Cop series The Wire has been hailed as the best TV drama ever. Stretching to five seasons it follows a wide array of characters across complex, intricate storylines that play out over a full run of episodes. Each season tackles a different social issue and the latest and final season, which debuted on HBO in January, looks at the media and the way it operates.
The Wire is very demanding in terms of TV drama, were you trying to produce a social essay, a piece of entertainment or something else?
I don’t think I have ever given any thought to producing a piece of entertainment. None of the people involved are in the ‘entertainment’ business – we have never produced anything for a [mainstream] commercial network. I don’t know how you produce something that has a window pane every twelve minutes to sell something.
You were a journalist and writer, how did you get into TV?
There was very little planning for me to get into the business and a lot of circumstance. Barry Levinson bought the rights to [David Simon book] Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and I learnt how to write for TV by writing for the TV series. I’m making a living at TV so now I think of myself as a TV producer but I don’t have any ambition to do anything other than use the medium to tell stories that matter to me. I’ll never be somebody that worries about the numbers.
How much control do you have over The Wire?
HBO has given me an awful lot of rope. I have complete control. HBO asks where the stories go in a season and I tell them but I have never got notes on a script.
Is there a chance of going beyond season five?
I couldn’t add another season if they offered it to me. HBO said to me ‘you can’t end it now’ and I said ‘don’t even kid about it’.
How about spin off, focusing in certain stories or characters?
I have got a lot of work, there’s the miniseries Generation Kill with Company Pictures and some other projects, there’s also a pilot about New Orleans. We can’t drag the idea [of The Wire] through the mud.
We set out to create an allegorical city. We depicted that and we did it with a very angry and political show. We could keep doing it but the point we were trying to make would become redundant – I don’t want to tell the same story twice.
The Wire’s an unusually demanding show in terms of plot and language.
People are understanding about language once they have committed to watching something. I couldn’t understand Ray Winstone in [British movie] Sexy Beast at first, but at some point it started making sense. Smart people will endure dissonance if they sense quality. The effort you make gets paid back to you.
Could you see yourself working for a mainstream network?
Mainstream commercial TV can’t tell a dark story where you indicate that actually we’re not going to be alright, that there are two separate Americas and they are growing apart and the media is preoccupied with its own economic survival. You can’t tell a story and not have a happy ending and then expect viewers to buy the stuff you sell them every twelve minutes.
What are the effects of a fragmenting audience on drama production?
The audience is fragmenting and becomes smaller. That may not please the programmers but it creates a place for people like me. People can now acquire TV on so many platforms it’s becoming like a lending library, that’s the future, not Nielsen ratings. In that sense, over the life of a series, ten to fifteen million people will find it.
Where effects do these changes have on what ends up on screen?
You have to either go more porn or more shock, simple mediocrity has nowhere to go. Disastrous and tasteless TV has a long and secure future. And high quality will also find its audience. Half-assed programming, lame duck procedurals and hospital shows will still exist, but will fail to claim the zeitgeist.
The Wire is based and filmed in Baltimore, does that place you outside the traditional TV business in that you weren’t working out of LA or New York?
I feel some of the actors got their dues but a lot were African American and based in Baltimore and that’s a recipe for getting ignored. And I’ll never get the best table at The Ivy, but I don’t give a damn because I live in Baltimore.
How is your new Iraq-war miniseries Generation Kill coming along?
Filming was done in December and it will be on air on HBO in fall 2008. It was shot in Africa. I read the book and then gave it to someone at HBO. I thought it was the best reportage since [acclaimed journalist] Michael Hirsch.