ROBERT SMITH, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Robert Smith in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan. Last night, "The Wire," HBO's sweeping series chronicling life and a whole lot of death in the inner, aired its swan song. In the end, the calculus was brutal. Some characters were up, some broke our hearts, but not much else in the world that changed in five seasons. There's very little balm in Baltimore, as they say. Every institution from city hall to the schools to the corner boy slinging heroin revealed its flaws, and worst, its cynicism.
The series took time to appreciate its heroes. In last night's episode, Sergeant Jay Landsman gave this eulogy at the mock wake for Jimmy McNulty whose police career, if not his life, was now over.
(Soundbite of show "The Wire")
Mr. DELANEY WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Sgt. Jay Landsman): He was the black sheep, permanent pariah. He asked no quarter of the bosses and none was given. He learned no lessons. He acknowledged no mistakes. He was as stubborn a Mick as ever stumbled out of the Northeast parish just to take up a patrolman's shield. He brooked no authority. He did what he wanted to do and he said what he wanted to say, and in the end, he gave you the clearances. He's natural police. Yes, he was. And I don't say that about many people, even when they're here on the felt. I don't give that one up unless it happens to be true. Natural police.
SMITH: Today, we're holding a wake for "The Wire" as well with its creator and executive producers David Simon and Ed Burns. And we want to hear from you especially if you're working in one of the institutions that "The Wire" touched on. If you're a cop, a judge, a schoolteacher - oh sure, even in the game as they say. We want to hear how well "The Wire" reflected your life.
Our number is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later in the hour, Baltimore's has got plenty of drugs but so does your water. Apparently, we'll explain how all that Advil ended up in your tap. But first, "The Wire," David Simon is in our New York Bureau. He's the creator and executive producer of "The Wire." Welcome, David.
Mr. DAVID SIMON (Creator/Executive Producer, "The Wire"): Thank you for having me.
SMITH: And Ed Burns, writer and co-executive producer of the series, is in Charm City from the studios of member station, WYPR, in Baltimore. Welcome, Ed.
Mr. ED BURNS (Writer/Executive Producer): Thank you.
SMITH: Let's start with David. David, you think its safe to say that Sergeant Landsman's eulogy, where he said brooked no authority, said what he wanted to say the permanent pariah, does that describe you too?
Mr. SIMON: Oh, I don't know. I hadn't thought about that. I don't think we're that self-referential. Yeah. Ed's laughing.
SMITH: Yeah. What do you think, Ed?
Mr. BURNS: No, I agree with David. I don't think we sunk that low yet.
SMITH: To give a wake for yourself.
Mr. BURNS: That's true.
Mr. SIMON: No. Yeah, it had not even occurred to me that we were going that way.
SMITH: Well, it's been, what, 18 hours or so since the thing is aired? What do you offer your own eulogy, David?
Mr. SIMON: Oh, you know, its not 18 hours for Ed and myself. We finished this project up a while back, so it's so of a distraction for us to, you know, when the thing is actually broadcast. I'd say we were sincere about trying to do something as a television entertainment that was not an entertainment. That's not to say we didn't have an obligation to make it entertaining; but Ed, myself, the other writers, we had a lot of opinions about our city or the city we were writing about and what has gone wrong over the last couple of few decades and what continuous to go wrong and we took our shot.
And ultimately, if it was just about making a television show to entertain people, I would feel as if we weren't. You know, we didn't have grown-up jobs. So, you know, I think it's — I see this as sort of a big strange, dramatic, op-ed piece. And maybe we're right, maybe we're wrong, maybe we're a little both, but that's where we went.
SMITH: Ed Burns, how do you leave it?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I think we kicked up a little bit of dust and that was good. What I really got out of it was a chance to - along with David and the other writers - was to personalize it most often are just stereotypes. So to see guys, you know, like Prop Joe and Stringer and Avon and D'Angelo in a way that is not normally seen, I think, was something that we did.
SMITH: Well, there's a lot of loose ends wrapped up last night, and I won't get into all the details, because one of the unique things about the series is how many people I meet who are in various stages of watching it. I'm personally somewhere in this third season in terms of watching, but I meet people who have just started beginning watching it, some people who have watched it religiously before it even aired on HBO looking at On-Demand. So wherever you are on the series - I think a lot of people want to know how mapped out it is? I mean, do you have your own version of Lester's organizational chart on the corkboard where you knew what was going to happen from the beginning?
