“Nobody watched The Wire when it was on,” says David Simon, leaning forward with a conspiratorial whisper, sitting at a neat desk in the ersatz office of Harry Oxman, the long-ago vice-mayor of Yonkers, New York. “Nobody watched The Corner.
“I didn’t believe for a minute [Generation Kill] would pull a number. You make a piece about the American misadventure in Iraq when people still have a taste of Fallujah in their mouths? Then we launched Treme, a show about culture and musicians — good luck.
“And, uh,” Simon says, “I don’t believe anyone’s going to watch this.”
The famously malcontent Simon is harrumphing as usual. His new HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero — about the fierce and unbelievable public-housing desegregation battle in 1980s Yonkers — is shooting down the hall. It will wrap at the end of the month and won’t air until later this year. And here he is in this uninhabited part of the set, patiently, convincingly, and dramatically explaining why it also will fail to find an audience.
“You are not going to get zombie-like numbers,” he says with more than a hint of disdain, “for a story about 200 units of low-income housing being built on the east side of the Saw Mill Expressway and the racial strife that ensues.”
But in all this harrumphing, there is a glint of stubborn pride. “I’ve gone 16 years,” he says. “I’ve gone as long as you can go in television without having an audience.”
Say hello to David Simon in winter.
Twenty minutes north of the Upper West Side, past the leafy suburban charms of the affluent North Bronx and the breathtaking cliffs ridging the Hudson River, is the working-class town of Yonkers. Proud hometown of Jadakiss1 and DMX, the city also has a lesser-known, more nefarious history.
If you find yourself up here, do check out his juice bar, Juice for Life, on Nepperhan Avenue. Slogan: “Love Is Love.”
The events of Show Me a Hero were set in motion in 1985, when U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand ruled that the city had “‘illegally and intentionally’ fostered segregation in its schools and neighborhoods by concentrating all of its public housing in one section of the city.” He then issued a desegregation order and instructed that 200 housing units be built elsewhere in and around Yonkers, including on the city’s largely white east side. This was not the Deep South in the 1950s. This was the liberal Northeast in the ’80s.2
Even more harrowing: There are strong echoes of the Yonkers situation in a current case from Texas that will soon be heard by the Supreme Court.
At the center of the story is Nicholas Wasicsko, who successfully ran for mayor in 1987 by pledging to oppose Judge Sand’s demands, then reversed course when a federal appeals court upheld the order days before his inauguration. In the excruciating face-off that ensued, Wasicsko had to stand against a dug-in city council majority who fought the order despite fines that amounted to $1 million a day and nearly crushed the city’s operations. Just 28 years old, Wasicsko was the youngest mayor in the country.
His story ended in tragedy, as the Times reported in the fall of 1993: “The 34-year-old Mr. Wasicsko was found at 5:20 P.M. in Oakland Cemetery in Yonkers, slumped against the base of a tree on a grassy hill overlooking the grave of his father, Nicholas, who died in 1985. He had a single gunshot wound in his head and held in his right hand the .38-caliber pistol that as a former police officer he always wore in a holster on his ankle.”
His was an emphatically human story of courage. Wasicsko wasn’t motivated by an amorphous spirit of justice and goodwill to all men. He was effectively forced into doing the right thing. But he did, ultimately, do the right thing. As the title of Simon’s show suggests, in real life, this is what a hero looks like.
Wasicsko is being portrayed by Oscar Isaac, the 34-year-old actor once described as being of “indeterminate ethnicity”3 whose career has rightfully gone into overdrive in the past few years. At the end of 2015, you’ll see him piloting his X-wing all through Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens; soon thereafter, he’ll be doing battle with the X-Men as the supervillain Apocalypse. But for now he’s in a drafty municipal building, in a plain office choked by dark wood and pocked with snow shovels, sporting a garish ’80s power suit and an equally garish power mustache.
For the record, he’s half-Cuban and half-Guatemalan, and was raised in Miami.
