David Simon has made some waves recently in a series of interviews regarding the Wire (here; here; and here), viewer’s relationships to it (and its characters). I’m not going to repeat or reproduce Simon’s remarks here; please do chase down the links. But in a nutshell: Simon (was) is unhappy about the ‘pop’ understanding of the Wire that seems to have made its way into our broader culture, a function, he thinks of its late uptake by a whole viewer demographic that wasn’t around when the show was struggling with ratings, an understanding that is obsessed about characters rather than the overarching theme or narrative, and that ‘misunderstands’ the show.
Simon’s remarks are peculiar for several reasons. For one, there is something rather quaint and old-fashioned in the suggestion that viewers are getting it wrong, that they misconceived the show, that there is, so to speak, some sort of gap between their understanding and take on the show and the meaning that Simon intended, and that this is a crucial lacunae. I hate to break the news to Simon, but once the show was made and released, any kind of control that he might have exerted over its meaning was gone. The show doesn’t exist in some autonomous region of meaning that Simon controls access to; it is in a place where its meaning is constructed actively by its spectators and in many ways by the larger world that it is embedded in.
What if, during the fourth season, a fierce Diane Ravitch—Michelle Rhee-type debate had been dominating airwaves elsewhere? Wouldn’t viewers of the Wire have had a very different interpretation of the show’s characters and action in that period? Is this something Simon could control or even cater for in his writing and direction? What if California and Washington had legalized marijuana during the third season? Would that not have affected viewers’ understandings of that season’s themes? This co-construction of meaning is a well-established trope in our understanding of how artworks acquire and establish traction. Simon might have had a vision and meaning for the show but having decided to give it to viewers he must realize the work isn’t his anymore in any meaningful sense of the word.
The other peculiar point in Simon’s interview is his insistence that the Wire is a long-form story, that it is a coherent whole, and that it be understood as such and that the episodic reaction to it so typical of the long-running series relationship with its fans, gets it wrong. But Simon chose to work in a particular medium that afforded him freedom for lengthy development of character and plot. The periodic release of the episodes meant–just as above–that their meaning was always going to be constructed over a period of time, subject always to those sort of short-term reactions typical of the television show. Why would Simon be surprised or upset by this? The Wire was the best television show ever and a great story. But those that watched also made it.
Side note: Much as I liked the Wire, I think Simon needs a reality check if he thinks his work was nothing but gritty realism (not that he ever makes any such claim in those interviews above but there is a kind of insistence on his having provided a social documentary). McNulty is a cliché in some ways; Omar, no matter how fascinating a character, is an implausible one; the drug markets in season three were ridiculous; the fifth season’s McNulty-creation of the serial killer was by far some of the most contrived story-telling I’ve ever seen. Simon might think he had transcended every single genre in making the Wire but he didn’t.