David Simon, creator of 'The Wire,' on porn, politics and policing - Macleans.ca
 

David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire,’ on porn, politics and policing

David Simon and George Pelecanos on the legacy of ‘The Wire,’ the state of the U.S., and their new HBO series ‘The Deuce’


 
David Simon (left) and George Pelecanos (right), on the set of the pilot of HBO's 'The Deuce'.

David Simon (left) and George Pelecanos (right), on the set of the pilot of HBO’s ‘The Deuce’.

For a remarkable swath of TV fans, there’s no question: David Simon’s The Wire is one of the greatest television series ever made. Baltimore, Simon’s beautiful, profoundly broken American city, is explored high and low, plumbed for its stories and its characters in a gritty, riveting form.

His new show, The Deuce, doesn’t pull any punches, either. It’s a vivid and compelling narrative about the birth of the American pornography industry in 1970s New York that reunites Simon with novelist George Pelecanos, who co-wrote The Wire and Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Simon is at his best working with Pelecanos, and The Deuce‘s first, terrific season of eight episodes will unfurl on HBO Canada during September and October, with the duo planning to make two more seasons after that. Our conversation—which has been edited and condensed—also covers The Deuce’s commonality with The Wire, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s strong performance as Candy, American policing, and the urgent need for improved labour rights.

Q: It’s great to see Lawrence Gilliard Jr., who was so moving in the first season of The Wire as D’Angelo, return as The Deuce’s patrolman Chris Alston. Is the hope that he can once again serve as a moral centre of the series?

David Simon: He’s a fine actor and I’ve always felt some residual guilt that we killed him so early in The Wire. It was always planned that way; we didn’t kill him because of anything he did, we don’t kill off actors just to do it. But the plot required the early death of D’Angelo. I always tell him he never got a decent bite of the apple, so I was happy we had a role that seemed perfect for him. I like the idea of him as one of the few moral centres of the show.

Q: “Reporters live the life of kings,” H.L. Mencken famously said, and The Wire riffed memorably off of that in season five. What life do TV writers live?

DS: Well-paid, specialty prostitutes. We have a very special skill set and we occupy one of the higher floors in the bordello that is writing. We do a very particular job for a very select clientele.

Q: Do you think you might expand your clientele with The Deuce?

DS: What do you mean, you think we’re gonna get an audience? It’d be nice if people were actually gonna watch the show, but I think you’re talking to the two guys who could even f–k up porno.

Q: What do you hope people might take away from watching The Deuce?

DS: What appeals to me is some of the same things that made me interested in The Wire, which is there seems to be a theme here around markets and capitalism and labour. This is a moment, 1971, of something that was under the counter: then brown paper bags suddenly became legal, pornography. And it was really the birth of an industry which is now a multi-billion dollar American standard. And these people were the pioneers at a moment where there really were no rules, then suddenly there was a legal industry that was allowed to exist.

And how that happened—how the money and the power arrayed itself and who got the share in that, who got cut out, who was exploited and who did the exploiting—that to me is a story that’s more about almost the America that we inhabit today, more than just merely about pornography or prostitution. Not only did this new industry change the way men look at women and how we relate to sex, how we sell stuff, and not only did it change America’s cultural landscape—it’s also this incredible metaphor for a market-based economy. The great pyramid scheme that America has become. I felt like there were larger themes in terms of culture and economics that could be addressed.

Q: The Deuce argues that a problem with sex work is poor labour rights?

DS: Poor labour rights? Indeed, and no collectivization. There’s no collective bargaining, there’s no organizing. Yeah, it’s a completely unregulated industry and to make the affront even worse, the product and the labourers are the same thing! The product is the sexuality of the actual labourers: flesh. So yeah, very much so. I think in that sense, the exploitative nature of unencumbered capitalism is made even more dramatic.

David Simon (left), Maggie Gyllenhaal (centre), and George Pelecanos (right) of 'The Deuce' speak onstage during the HBO portion of the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 26, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

David Simon (left), Maggie Gyllenhaal (centre), and George Pelecanos (right) of ‘The Deuce’ speak onstage during the HBO portion of the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 26, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Q: Do you see a link between the misogyny depicted in The Deuce, and Donald Trump’s rise?