In today’s scene, Isaac’s Wasicsko is flustered as he begs for legal action against his political enemies. “Well, if the governor were to act, and remove some of these recalcitrant council members,” Isaac pleads on the phone to a would-be ally. “He could get them on malfeasance, nonfeasance, misfeasance.” Pause. “Any of the feasance family!” It’s a classic little Simon run, and Isaac’s delivery is sharp but understated.
In the back of the office, Simon sits at a large wooden conference table. He’s wearing a Champion ringer-tee tucked into his pants and a gray unzipped hoodie, the very model of I-don’t-give-a-fuck. Beside him is the semi-infamous writer-director Paul Haggis,4 who’s helming all six episodes of the miniseries. I’m ushered to a seat at the table as well, to observe quietly, and am introduced to Haggis.“You are a reporter, you’re not playing a reporter,” he grumbles, taking disapproving stock of my outfit. “If you were playing a reporter, you’d be dressed all fucking wrong.”
Semi-infamous both for the complicated legacy of his Best Picture–winning Crash and for his well-publicized exit from the Church of Scientology, which is a central narrative in Lawrence Wright’s exhaustive and fascinating 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
Then he turns his attention back to the shooting, which he watches through a nifty handheld monitor. Haggis — elegant in a thin blue sweater and neatly trimmed male-pattern baldness — is an able commander of his domain, even when speaking through a mouthful of blueberries. He calls out for walkie-talkies to be turned off; he snaps that the room be cleared of all nonessential personnel. Isaac, sporting slicked-back Pat Riley helmet hair, is a joy to watch: Diligent about his delivery, he’s locked into every line of dialogue on every take.
“Because I was under the impression that Cuomo was some kind of great hope of white liberals everywhere,” Isaac rattles off, smoothing his tie, at one with the Simonese. He’s not far from The Wire’s young, pre-corruption Tommy Carcetti.
But despite Isaac’s ease with the material, a string of mundanities are wreaking havoc on the shoot. Sirens go screaming by an open window. A coffee carafe, requested earlier, has now appeared on Isaac’s desk. But it wasn’t there earlier, so now the continuity is in jeopardy. And, of all people, a boom mic operator isn’t playing ball. His mic keeps showing up in the reflections of the glass-framed diplomas behind Isaac’s head. Shot after shot is ruined as the crew tries to figure out where exactly to position the downright diva-ishly grumpy boom mic guy so as to avoid the reflection.
“John, would you waste more fucking time so I can get a cigarette?” Haggis shouts out to a crew member over his shoulder, already running out for one. Food comes in, and Simon jokingly grumbles, “Do I look like a chicken-salad-eating motherfucker?!” Haggis returns from his break, choosing now to admit to Simon, with a cackle, that he’s not quite sure if the way he’s laid down the camera track for this scene will work. “I’ve never done it like this before!” he says. Simon, in turn, picks up a disconnected phone receiver and pretends to cave in Haggis’s head with it.
And the boom mic reflection is still not resolved. “I feel like we need a long-term solution,” John the crew member says, not without dickish overtones. The ever-sincere Isaac chimes in — “Let’s figure it out together” — before returning to pantomiming his scene. A dramatic bite of a sandwich after delivering the line, or before?
Eventually, miracle of miracles, they do figure out how to cut the reflection. Isaac can get back to business: “Malfeasance, nonfeasance, misfeasance. … Malfeasance, nonfeasance, misfeasance. Any of the feasance family!”
“Another false crisis averted,” John zings. Simon hands him a legal-pad doodle he’s been working on: John, falling overboard, being dragged down by an anchor into the depths of the sea.
For all of his perceived fastidiousness, David Simon would never have become a titan of Golden Age television if it weren’t for a few happy accidents. The first came in the mid-’80s, when he was a junior reporter on the police beat for the Baltimore Sun, racking upward of 300 bylines a year chasing beatings, stabbings, and murders.
Though widely assumed to be a profitable business, the paper announced givebacks in employee medical plans in 1987. An indignant staff went on strike. Their suspicions were confirmed. In anticipation of an imminent sale, the paper’s bosses sought short-term profits to make the Sun appear as valuable as possible. They were, Simon says, “fattening up the frog for the snake.”
