Of all those who revolutionized TV in the last 20 years, David Simon was always the most political and least commercial. From The Wire to Generation Kill and Treme, he’s consistently dived into the country’s thorniest topics: the Drug War, inner city public schools, the invasion of Iraq, New Orleans post-Katrina. In his new HBO project, Show Me a Hero, he takes on his least likely subject for nightly entertainment yet: public housing. A true story set in Yonkers in the late Eighties/early Nineties, the six-episode miniseries stars Oscar Isaac (giving a young-Pacino level performance) as Nick Wasicsko, the youngest mayor in America at the time. He finds himself confronting an enraged constituency after a Federal court orders 200 units of affordable housing — all of which is set to be built in the city’s lily-white neighborhoods. What unfolds is an American tragedy in six acts.
What initially drew you to the material?
Fifteen years ago, I read the book by Lisa Belkin. I was living in Baltimore, a city that had a similar fundamental dynamic of racial inequality, and we were contending with the same arguments and the manner in which the government fails to deal with it. There’s an abject lesson in the journey of Nick Wasicsko, a way of seeing just what we avoid when we govern ourselves in America. While he wasn’t a perfect creature in any sense, he had a moment where he actually attended to this pathology, which is otherwise left unaddressed.
And they blew him up, they just blew him up. In what’s supposedly a pluralistic society, there was so much trauma over 200 units of public housing in a city of 200,000 people. Can you imagine the trauma if America really took to addressing the schism between the separate societies that we’ve built. What if we really tried to incorporate economically, socially and politically, the non-white population?
Why do you think we don’t?
I don’t mean to blame just the political system, because clearly leading on the issue of race politically is something of a third rail — but we’re the fucking electricity running through the rail. It’s us. It’s a significant plurality of Americans who would prefer to have these two Americas, that are growing much too distinct and separated.
Isn’t there a reckoning though? The front page of the New York Times say race relations are worse than ever, and that’s under a black president.
All due respect to Barack Obama, or anyone that’s in public office. On some level, I think that there are two currencies that operate in politics to a far more profound effect than goodwill or sentiment. Those things are money and fear. That shit is what pays and punishes politicians, money and fear.
Fear of what?
The fear of change, the fear of any bad outcome. Political leaders are responsive to voters. That’s the sum of our fears, that my life might be displaced. I might have to share. And that fear can be applied to almost any act of communal purpose that the government might take on.
What are you most disappointed by in the political discourse?
The rise of libertarianism in this country. There are certainly places — for example, the drug wars — where I find myself in complete agreement with the libertarian ideal. But they always dissolve into the incredible juvenile notion that the solution for bad governance is no governance. We the people are the government; it’s either that, or it’s all over. If we’re not the government, then philosophically the America experiment is over. Yes, it’s a constant struggle to diminish the effects of bad governance. That’s an unending, unyielding, never-ending fight. But that’s democracy. That’s the job.
Why has housing policy changed in the last few decades?
Public housing was a New Deal policy. It was an idea that was undertaken for white people. And, at the time, it was looked as one of the healthiest anti-Depression initiatives undertaken. Yet somehow, when people of color arrive to look towards the same dynamics, it becomes why are we building houses for the poor? We went from the idea that government can do some good things for people and can do things to lift up people who have the least in our society, to government shouldn’t be in the business helping anybody. That is a remarkable revolution in mainstream American political thought.
David Simon during filming for ‘Show Me a Hero.’ Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty
So where is the political leadership?
Listen to the mantras of every political campaign: “I believe in freedom, I believe in liberty.” Well, of course we all believe in freedom and liberty as general attributes of a healthy society. But if we believe in them exclusively, without saying this other word “responsibility,” then what we’ve created is going be a very coarse and brutal society. Freedom and liberty without responsibility just make life grand for those people who are at the top of the pyramid — but drive the rest of the world down into the gutter.
So how would you fix the system?
The government would finance elections. Nobody could give any fucking money to any political candidate, ever. You know, I wasn’t offended that the Supreme Court decided that a corporation is a person. We crossed that river a long time ago. What freaked me out was money being equated to speech. That fucked me up. Speech is speech. Nothing will make people say more stupid shit than money. When money is actually transformed into actual words, the words are, by in large, quite stupid, self-serving and disastrous. So money is speech — that to me was an obscenity.
Do you feel Treme was unfairly treated by critics and audiences?
I think it was ridiculously compared to The Wire in terms of its intentions and purpose. When nobody knew who I was, The Wire’s politics were more permissible. There’s been a cost to playing to public gadfly, when it comes to arguing politics in public forums. I tend to argue politics like I talk about basketball, but the cost has been in how people perceive the material. But I really don’t judge my work by whether or not it achieves some cult status. I can’t. It can’t be, will this catch the zeitgeist? Because honestly, that’s like trying to catch fire in a bottle and it’s a fool’s errand.