Mr. SIMON: From the very beginning, I don't think we knew we were going to get more than a year. But from very late in season one when we were filming the first season, Ed and I spoke on with Bob Colesbury - who was one of the other executive producers at the time, the late Bob Colesbury - and we talked about slicing off a different piece of the city with each successive season. And, you know, once HBO gave us additional seasons, we started doing that and then we had to think about which season should follow what, how the characters should move around each other, how they should orbit the story.
And then, you know, when you've got sort of a gross schematic, then you sit down in the writers' room. And yes, we have the different colored three-by-five cards and the butcher's paper up on every wall with every episode charted out and that's where the heavy lifting was.
SMITH: Well, how did you decide the fate of your characters? I mean, I picture you both sitting there with a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down. I mean, did you sit there and consign them to death or at least a somewhat happy afterlife?
Mr. SIMON: Ed?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I think there's a logic to each of the characters that, sort of, came with the suit we put him into. And that logic sort of dictated where they were going to go. When you run out of story for Stringer, there's only one place you can go. And when you set up a creature like Marlow or Michael or Snoop, they'll sort of - you know, they'll find their way to the proper place. And that's one thing do we do; we spend so much time with story that we sort of sensed the proper place. That didn't all come at once, that's for sure.
SMITH: Well, David Simon mentioned that it's been a few months since you've wrapped. And so David, is there any character you find yourself missing or thinking about, either their fate or just wishing that you could have a little bit more to say about him or her?
Mr. SIMON: I don't. I feel as if we, you know, at a certain point a lot of the themes that "The Wire" was exploring were pretty consistent over five years. And they start to become a little redundant if, you know - if you want to serve every character to the nth degree and maintain your theme, at some point, people can see - you know, people are going to begin to see the rigging.
And so once I felt we have said what were going to say about the city in total, I didn't feel any regret about the show ending. I will say that, you know, I spent a lot of time writing our Baltimore and, you know, Ed as well. I mean, my partnership with Ed goes back to the book "The Corner," a nonfiction narrative. And we're now looking to situations where we're starting to work on projects that are outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Sometimes very outside, in the case of this upcoming HBO miniseries on the Iraq war. And that feels kind of strange. Now, I may regret saying goodbye to Baltimore at some point.
SMITH: You can always return to Baltimore. I think that's the law. Let's get our listeners involved in the conversation. Randy(ph) joins us from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hey, Randy.
RANDY (Caller): How are you?
SMITH: Doing great. Go ahead.
RANDY: Well, I'm calling to talk about a couple of things. One is season four. I'm a retired school teacher. I've been doing this for about 35 years. So, I'm sitting in a school building right now. And also because my wife is one of the characters on season four. She was Jerilee Bennett…
SMITH: Oh, really?
RANDY: …with Carcetti. So I got to come down there and meet a lot of the people and taking her back and forth. And it was a really positive experience all the way around and from the ground up. What I do want to say that for people who don't realize that what they saw in the schools was exactly what happens. I think, like I said, having done this for so many years, people needed to see that. Because unless you're there, you don't realize the kind of interactions that go on between young people and adults that just kind of get stuck right there and do go up, down or anywhere, and people just stay exactly the way they are. And the change that schools are supposed to make, oftentimes, they don't make those changes.
SMITH: Ed Burns, you're the one that was the school teacher and really determined the thrust of that fourth season.
Mr. BURNS: Well, I think, Randy, you know, he's there. He's in the trenches. So he - obviously, it's the same in a lot of places. There no trust. There's no - there's just the everyday wearing down, and it's heroic to go into the classroom. For over 30 years, it's really heroic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: How long did you last, Ed?
Mr. BURNS: I lasted seven. I just…
RANDY: You know, it's a thing where, you know, it's really a niche that, you know, if you're - if that's what you want to do, if that's what your psyche is made for, you can do it. But it's not for everybody. And there's a part for everybody to play. You know, to be able to tell the story is something that, you know, I might not be able to do other than in a casual conversation. But to put it on the screen like that and to get the right kids. The kids were great, I - you know, not just because my wife was involved in it, but I really see the force, you know, sticks out on me because the reality of those kids and what they come from.
Every day we hear - I'm directing an after-school program now. And these kids are hungry every day. And just that factor alone that these kids are trying to scrape and get money together, to do what they have to do. But just to feed themselves is a major issue. So people need to know that. Thank you for "The Wire." And thanks for letting me get my two cents in here.