DS: Yeah! I think what you’ve seen from Trump is this whole election cycle, there’s been a level of misogyny that has become certain and fixed. George can speak to this because he was the one that brought it out at TCA [Television Critics Association]. What we’ve learned from the whole election cycle is men and women, men particularly, are pretty comfortable talking about women in terms that—I think it’s hard for me to not believe this has been influenced by fifty years of open pornography and that kind of culture.

George Pelecanos: We remember when women were spoken of differently. I don’t mean that we didn’t speak of women sexually—that happened. It was never this crude: there wasn’t the connotations, the violence. I think there’s got to be a relationship between the coarsening of the culture, of which pornography was a piece of the puzzle. David and I have been working on this show for four years. We couldn’t have known—who could’ve predicted what happened in American politics in the last year? The rise of racism again, or the peeling back of the onion and seeing racism again, was a bit of a surprise in the last couple years.

DS: And the misogyny as well. I feel like if you know any women who’s an essayist or a writer or a public speaker or just a public person, and they have any presence at all in any kind of social media, or any place where men can voice at them, you have to be pretty amazed at the level of special provocation and sort of violent speech and misogyny that comes at them. Any woman that’s really in the public sphere has experienced this. It’s kind of shocking how universal it is. Doesn’t matter if you’re fourteen or if you’re eight, there’s an incredible vernacular that I do believe has become more and more plausible to talk this way in the public sphere, I think because we live in such a coarse and pornographic era. Years of this has produced a certain amount of misogyny that is just a given of life in America at this point.

Q: Is it hard to make a show about sex work, but also not make it too sexy?

GP: Yeah, it is hard. It’s a challenge. We got into the editing and we’d look at footage and say, ‘okay, we should try and move a bit of that because we’re lingering too much, or it’s too titillating?’ At the same time, you couldn’t not show what we were talking about, we couldn’t ignore that, because that would be a cheat.

DS: You’re alluding to what pornography and prostitution and sexual exploitation is, and not actually showing it. You’re sort of extracting the most exploitive and misogynistic aspect out of it and you’re cleaning it off. And that serves as much of a disservice as lingering or anything. You don’t want to make porn; critique porn, for sure. But you also do not want to clean it up and have some denied version of pornography to stand in for the real thing. So yeah, we were on a fence. You’re interviewing George Pelecanos and David Simon, but in the writers’ room, we were very careful how to not be a boys’ version of what this story should be. There was Megan Abbott and other female writers in that writers’ room, and we also had gay and trans writers represented for those communities. Michelle McLaren was a director, and Maggie Gyllenhaal was a huge amount of influence on how we told the story and why.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy in a season 1 episode of The Deuce.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy in a season 1 episode of The Deuce.

Q: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy is a strong female character and performance.

DS: All credit to the actors. We were interested—much like The Wire, much like a lot of other pieces we’ve worked on—in a certain cage: an economic, political, social cage that is being established around some of this world. People are under duress, they’re pressured, and it’s not as if everybody has complete agency because that’s not what the story is about. The world that a lot of these women inhabit is, in many fundamental ways, structured to be oppressive. But within that construct, there’s human beings and they’re fighting for agency. And so we’re trying to find the places where they’re assertive. Even if it’s in the most limited and vulnerable ways, they’re nonetheless trying to inhabit this world and hold on to some of what they are. And that’s the trick in the writing of it: if you’ve got ten or eight hours and you really care about Candy and Lori and everybody else, then we did it justice, we did something. The last thing we wanted to do was make some sort of cartoon about the sex industry.

Q: I also appreciated Natalie Paul as the character of investigative journalist Sandra Washington.

DS: She was based on some journalism in the 1970s—excellent journalism—that New York magazine did. And because we were changing and fictionalizing the story in many regards, and creating sort of fictional characters throughout, it didn’t seem right to highlight actual journalism there. So we ended up making it the Amsterdam News and we ended making up a fictional reporter. But we really were acknowledging that there was some excellent journalism done in the 70s as this industry got off the ground. We thought we were honouring a lot of the real journalism in the 70s that we had read in preparation for doing the piece.

