TV Club

Week 2: All Thrust, No Vector

Clark Johnson, Brandon Young, Michelle Paress, and Tom McCarthy in The Wire


Well, you’ve achieved the possible—you’ve pissed off David Simon. You have now gone where, well, thousands of people have gone before. Perhaps it was this line of yours, from last week’s dialogue, that triggered the attack: “The Wire is not merely the best show on television now, but the best show that has ever been on television.”

What did you expect after you delivered yourself of such praise? A thank you? A basket of muffins?

I reread Mark Bowden’s excellent piece on Simon in this month’s issue of my magazine, the Atlantic, after receiving Simon’s complaint about you. Bowden, like you, is an unabashed partisan of the show: “The show’s boxed sets blend nicely on the bookshelf with the great novels of American history,” he wrote. Naturally, Simon is infuriated with him, as well. In the course of unpacking Simon’s epic, unidirectional dispute with Bill Marimow and John Carroll, the one-time Baltimore Sun editors who, in Simon’s view, destroyed the paper, Bowden makes an obvious mistake: He decides to remain neutral in the fight. “When I discovered,” Bowden wrote, “after my last conversation with Simon, that the final season of the show would be based on his experiences at The Sun, I felt compelled to describe the dispute, but I resolved to characterize it without entering it.” Bowden showed Simon a draft of his piece, “which provoked a series of angry, long-winded accusations” in which Simon impugned Bowden’s journalistic integrity to the editor of the Atlantic, which is amusing, of course, because Bowden is one of the five or six best reporters in America.

Which brings me back to your first posting and Simon’s response to it. Simon accuses you of … I’m not sure what, precisely. Violating his privacy by reporting on a conversation you had at a wedding? Sort of. Mischaracterizing that conversation? Not exactly, either, since he pretty much admits that, in conversation with other reporters, he’s fairly monomaniacal on the subject of Marimow and Carroll and their manifold sins. His lengthy post seems to confirm your analysis. As did the second episode, which I’ll get to, briefly, in a second. But to conclude this sorry conversation: This is a man who is all thrust, no vector. He’s mad at the rapacious capitalists who have destroyed the American city, and he’s mad at reporters who praise him. A little bit of discernment would be useful here. I don’t know much about the Carroll-Marimow years at the Sun, but I do know that Marimow, as a reporter, was one of the greats, taking on a grotesque and frightening Philadelphia Police Department, and changing his city for the better, and I do know that Carroll quit the Los Angeles Times rather than gut its newsroom.

Which is why his Carroll stand-in, the dim-bulb, corporate hack executive editor, seems like a semi-unreal character to me. Very few big-city-paper editors are quite so ostentatiously stupid and venal as the Carroll of Simon’s imagination, and so, once again, the Sun subplot was not at all compelling to me. Also, it’s almost ridiculously telegraphed. We’ve learned that the overambitious Templeton is already suspected of creating a Baltimore variant of Janet Cooke’s “Jimmy” (we’ve learned this thanks to a most unnaturally perceptive city desk), and we also know that top management just adores our sweater-vest-wearing Stephen Glass and is giving him the opportunity to write a Pulitzer-bait “Dickensian” series (I like the way Simon subverts the Dickens meme by associating it with one of his villains) on a city classroom. I have no idea what will happen to McNulty and Bunk and Marlo and Proposition Joe. I have a very good idea what will happen in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. But I’ll let you defend Simon from the charge of excessive obviousness.

It’s a shame that Simon gets in the way of his own great work; he’s doing something very important here. I was reminded of this by the discovery last week in a Washington house of the decomposing bodies of four girls, who were not found by neighbors, or the police, or the schools, or by child protection agencies, but by marshals acting on behalf of a mortgage company that was foreclosing on the property. How can this horror happen in America? David Simon is one of the few people asking this question.