SMITH: Thanks for call, Randy.
Mr. BURNS: Thank you.
SMITH: And, Ed Burns, you said that the characters that you picked for that fourth season, the kids especially were kids that you saw when you were in school.
Mr. BURNS: Well, they were composites of kids, yeah. There's always the kid who is thug-like, and that would be Michael. There's always the hustler, Randy. There's usually the dirty kid, Duquan. And there is this kid that you can see wants - he's a wannabe, and that's Julito. And…
SMITH: We're talking about the swan song of "The Wire," HBO's series about the inner city and the drug war, with creator David Simon, and co-executive producer, Ed Burns. And we're talking your calls at 800-989-8255. You can also reach us by e-mail. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coming up, we will still have "The Wire" writers with us, and they've written a collective proposal. They say if they're ever asked to serve on a jury in a nonviolent drug case, they will vote to acquit regardless of the evidence. We'll talk about that next when we rejoin Ed Burns and David Simon.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Robert Smith from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Robert Smith in Washington in for Neal Conan.
We're talking with David Simon and Ed Burns. They're the brain trust that created HBO's critically acclaimed series "The Wire." The show ended its five-year run last night. The series depicts a number of institutions failing in an inner city population. We particularly like to hear from our listeners that may work within these institutions. If you're a police officer, a union worker, public defender, a drug treatment counselor, give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Everyone has favorite moments from the series. But this one crops up perhaps most often. Omar Little's comments during his testimony against Bird. Here he is goading Maury Levy, the loathsome drug lawyer.
(Soundbite of show "The Wire")
Mr. MICHAEL KOSTROFF (Actor): (As Maury Levy) You are a parasite who leeches off…
Mr. MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Omar Little) Just like you, man.
Mr. KOSTOFF: (As Maury Levy) …the culture of drugs. Excuse me? What?
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game, though, right?
SMITH: The wisdom of Omar. The shotgun versus the briefcase - that sort of sums up neatly the many ways in which you believe that people are failed by the war on drugs, David Simon. In an open letter to Time magazine, you both come out with a modest proposal. Why don't you tell us about that?
Mr. SIMON: It was something that the writers discussed and thought that if there was one overt act that we could collectively get behind, it was the idea that a - of jury nullification on nonviolent drug cases. The drug war has not only not achieved any of its goals - and in fact failed dramatically over four decades, it's also really damaged the law enforcement. It has broken the back of the deterrent. And, you know, you'll meet a lot of rank-and-file police that have come to this awareness as well.
If you are chasing a street-level drug arrest which, you know, in a place like Baltimore are almost the most fundamental arrest - you just go down the corners and grab people and go into their pockets - chances are, given the lack of resources in a place like Baltimore and other American cities, other things, more complicated things, more essential things to keeping neighborhoods safe, are not being done. And while drug arrests in Baltimore have doubled and doubled again over the last 20 years, the clearance rates, the arrest rates for all major felonies - you know, rape, robbery, murder - have declined dramatically.
That's telling. And what it suggests is there is no correlation between fighting the drug war aggressively and making cities safer. In fact, the opposite.
SMITH: Now, you wrote that this came because a lot of people were feeling despair a little bit from the series and asking you what can they possibly do. I mean, they probably ask if they can send money for a clothing fund or something somewhere. Did you find people desperately wanted something that they could do?
Mr. SIMON: Well, I think we, you know - and Ed said this time and again, Ed's tired of sort of small incremental solutions that aren't really solutions, and I agree with him. The structure is broken. The drug war is dysfunctional on its face. And until - and our political structure will not accept this fact. There isn't a politician in America that will come to the point of view necessary based on the evidence on the ground. There's, you know - it's political suicide.
So given that fact, the only thing that individuals can do - you know, you can pretend you can work within that system, but I don't believe that you can. And I think the writers don't believe you can anymore. So we were basically trying to argue that individuals - if you want to speak of what we can do as individuals, well, if all these refused to collaborate in this disaster, if all these refused to do anything but acquit nonviolent drug offenders, if it makes it hard to impanel a jury at some point, that's exactly what happened with Prohibition back in the '30s.