Eventually, the strike was settled. But Simon was not. He’d been kicking around a certain idea for a few years. “There was this detective [Bill Lansey],” Simon recalls. “A veteran, a quiet guy. I liked him a lot. I went up one Christmas Eve to bring him a bottle of scotch. You know, Christmas, there’s a quiet lull. A cutting here, a shooting there. And I remember, we’re sitting around drinking on the midnight shift on Christmas Eve and he says, ‘If somebody ever watched the shit that happens here in a year, they’d have a book.’”
Heeding worthy advice, Simon ended up with Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets — a classic piece of nonfiction, brutal and unrelenting. A sober but not unlyrical account of a year of victims murdered under devastatingly similar circumstances on the streets of West Baltimore, it overwhelms strategically.
The book would become a TV show. As Barry Levinson’s Homicide: Life on the Street, it ran for seven steely seasons. Eventually, Simon was tapped to write scripts. With a foot in the industry, he’d go on to adapt his Homicide follow-up The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood as an HBO miniseries. Then, in the summer of 2002, came The Wire.
And it all may not have happened if Simon had never made a little suggestion. Dangling the astounding real-life pulp of Homicide in front of studios and directors, Simon’s agents got no action. So finally, Simon suggested, Barry Levinson is from Baltimore. Send him the book. “I do credit myself,” Simon says, “with that one small moment of” — he lets a beat pass — “mental cohesion.”
These days, Simon possesses as little industry heat as he has since before The Wire. Treme had its supporters, but the next conversation you have about it at a party will likely be the first. Eventually, HBO gave it a graceful assisted death, with an abbreviated fourth season. “It was frustrating,” Simon says, but not a “low moment. To their credit, they came up with five hours to let us finish a story that we were telling, and telling well, [but that] wasn’t helping them on Sunday nights.”
After Treme, Simon had a number of projects on the board at HBO, each and every one given a deeply reported, fully realized treatment, with scripts written for multiple episodes and multiseason show bibles assembled. It’s work that can take years to complete.
“We’re not the people who go around with a trunkful of pilot scripts,” Simon says. “‘It’s a medical show! You don’t want a medical show? It’s a legal show! He’s gotta have a dog? OK, he’s got a dog! His partner’s an alien? OK, his partner’s an alien!’”
There was a partial adaptation of Taylor Branch’s massive civil-rights trilogy America in the King Years. A collaboration with George Pelecanos on Times Square in the ’70s and ’80s. A “very careful treatment” of the CIA from 1945 to 2001, written with his Wire buddy Ed Burns. And a telling of the Lincoln assassination with “crackling” scripts that “avoided the marble men of Lincoln and Booth who have been written to death” and functioned “as a sort of post-9/11 allegory.” He describes it as a “traumatizing act of terror” followed by “paranoia and military trials with indefinite detention … the smell of rendition in Guantanamo and overreach and wartime fear.”
Except for the Lincoln project, all are technically still alive, if stuck in some lower rung of development hell. Go ahead and unrequitedly pine.
The original seed for Show Me a Hero predates all of them — even The Wire. It’s based on the 1999 book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, although Simon’s cocreator and former Sun colleague and Wire staff writer Bill Zorzi has done his own extensive re-reporting. And the reason it’s actually being produced is, well, it’s the one that HBO picked.
“I said to HBO, ‘Look, do you want me just to do a miniseries? Less of a commitment?’” Simon says. “They were like, ‘No, no, keep trying to do a series.’ I’m trying. But at a certain point, if what I’m interested in they’re not interested in and vice versa, we gotta stop hitting our heads against the wall.”
Sixteen years without a massive audience and Simon has never considered changing his approach. At 54, more than half a decade since the last scene of his greatest moment of cultural penetration, he finds himself increasingly marginalized. Simon repeatedly and proudly calls himself the “PBS of HBO.” But he’s only going to tell the stories that he’s going to tell.
