excerpts via Vice:
Between seasons of a lot of hit shows, adjustments will be made that are clearly based on network notes about what’s perceived to be most popular with viewers.
We never had that dynamic in our heads. What we were asking was, “What should we spend 12 hours of television saying?” And that’s a journalistic impulse. That was coming from the Wire writers who were journalists and, to an extent, the novelists who wrote for the show who write in a realistic framework, like researched fiction. People like Pelecanos, Price, and Lehane.
Those three guys seemed to have the perfect backgrounds to bring a lot of valuable stuff to The Wire.
It wasn’t like we were putting Isaac Bashevis Singer on staff. I love his stuff, but we were looking for novelists who were doing researched fiction, and particularly in an urban environment. I’m also not mistaking The Wire for journalism. I have too much respect for journalism to make such a statement. But the impulse, the initial impulse behind doing the show? It was the same reason somebody sits down to write an editorial or an op-ed.
To make a statement or to sound an alarm.
Yeah: “Shit’s going wrong. Here’s where I think it’s going wrong. Here’s what I think might make it right.” That impulse was the same in The Wire writing room as it would be at the editorial board of a good newspaper.
“Good” being the operative word there. I don’t want to reduce The Wire to one big theme, but would you say that a major thrust of the series was the idea of institutions versus individuals?
Yeah, that permeated it. One of the things we were saying was that reform was becoming more and more problematic as moneyed interests—capitalism, which is sort of the ultimate Olympian god—become more entrenched in the postmodern world. Reform becomes more and more problematic because the status quo is arranged in such a way as to maximize profit and to exalt profit—particularly short-term profit—over long-term societal benefit and/or human beings.
Which is kind of the classic problem that comes up with capitalism and industry.
But I’m not a Marxist. I am often mistaken for a Marxist.
Oh, no, I wouldn’t guess that about you. I think of you as being, besides a writer, more of a critic and an observer.
It’s one thing to recognize capitalism for the powerful economic tool it is and to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, we’re stuck with it and, hey, thank God we have it. There’s not a lot else that can produce mass wealth with the dexterity that capitalism can. But to mistake it for a social framework is an incredible intellectual corruption and it’s one that the West has accepted as a given since 1980—since Reagan. Human beings—in this country in particular—are worth less and less. When capitalism triumphs unequivocally, labor is diminished. It’s a zero-sum game. People paid a much higher tax rate when Eisenhower was president, a much higher tax rate for the benefit of society, and all of us had more of a sense that we were included. But this is not what you really want to talk about, I know.
Well, no, I do want to talk about this. It isn’t technically about writing, but it’s very relevant to your writing.
I guess what I’m saying is that the overall theme was: We’ve given ourselves over to the Olympian god that is capitalism and now we’re reaping the whirlwind. This is the America that unencumbered capitalism has built. It’s the America that we deserve because we let it happen. We don’t deserve anything better. The Wire was trying to take the scales from people’s eyes and say, “This is what you’ve built. Take a look at it.” It’s an accurate portrayal of the problems inherent in American cities.
Are there other parts of those cities that are economically viable? Of course. You can climb higher up on the pyramid that is capitalism and find the upper-middle-class neighborhoods and the private schools. You can find where the money went. ButThe Wire was dissent because of its choice to center itself on the other America, the one that got left behind. That was the overall theme and that worked for all five seasons. So that’s the institution versus the individual. …
This seems to play into what you mentioned earlier, that you were writing Greek tragedy, which certainly had comedic elements.
Yes. Before finishing the first season I’d reread most of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, those three guys. I’d read some of it in college, but I hadn’t read it systematically. That stuff is incredibly relevant today. As drama, the actual plays are a little bit stilted, but the message within the plays and the dramatic impulses are profound for our time. We don’t really realize it. I don’t think we sense the power in there because we’re really more in the Shakespearean construct of—
Yes, the individualism kind of thing.
The individual and the interior struggle for self. Macbeth and Hamlet and Lear and Othello. These are the great tragedies—the dramatic branch that leads to O’Neill and our modern theater. But I saw a version of Aeschylus’s The Persians done on the stage in Washington, and it made my jaw drop. They put it on during the height of the insurgency in Iraq—after that misadventure in Iraq had made itself apparent. If you read that play and if you saw this production of it, it was so dead-on. I don’t know if you know the play.
I’ve never read it, but I know what it’s about.
It’s basically the people back in the Persian capital wondering what’s happened to their army and, of course, bad things have happened to their army. And the young emperor who wants to be compared to his father—it’s Darius the Great, I think—he wants to win the victory that was denied his father over the Greeks.
Yeah. And of course they performed it in Republican ties and suits. It was a Washington audience. I was watching it and I was looking around, and some of these lines were landing, some of the dialogue was landing. I was looking around like, “Did everyone just catch that? Did they really just say that?” It was so ripe in its critique of Bush and Cheney and all those guys.
It seems to me that people want to be sort of special, unique snowflakes, and the Shakespearean thing addresses that more.
Right! Let’s celebrate me and the wonder that is me. It’s not about society. The Greeks, especially the Athenians, were consumed with questions about man and state. They gave Socrates hemlock because his ideas were antithetical to their notions of state.
Listen, that’s totalitarianism in any sense, but for him, he was cynical about democracy and he was an iconoclast about the democratic principles. That went to the heart of Greek thinking. It was like, “Don’t fuck with that.” Now, the thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution. How many frickin’ times are we gonna watch a story where somebody—
Rises up against the odds?
“You can’t do that.” “Yes, I can.” “No, you can’t.” “I’ll show you, see?” And in the end he’s recognized as just a goodhearted rebel with right on his side, and eventually the town realizes that dancing’s not so bad. I can make up a million of ’em. That’s the story we want to be told over and over again. And you know why? Because in our heart of hearts what we know about the 21st century is that every day we’re going to be worth less and less, not more and more.
Worth less and less as people, you mean?
As human beings. Some of us are going to get more money and be worth more. There are some people who are destined for celebrity or wealth or power, but by and large, the average American, the average person in the world on planet earth, is worth less and less. That’s the triumph of capital, and that is the problem. You look at that, and you think that’s what we’ve come to and that’s where we’re going…