David Simon’s invitation to speak at MICA last night was pegged to a new course being offered by the art school, The Wire & American Naturalism. So it was perhaps appropriate, then, that Simon himself made a comparison between his critically beloved five-season HBO program and that famous (and famously hard-to-read) American masterpiece, Moby Dick. They’re both, in Simon’s words “slow starters.”
Simon reminded the standing-room-only crowd that the show was never a fait accompli. Ratings peaked in the second season and went down from then on. The show found new life in DVD box sets, which allowed audiences to watch at their own pace — but the show wasn’t available on DVD until the third season was on air. Many TV critics ignored the show entirely (“I don’t want to name names,” Simon said. “Nancy Franklin from the New Yorker”). And once the show started gaining momentum, that caused some problems, too. Then-mayor Martin O’Malley got “petulant” and took it out on the state’s film industry.
But in general, Simon seemed loath to talk about the show that’s brought him so much adulation and attention. Instead, he apologized for not being able to help turning every speaking engagement into a stump speech against the drug war — “a war on the underclass,” and one he says makes him ashamed to be an American. This rhetoric is familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to Simon’s work, but it’s still compelling to watch — Simon is angry and smart and happy to tell us what is wrong with the world he sees. (Simon says that it’s not so much that he’s angry, but that his family’s dinner table discussions featured rousing discussions of the day’s issues, and so he grew up with a healthy enjoyment of arguing… a quality that wasn’t so appreciated, he says, by his bosses at the Baltimore Sun.)
The question implicit in all of Simon’s pessimism (about Baltimore, sure, but also about past and present presidents; gas prices; the movies we choose to watch) is well, what can we do about it? Predictably, Simon doesn’t advocate change via established methods like voting or calling your senator. “What can you do?” he says. “If you’re a resident of Baltimore City or Baltimore County, and you’re called to serve on a jury for a non-violent drug case, you can nullify that jury. It is your absolute American right.” By refusing to flood the prisons with non-violent offenders, he says, we can all play our own small part in rebelling against a failed drug war.