“Why am I interested in recon marines in an unpopular war? Why am I interested in musicians in a dystopian and damaged city?” he says. “Why am I interested in this?”
He brings up his Times Square project, “a place that has gangsters and pimps and whores and nudity and violence — all of the currencies that we know work in television.”
But “the thing we’re really trying to fucking do is tell a story that’s actually worth telling. And not sustain a franchise. That’s the problem. Certain things sustain franchises and certain things never can. Trombone players? Very hard to sustain a franchise. Gangsters? You can go for years without ever having anything to say. March them on TV and put a bullet in someone’s head.”
In Hero, Simon jokes, there are no dragons, no vampires, no gangsters, no porn. Why is HBO interested in this? he asks himself. But he knows what draws him toward it.
“There’s almost nowhere to fit journalism anywhere,” he says, in words that would not surprise longtime Simon watchers. But, again, he’s not just harrumphing. He explains, patiently.
“The high end is becoming increasingly narrow. Certainly commentary is much better and much more vibrant with the Internet; I have no qualms about how democratized commentary has become. And certainly there’s a lot of attention to whatever the grand headline of the moment is, or to the newsmaking institutions that attract the most attention: the White House or, in our current moment” — Simon sighs — “Ebola. But there’s very little room for the institutional journalism that used to cover societal structures.”
And then, he counters himself. Here David Simon sits, being paid exorbitantly well to work with some of the best actors working today and enjoying more exposure than your grandest New York Times best seller. Doing a show on 200 units of low-income housing being built on the east side of the Saw Mill Parkway and the racial strife that ensues. Here they are! In Yonkers! Filming this!
“Sometimes,” Simon says, “I read my quotes and it comes off like, ‘He’s so fucking angry.’ What I’m actually saying is, ‘I understand the improbability.’ I’m like the Wandering Jew, with one bag packed. At any moment it could end.”
It’s a strange day to be working. Today is the day that long-rumored layoffs have been announced at HBO. And many on set are spending work breaks checking email and making furtive phone calls to see who of their friends has been spared and who has been gouged.
We’re in the video village, which is crammed into another utilitarian corner of this Yonkers municipal building. Around us are steel filing cabinets and bookshelves full of white three-ring binders with labels like “Traffic Routing and Planning 1985.”
Simon, long-standing HBO employee that he is, joins in the gossip-mongering. He laments the good ones that we lost and slags off the bad ones that survived. To the beaming grins and delight of a small huddle of publicists and casting agents, he goes in on an apparently much-disliked former HBO employee who has transitioned into a career in international relations.
Throughout the set, Simon keeps up an air of highbrow joviality. He wants to talk about the insanity of allowing bankers to short. He says it’s like Catch-22’s Milo bombing his own base because the Germans were paying better. Oh, also, he’s rereading 1984 and the screaming pseudo Trotskyites remind of him of the 24-hour cable-news cycle. He’s supposed to be one of pop culture’s most famed grousers. This? This is downright chummy.
“Not even a little bit,” Isaac answers when I ask if Simon has been intimidating to work with. “In fact, when we were prepping, he came over to my place in Brooklyn and we spent like a six- or seven-hour day together, just going through every single page in the script. All 600 pages. We changed some stuff, fixed some stuff. Or he’d explain to me why it needed to be that way. He was incredibly, surprisingly open.”
On set, I witness them briefly interacting. At one point Isaac is tasked with dismissing some political foes as “buffoons.” But originally, he recalls, the script read “jabronis.” During a quick break, he comes over to powwow with Simon.
“What happened to ‘jabronis’?”
“You like it better than ‘buffoons’?” Simon asks, reminiscing. “It was Nay.” That’d be Nay Wasicsko-McLaughlin, the mayor’s widow. On set as a consultant — in a simple black dress, a cold-pressed juice in hand — she easily stood out from the harried duct-tape-wielding PAs and period-costumed extras.
“She said Nick’d never say it. I liked the New York–ism of it.” He thinks. “You like it better? Go for it.”