Q: The kind of investigative journalism that we see in The Deuce takes time and resourcing. Is there hope for that in the 21st century with Facebook and Google leeching up 99 per cent of the web revenue?

DS: The revenue stream has still not been solved. Since the election, which has involved this administration making direct attacks on press freedoms, you’re actually seeing a certain amount of rallying and reinvigoration by the national press in terms of covering national issues and the presidency. The Washington Post and The New York TimesMother JonesProPublica and a lot of other places, they’ve actually done some really strong work when confronted with this administration in the last seven to nine months. But the resources that you used to have at state and local level aren’t there anymore.

Q: Where does porn go next? Irvine Welsh, no prude himself, warns of the dangers of excessive porn, talking about friends “masturbatin’ themselves into oblivion…What’s next is we never leave the house.”

DS: Sounds like an interesting piece. I’m much less interested—in the same way that we were much less interested with whether drugs are good and bad in The Wire, we were much more interested in how the whole system of drug prohibition and mass incarceration and policing wrapped itself around drugs. Where the money went and how it constructed a criminal underworld and how the economy worked in the city, and the city life that had to sustain that underground economy. That’s what we were interested in: how power and money ran itself, much more so than ‘drugs are bad, drugs are good.’ That seems to me a simple moral equation and one you don’t have to spend 60 hours of television examining.

And I think the same thing is true with how we approached pornography or prostitution. Prostitution’s been around since the Bible, and pornography’s been around since about 15 minutes after the French guy invented the first camera. The good or the evil of it is of less interest to me than how society contends with it or fails to contend with it; who profits, who exploits, who is exploited—now I think you’ve got the guts of something worth talking about. So I’m not particularly adept at talking about whether porn is good or bad.

But I will say, and George and I discussed this, which is that when we were kids coming up, if you stole your dad’s Playboy magazine, that was about as much of an education as you were gonna get. You finish looking at the centrefold and you read ‘The Playboy Adviser’ that told you about what stereo to buy and something about sex which you didn’t quite understand, and you were still just as confused. Now if you’re ten or eleven or twelve, the entire world of human sexuality, and a very misogynistic version of that, is available to you on a laptop after a couple of key strokes. So that’s pretty profound and I think it’s changed the vernacular in the way men address women.

Q: George, as ever, I enjoy the music in The Deuce, which is a feature through your collaborations with David. Could you discuss the importance of music in your work together?

GP: I was really happy to have Curtis Mayfield in the title credits. That was a dream. We got everything we could afford, you know what I’m sayin? It’s a great time to be able to have music in a show. We always do scores so it has to be source music, meaning it’s got to be playing from the jukebox or on the radio and so on. There’s a lot of opportunities there: the ’70s was an underrated decade for music. You had everything. You had, at the beginning, rock and funk and soul, and later on in the decade you had disco. Everything was happening at once, so yeah, it’s great. The show’s a great backdrop for the music.

DS: Once on The Wire, I planned a chase sequence with Herc and Carver, after the beginning of season three, where they behave like idiots to the theme from Shaft. I was gonna reprise it in some way and I was gonna use a Curtis Mayfield song. And George threatened to quit because I was mocking Curtis Mayfield.

GP: That was sacrilegious.

DS: Yeah. That almost ended George’s television career, his nascent career, because the great Curtis Mayfield was being mocked.

Q: You’re writing a new series on Washington politics with legendary journalist Carl Bernstein, but the craziness of current American politics probably keeps dating your material. Donald Trump makes Clay Davis look like Aristotle.

DS: [Laughs] Yeah. We’re writing a pilot episode in a proposed series, and yes, it was interrupted by the actuality of this last election cycle. We were writing on the presumption that either a mainstream Democrat or a mainstream Republican, a party apparatchik, was going to get in. We were not writing on the idea that an insane insurgency of a ridiculous demagogue was going to achieve the presidency. So, back to the drawing board to try and contemplate what it is now that we can write about. Intelligence. We’re working on that now. The piece, I should say, is not about the White House, it’s about Capitol Hill.