And your next story is also set in the past and is about the rise of the sex industry in NYC’s Time Square of the Seventies. That sounds commercial…
You would think so, but I’ll find a way to fuck it up. I’m really determined not to use porn to sell porn. You can’t be a Puritan about what you’re depicting, nor can you be prurient. If people are getting off to the show, then we’ve failed.
What else is in the pipeline?
I’m trying to make a Capitol Hill story about the part of our government that is completely damaged. The legislative branch is the part that’s being completely purchased. There’s something in the notion that the markets will solve everything, that markets will make this all better and what the markets want is a society that we’re supposed to have, that gets good argument.
The next miniseries I’m looking to make is Taylor Branch’s trilogy about the Martin Luther King years, because it’s the part of the Civil Rights story that everybody stops telling after they get to I Have a Dream. It’s where King goes north and starts talking about embedded racism and poverty, systemic exclusion from society and things that are all entirely relevant right now. Everyone told him to take a pill and go fuck himself
But isn’t there a reason why America stopped telling that story though?
Which is why I like it. Which is why I’m there. The other thing that I want to do, that I haven’t even pitched anywhere, is the story of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Why? Why would something from 1937 be relevant? Because there was a moral choice that required everybody to walk away from their ideology. Ideology is is the great bastard of the 20th Century. The war was the ruination of both the right and left in Spain and was effectively a dry run for World War II. I’d love to do that piece. And I can’t tell you how badly I expect that meeting will go.
When you go to the big executives with ideas for shows dealing with what ails America, what’s your pitch?
Begging. I beg, that’s what I do. I’m always begging somebody. I’m begging an actor to take a role. I’m begging the executive to give us enough to finish the show. When I was a reporter, I was begging for quotes. There’s nothing wrong with begging, it’s just another form of sales. I always say, “It’ll be great, trust me. In the end you’ll be proud you made it.” I like to think that more than 50 percent of the time, people feel that way.
Ten years ago you basically told Rolling Stone that “if you said that I could be making TV shows about what’s wrong with America, I’d tell you you’re crazy.” And yet you’re still doing it. How have you kept this up?
It’s as improbable as it was a decade ago, but listen, I get less hours than I used to. The honest truth is I don’t know if Show Me a Hero will pull an audience — will people give a shit about something that actually ails country? But all credit to HBO, somehow I’m still part of their brand. I’ll be fascinated by the reaction to this one. Will it be: “They made a six-hour miniseries on public housing policy and segregation in America? Who’s running HBO? Do they know what they’re doing? Do they know they’re in television.”
Paul Haggis and David Simon on the set of ‘Show Me a Hero.’ Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Does the miniseries format give you some relief? Back in The Wire and Treme days you had to worry about being canceled every year?
Yeah, it helps you emotionally, it really does. It’s still hard work but you know that once you’re in, you’re in until the end, and you even get to say exactly what you intend. Because my ratings are never what everyone would want, you’re begging to get to the end of the story, which is pretty blistering for the storyteller.
Where do you see TV going next? Do you worry about it going away from the showrunner to more of a spectacle model like say The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones?
I don’t do that. I don’t want to do that. I think that there’s a lot to be admired in that equation, particularly in regards to Game of Thrones. They’ve taken some literary material, in the fantasy genre, and they’ve done it very, very well and it has big subtext and real meaning. The ratings are huge because of how fantastical the world is and because of how well they’ve done it. It’s not for me. If you start the day interested in public housing in Yonkers, New York, there’s only so much maneuvering in how you deliver the story. Unless you’re a complete bullshitter, and all of a sudden, Nick Wasicsko is murdering people in the dark of night. At a certain point, you’ve made your bed, go lie in it. If you wanted to make some other bed, you shouldn’t have picked up the source material.
What do you consume in culture? What are you enjoying these days?
I go to the bookstore, like an old fart. I don’t watch a lot of TV. I tend to watch a lot of movies that come out, but it seems like a lot of them can be viewed in 10 minutes. I read a lot of non-fiction, I tend to read the newspaper. I just joined Twitter, but it’s just to post stuff. I’m not going to argue the world in 140 characters. That’s the part of Twitter that I have no regard for.
The Difficult Men book posited that you and David Chase and your fellow auteurs were hard to work with and that’s what made you great. What do you make of that theory?
You read the book and there’s nothing about it where I’m being difficult. When I look through it I said, “Well, OK. I didn’t tell characters when they were killed until right before the script was published.” But there’s an old Irish proverb that goes: “God used to tell men when their day of death was coming, to give them some advance warning, but then the cows stopped being milked and the fields went fallow and the barn door fell off its hinge. So God said, ‘You know what? I’m keeping this to myself.'” And that’s what I was doing: helping professional actors stay in character. So that was the only place where I was like any kind of a son of a bitch. I do like to argue. I like the writers’ room to argue. That’s relentless democracy. At a certain point you have to end the argument, but argument is good — especially if it’s a good argument.