Saturday, April 5, 2008

"The Wire" Creator David Simon Comes to Harvard

Friday night I met another writer hero of mine, namely David Simon, creator of the HBO television drama The Wire. This is one of the wonderful benefits of working at Harvard, and at the Kennedy School in particular --- no shortage of stimulating, free events to attend.

Simon was part of a panel, composed also of political academics and law enforcement, which discussed the show's portrayal of an American City (see video). If you haven't heard, The Wire, which just concluded its fifth and final season, is the most critically acclaimed TV show around, and has been touted by many as the greatest television show of all time.

I may come to agree. Just last week I finished Season 4, and was on the verge of tears. But the show is not lauded (at least, not first and foremost) for its emotional punch. Rather, the praise comes for its authentic, panoramic view of the inner city, and all the broken systems (media, government, education, etc.) and human weaknesses (greed, fear, ambition) that perpetuate its deplorable conditions.

The question I keep asking myself, as a novelist, is whether The Wire might not be the most important work of fiction produced in my lifetime. If my criteria for "most important" are factors like impact, appeal, integrity, thematic significance, scope, well then... yeah, it may trump anything else, novel or otherwise, to surface in the last three decades. Time will better tell, perhaps.

Suffice it to say, if my goal is to create a work of fiction that does more than just tell an interesting story, that taps into something real, and endures, then the bar has been raised pretty high. And that says nothing of the action, the character development, and downright Shakespearean rendering of urban dialect (the dialogue is music).

But no sense in regurgitating the show's accolades. What I can offer are some highlights from the Q&A portion of the discussion.

1:03:50 - First question of the night ends up being a massive spoiler --- only one of the night. (If you haven't seen Season 5 skip 20 seconds here). I knew there was a risk, and was impressed that even though the final season had aired in its entirety, not a word was uttered throughout the event... that is, until this nitwit decided to entertain us with his lame fucking joke. A third of the audience laughs politely. The other two thirds, who (like me) don't have HBO and await the DVD release, silently plot his death.

1:22:06 - Some dweeb, who has never even watched the show, gets on his soapbox and subtly touts a greater free market economy --- watch David Simon pull the rug out from under this chump. Awesome.

1:25:58 - I ask m-m-muh, muh-m-m-my question, which is essentially, "What's next?" His simple answer is an HBO seven-part miniseries based on Marines fighting during the first weeks of the Iraq War (trailer). Again, awesome. When I invite him to answer in terms of his activism and also "his art," he laughs and shakes his head.

1:30:55 - Last question (better than mine): "How do you pick your writers?" His answer is that he avoided television writers altogether. His background is journalism, his partner Ed Burns is a law enforcement and teaching veteran. Who else fills in the holes??? You guessed it, novelists. Hence, Dennis Lehane ('Gone Baby Gone,' 'Mystic River'), George Pelecanos ('Hard Revolution,' 'Right as Rain') and Richard Price ('Lush Life,' 'Clockers'). Awesome, awesome, awesome.

Afterward I stuck around so I could meet him personally, and get him to sign the cover sheet of my novel, which he did. I asked why he laughed when I said "his art," to which he only shook his head again. "You do believe you're an artist, don't you?" I persisted, to which he flatly replied, "No." I figured he was being modest. But as I was walking away, he called after me and added, "'Artist' is a bad word."

Really? Interesting. He doesn't know it yet, but someday, when I'm as respected as the other novelists he recruits to help him write, we're going to continue this conversation.

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