Second Up: Levi Rogers
David Simon, The Wire, and Middle Management
Prostitutes. College students. Drug dealers. Businessmen. Pimps. Tax collectors. Politicians. School teachers. Soldiers. Trombone players. Dockworkers. These are the characters of David Simon’s many works of television. Simon, of course, has written and directed a plethora of HBO shows, nearly all critically acclaimed, from The Wire to Generation Kill and Treme, and most recently, The Deuce.
I know it’s a bit obvious to write about The Wire as the best writing/best T.V. show out there, especially if you haven’t seen it. You’re probably sick of people like me going on and on about how great it is, how brilliant, how you need to watch it. So instead, I’m just going to tell you one aspect of the show that appeals most to me, and why, based on that, it is the greatest show ever made.
I mean I love Sam and Sherlock is a good show, but it’s not a great one. The last season felt a bit wandering, repetitive, and a bit loose. I like New Girl okay too, mainly for Schmidt and Winston, but as a contender for best T.V. show ever? No way. Friends, fine. Cheers, fine. Gilmore Girls and Dr. Who, actually haven’t seen them. Parks and Rec might be the best sitcom comedy out there, but yes, disqualified. Archer is amazing and I will argue nothing against it. I would also put up Silicon Valley as a contender.
So, why is The Wire or any of Simon’s other shows the “greatest?” Or perhaps, why do I like it so much? Because it is one of the few shows out there to write and document everyday people and everyday characters in everyday situations just trying to make a living and somehow transforms the whole thing to the level of art and a meditation on the human condition. It’s not a cute and tidy sitcom. Neither is it heroic like Game of Thrones. And it’s not based on dramatic premises like some terrorist puzzle to solve in 24 hours or a chemistry teacher turning into a drug dealer. The only other shows that come close for me are Fargo, The Sopranos, and Mad Men (although I just started watching Ozark and it’s pretty damn good, but only in the first season, though).
In a recent interview with Simon for The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, says there is, “a powerful sense of labor” in his work, even when it’s undignified labor. Simon agrees and responds by saying that their (he and writer/creator George Pelecanos of The Deuce) lens might be best described as that of middle management. Simon says that whether it’s with trombone players, recon marines, cops, or drug dealers, “Our hearts are either with, or on the assembly line or with middle management, that’s where our point of view is always strongest” (New Yorker Radio Hour. September 29, 2017). And then they ask, “Where does the power and money route itself?”
For some reason, that idea struck me. It’s completely obvious of course, but I loved the prosaicness of Simon’s description: “Middle management”. What else sounds both utterly mundane and yet a necessary role filled by many of us in modern life. Middle-level management is why I loved The Wire and the T.V. shows of David Simon. Middle Management. Folks who work on the assembly line or are just trying to make a living. Parks and Rec and The Office come close to such thing but they’re sitcom comedies and do not contain the same depths of the human experience.
Our lives are currently dominated by the rich and famous. The sexy and wealthy. The politically savvy and the powerful. From Reality Housewives to Keeping up with the Kardashians and our current president. No matter how utterly moronic they might be. I imagine this has always been the case throughout history, though, I would argue that in this day and age, it feels particularly force fed to us by social media, smartphones, and twenty-four hour news cycles.
So, enter Stringer Bell, a second-in-command drug boss who is also taking community college classes and hoping to one day graduate from the streets to the business world. Enter McNulty, a cop with a good heart who also drives around drunk. Enter Candy, a prostitute who is her own boss and makes an entry into the camera-side of the pornography business. Enter bartenders and drug dealers and good cops and bad cops and corrupt politicians and decent ones. Enter a whole host of characters just like us. Because I have spent many years in church, I also can’t help feeling like these are the same type of people Jesus hung out with two thousand years ago—fishermen, prostitutes, zealots. Jesus having very little time for the rich and famous, the powerful and connected, and instead spending his time with middle management. The type of people we pass in the street on a daily basis. Or I should say, like most of us pass and encounter—middle-class, proletariat us—those of us who are neither extremely wealthy nor extremely poor. Right in the middle. People below and above. Enter humanity.
All of the above is exemplified by the writing in Simon’s shows. It’s so human, believable, and relatable that I feel more like I’m reading a novel on the human condition than watching a T.V. show. And that’s just one reason out of several for why The Wire is the best show ever made for television. This is to say nothing of the realistic dialogue across political and socio-economic and racial spectrums. The plot set-ups, payoffs, and twists. The character development over multiple seasons. The narrative tension. The moral ambiguity. The social commentary. The interpersonal relationships. All of which leads to something utterly transcendent and yet completely down to earth.