“Jabronis” it is, for now. Isaac is visibly pleased. “I haven’t heard ‘jabronis’ since WrestleMania!”
Between production on Hero and script work on his latent projects, Simon stays busy.5 He’s also had to look backward. “Of all things,” he grunts, “they’re trying to release The Wire in HD.”
Too busy — in case you happened to be wondering, considering both the Baltimore and the crime-reporting connections — to have listened to Serial.
I’d wondered ahead of time if Simon would be as game to talk shop on The Wire these days. After all, it’s been some time, and the entire arcs of other lauded TV series have since passed. But it turns out he sees The Wire as just another one of his projects that died on the vine, then found rebirth in reappraisal. The only thing you can hope for, he says, is to get it “on the shelf. People will find it. Eventually, people will find it.”
The Wire was more than found, of course: It was sucked up, chewed over, and spat out a million different ways. With extensive consultation from Simon directly, the HD versions were eventually released and re-aired in late 2014. Old fans found themselves reengaged in all the same old debates. In the wake of the traumatic events of Ferguson and Staten Island, they rang louder: the failure of institutions, the corruption of those who are meant to protect, the scourge of the drug war on America’s inner cities.
It also sparked those more — superficial? enjoyable? — debates. Favorite characters, best seasons — the kind of stuff that drives Simon a bit batty. If you may recall, it was partially in response to Grantland’s own Wire bracket that Simon gave a few provocative quotes (in an on-brand kind of way) to the New York Times.
“I get in trouble,” he recalls. “A Times reporter came to me and asked, ‘What do you think about [this]?’ What do I think about it? I think it’s bullshit! And everybody went into high dudgeon: ‘How dare he tell us how to watch The Wire!’ But the guy asked what I thought! I didn’t volunteer! I didn’t issue a proclamation! The guy asked!
“Listen, no harm comes from it.” He stops himself immediately. “Except, on some level … ” He calculates, then continues: “What interests me is when people argue about the themes and stances and politics of the story. When the thing gets off the entertainment pages and people start arguing about it in terms of parsing policy, I’m very gratified and very interested. That’s sort of worth the time. That’s why you spend five, six years working on something.
“I’m not sure that’s me telling you how to watch The Wire other than me telling you how I value the thing. If you don’t wanna hear me say what I value, don’t ask me the question.
“Is Omar cooler than Stringer? I don’t … leave me out of it. To hear people debating what season they love the most … it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. You cannot make me give a fuck. It’s not fair to say to me, ‘I don’t like the way you killed Omar.’ Get in line. Get in line. I don’t give a fuck.”
Simon uses the phrase the “currency of entertainment” several times. He does so to make it clear that this is a currency in which he does not traffic. The dismissiveness is supremely welcome: This is exactly the kind of stuff we want to hear from David Simon, curmudgeonly and impassioned culture warrior. But it’s also a bit of hyperbole.
Taken to its extreme, it’s almost like Simon would claim any traces of fun in The Wire were there only to trick us into paying attention to the important stuff. This is, to borrow a phrase, bullshit. The romantic affectations of Bunk Moreland, the crooked-grin bird-dogging of Jimmy McNulty, the perfectly crafted, endlessly tumbling lines of salty cop-shop dialogue — it may have served a higher calling, but to say it is not also pure in-the-interest-of-joy entertainment would be to lie.
It doesn’t change things: You take from it what you want. Simon knows why he made the show. As he says, he’s the “PBS of HBO.” In winter, Simon is leaning into his marginalization, pulling it over himself like a warm blanket.
By the end of Hero, with all of his various properties through these 16 years — longer now than the time he spent writing newspaper copy on deadline — he’ll have given us 112 hours of television. That is, give or take a few units, 112 hours more than he ever expected to give us when he was a junior reporter on the police beat at the Baltimore Sun.
“You know what I love?” he says. “I love fucking TV that’s not supposed to be on TV.”
An assistant enters the fake office of Harry Oxman, the once-upon-a-time vice-mayor of Yonkers, New York. Simon is needed back on set. He has to get back to work.