to the “real” lives of people whose highest ambition is to be on your TV screen. The majority of the rest relies on tired tropes meant to build audience numbers and nothing more.

The worlds David Simon creates for television are different beasts. There’s his highly acclaimed series The Wire, which looks at all avenues of American life through the lens of the drug trade; Generation Kill, a miniseries about Marines moving toward Baghdad at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom; and Treme, an exploration of post-Katrina New Orleans that is slated to enter its third season on HBO.

“American entertainment and television especially have been constructed to make viewers comfortable,” says Simon. He looks to television to do something more in line with the long tradition of storytellers in many media, especially those “who attempt to use their medium for the purposes of making political, social, and economic arguments.” The fact that television has until recently been “a juvenile mechanism for storytelling” doesn’t mean it must continue to be so. There’s now the opportunity for television to be “darker, more political, and more politically honest,” says Simon.

Before he began working in television, Simon was a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, but he left that field because of what he saw as mismanagement and misguided priorities. According to Simon, “the newspaper industry leaders, prompted by Wall Street and the devotion to profits, were gutting their product with buyout after buyout, reducing newsrooms and coverage” well before the advent of the Internet, which is often cited as the cause of newspapers’ demise. “The mismanagement of American newspapering is quite remarkable. But all of the fellows responsible are now on a golf course in Hilton Head or some such [place], having secured their bonuses and golden-parachute buyouts.”

So Simon “drifted into television,” as he puts it. In an interview with The Progressive magazine earlier this year, Simon said, “A TV show can’t hold people and institutions to account like good journalism can. But if I can make you care about a character, I may make you think a little longer about certain dynamics that might cause you to reconsider your own political inertia or your own political myopia.”

In his own words, the characters he’s tried to make viewers care about are “recon Marines going to war as their chosen profession on behalf of a citizenry who knows little of war, or New Orleanians enduring the near-death of their city in relative political isolation, or teenage drug dealers going to work in the only factory still open in their city.”

In the future, Simon says, he may “like to do something on the rise and fall of organized labor in America . . . but when you mention it to people in L.A. their eyes glaze. To them, the story of labor is a museum piece and scarcely relevant. They’re wrong. But then again, so is the nation as a whole.”  

Whatever David Simon decides to work on next, if it’s an important issue of our time, we could do worse than to have it scrutinized through a storytelling medium that, thanks to this man, may finally be reaching its full potential.

David Simon Online Extras | 2011 Visionaries Home Page

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.