Q: How can a writer compete with characters like The Mooch, his rise and fall?

GP: Agreed. Some of this stuff, it’s almost not worth following it’s so absurd.

Q: What do you say to those who see essentially no difference between Republicans and Democrats?

DS: It’s silly. All the evidence in the world was made apparent in the fight over healthcare.

Q: With Treme, you had a sharp line: “New Orleans is a place where even nuances have nuances.” What was NYC during The Deuce days?

DS: Not sure that nuances have nuances in porn. I think porn is the place where nuance goes to die. It’s a remarkable moment when you don’t have a legal product, and it’s an underground economy, and in general it’s very small scale. Then suddenly it’s declared to be legal. A gold rush town springing up overnight. The product, the thing that people are mining for, is the labour, human flesh. There isn’t a more readymade metaphor for what market capitalism is, and why profit can’t be the only metric by which we measure our society. By 1977, which will be our second season, anything goes, and did.

Q: “I cannot get up on a cross because I’m a f–king writer and pretend that I had to go to Calvary in order to put words on the page,” is another notable Simon zinger.  You disagree that writers have to be crappy people?

DS: George does to get his best writing out. Me, I’m just a swell guy. No, that’s a ridiculous notion—if you’re being an asshole to people, you’re being an asshole, that’s all there is to it. It can’t be rationalized because you wrote something worthwhile. First obligation is to other people.

Q: In The Deuce, as through The Wire, you craft a vivid and nuanced exploration of American policing. How do you think America is going on this front?

DS: We’re policing the wrong things.  The murder clearance rate now in my city [Baltimore] is almost non-existent. Nobody can solve a murder, nobody can do any actual police work, because they’ve learned how to do bad police work, chase drugs. Fighting vice, while being unable to respond to sin. Generations of cops have learned how not to police work by policing the drug war. Not only are they [police] brutal, they’re ineffective. Baltimore is more violent than it has ever been in modern history. They can’t do police work to save their lives. Now because of Freddie Gray they’re not even getting out of the car and policing corners—they’re on a job slowdown, basically.

Right now if the police stopped being brutal, if we got police shooting under control, and the use of excessive force, if we have a meaningful societal response to all that stuff, and the racism that underlies it, the question still remains: what are they policing, and why?

Q: Many years on from The Wire, Baltimore hasn’t improved? That’s profoundly depressing.

DS: Yeah.

Q: But David, you did have a dialogue with Obama about the war on drugs. Have you got suction?

DS: Barack Obama’s understanding of what the drug war had cost the country was meaningful. And very quietly in his second term, he and Eric Holder did make some adjustments in terms of the use of the Department of Justice, on the federal level. You saw ratcheting back of drug prohibition, and mass incarceration. You also saw, on the part of some certain states, a realization that they followed the war on drugs to a useless place, that they were only doing damage to communities, and bankrupting budgets with prison construction. But I’m talking in the past tense; Jeff Sessions is now the attorney-general of the United States.

Q: Might The Deuce have any societal impact? For example, will it get people thinking about the importance of labor rights?

DS: Sure. I’d love it if people relearned the lessons of the 20th century all over again. Which is to say this country progressed economically and socially when we had a better balance between capital and labour. Neither capital or labour won every argument.  The battle between the two created economic tension, and transformed the working class into the middle class, and grew the economy. We’re now seeing levels of inequality raise their heads that we haven’t seen since the age of the robber barons. If somebody watched The Deuce, and understood the allegory about capital and labour, and understands what happens when one side is vulnerable to the other, that would be swell. Do you think that will happen? I don’t. I don’t think that happened with The Wire. I don’t think most people absorbed the critique of the drug war.

GP: We’ve had people who’ve come up to us over the years and told us they were inspired by The Wire to become social workers and teachers and things like that. That’s the best you can hope for, really.

DS: Well said, that’s it. If some people get it, they get it.

Alexander Bisley’s recent interviews include Dan Savage and Rashida Jones.


 

David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire,’ on porn, politics and policing

  1. david simons works are all amazing.