David Simon, creator of The Wire, Treme and, most recently, The Deuce, talks with Playboy Contributing Editor James Franco about the war on drugs, the power of fiction and what happens when capitalism meets sex.
Your new HBO miniseries, The Deuce, is set in New York’s old 42nd Street, when it was full of strip clubs, prostitutes and pimps. What attracted you to that world?
We’re trying to capture an extraordinary demimonde that sprang up in the middle of one of America’s greatest cities. It had almost no precedent in terms of sheer glorious degeneracy. It was the Wild West. In a country that has always had puritan pretensions, it was a time when sex came rocketing out of the closet in every possible form. Pioneers in this new industry at that moment lived through extraordinary experiences, and in the end many of them paid extraordinary costs.
On one layer it’s a beautiful critique of unrestrained capitalism, of the idea that you can put a price on anything and sell it. There’s absolutely a market for sex; there always will be and there always has been. But if we give it free rein—and in some basic ways I think we have—what does that do to all of us?
So it’s a look at what happens when capitalism meets sex?
And what is the cost? What happens to the various forces involved? Where does the money go? What happens to labor? There’s a lot we can say about what it means to live in a country where profit is exalted to the extent it is in America. There’s a lot we can critique, and I find that really interesting. The sex industry has an undercurrent; regardless of how benignly somebody tries to approach it, there’s a core value of misogyny—you know, the use and misuse of women. I’m interested in honestly and maybe even brutally exploring that, because I think we tend to treat the commodification of sex as some sort of comic by-product of our worst instincts. I’m not sure it’s quite so funny.
You started your career as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore, and your first book became the award-winning TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets. Your next book, The Corner, was turned into a miniseries for HBO and paved the way for you to create The Wire. What did you want to capture about Baltimore?
I remember thinking, if they give us this show, I don’t want to do the same thing every year. I don’t want to just introduce a few more interesting characters or a better villain. Jesus, put a gun in my mouth if I’m going to play that game. It occurred to me that if they were going to let me critique the drug war, which is what I wanted to do with the first season of The Wire, and explain why the entire city infrastructure had gotten lost in that dystopian policy, that the next season would have to explain the allure of drug culture in terms of the death of the working class. Every season I wanted to carve up another piece of the city and try to build a Baltimore that was a sociological critique of where we find ourselves and go for as long as they’d let me.
You were interviewed by President Obama. How does having the president as a fan affect your material?
When I actually could have claimed some expertise in terms of where the drug war was going awry or why the clearance rates on homicides were declining or why we were solving fewer murders and why the city was becoming more problematic to police—when I actually knew these things and had the facts because I was a reporter—nobody gave a fuck. Nobody wanted to talk to me. They weren’t inviting me to the White House to discuss this shit. They weren’t inviting me to much of anywhere. I was just a grunt in the trenches. I could write my stories, and the police department would read them and every now and then the Sun would get behind me and write an editorial on something I’d written. I’m not diminishing that work; I found it to be incredibly gratifying and meaningful, and it all begins with that. Frankly, if we were a healthier society, it would end with that. Journalism, when it’s done well, would be sufficient to provoke real change and real argument and real discussion. We’re not that healthy anymore, and some of the best journalism doesn’t get the attention it should. But if you take it and transform it into a cathartic narrative of a kind that has always been the elemental force behind drama, if you do that and make people care about characters and about the outcome of a fictional story—holy shit, all of a sudden you’re getting invited to college campuses and they’re asking you what you think.
We can laugh at it, but a lot of people know all the social science that underlies the Holocaust. They can explain it to you in chapter and verse and with great detail about the socio-political and geopolitical forces and the human dynamic that led to the Holocaust. And all of what they know may not be nearly as powerful as the diary of a teenage girl hiding in an attic in Amsterdam and wondering whether she’s going to Auschwitz or not. In the microcosmic use of Anne Frank as the narrative constant, the Holocaust comes alive. Sometimes it takes a teenage girl.