And, you know, at some point, you know, you have to look at the macro. It's nice to talk about clothing drives or saving a life a here or intervening there or, you know, updating the textbooks in these inner city school. But actually, we've been building two Americas for 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, and at some point, somebody has got to pull out the first brick in the wall.
SMITH: Ed Burns, as well as a teacher - we talked about that - you used to be a police officer. What have your fellow police said about this and do you support that going in and acquitting these people?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I definitely support it. I think that, you know, we're stuck. We've painted ourselves into a corner and whatever it would take, whatever nudge we would need to sort of bump us to look at these things in a different way. If we continue to bump heads, then we'll continue to be where we are, and we will be stuck. I mean, it's not going to change. The war is going to go on forever. It's going to be like Iraq. And we have to change perspective.
And as David said, there is not a politician who's willing to throw the first rock. So, you know, we need to give them permission to start looking for another way of doing things.
SMITH: Let's go to Michael(ph). Michael is calling us from Detroit, Michigan. Hey, Michael.
MICHAEL (Caller): How are you doing guys? Great to talk with you. The reason I was calling was I'm a product of Detroit, the city of Detroit, and born and raised there. And I can't help to notice the resemblance of Baltimore to Detroit. And we're going through the same issues and problems daily of what the show is going through at this moment. And I can't help to wonder if you guys ever have the same topic come up with other people, the resemblance to their cities. And is there any way that we can turn around from this one step forward, two steps back, it's almost as though there's a catching-ness, to where all the big cities are all suffering from this? And I'm just wondering if you hear from other people that say the same things.
Mr. SIMON: Well, last night, as a matter of fact, the mayor of Philadelphia screened "The Wire" at City Hall, and had a bunch of the actors there, and was very passionate about giving voice to the show in his city, because he felt it so resembled Philadelphia's problems. Yes, in every post-industrial city, in those places in America that have been left behind by the economy, by the service economy and by the post-manufacturing economy. Yeah, "The Wire" applies. We believe it. That's why we spent six years doing it.
You know, once - long ago, when Ed and I came out with the book, "The Corner," I remember we went to one of those think tanks down in Washington. And there was a nice gentleman there, he had a bowtie - I don't mean to stereotype, it sounds as if I am, but he really did have a bowtie. And he said, what's the solution? I mean, we just came out with this book that said the drug war is dysfunctional on the street level. It's not what you think it is. It's actually doing more damage. It's become a war on the underclass. And he said, well, what's the solution?
And we very carefully - I mean, I think Ed took him through it, I added a few things. We said, look, you've been building a separate America, disconnected economically, politically, socially, in your inner cities for decades. And what's the solution? It's to start taking down that construct. I don't know if it's going to take 30 to take it down, but it took 30 years to take it - it's going to be complicated and long and ornate and it's going to be a struggle. I'm not sure there's the will to do it yet, but until you start, that's - and I'll never forget it, the guy just looked at us after that long - and he said, but what's the answer? You know, he wanted it in a sentence. Ed had to restrain me at that point I think, you know.
MICHAEL: Well, I want to thank you guys for a great show. And I'm very sad that it's off.
Mr. SIMON: Well, thank you.
SMITH: Thank you very much, Michael.
Mr. BURNS: Thank you.
SMITH: Heather(ph) joins us from Riverside. Hello, Heather.
HEATHER (Caller): Yes. Hello, everybody. Thank you so much for "The Wire," it was fantastic writing. I'm very close to Hollywood out here. We don't have very good writing on TV anymore. But what I wanted to say was, I'm in my third term with some type of city or county government. I started with the military, in the Air Force, been in the postal service for 10 years, now, the California fire department. And I will just say this, when you're working yourself to death to try to get that next promotion, if you don't go with the people and their opinion, they'll fire you. They will sweep you under the rug. They will lose you.
So my question to you is, how do people - you portrayed it so truthfully, how do we not lose our hope?
SMITH: All right. Who has hope? Ed Burns?
Mr. BURNS: I definitely have hope. You know, it's a philosophical thing. It's - we define human beings by their relationship to productivity. You know, if they're productive, they're fine. And, you know, we have to take away the adjective. We have to start looking at human beings as human beings. And just respect them just as human beings. If we can change the dynamic, then the institutions have to change, because we are the institutions.
If we keep the dynamic, then the institutions will stay the same and you will be a corporate cog. And if you don't play the game, you will be swept under the rug. But changing it is what we have to do. In a specific way, there is one program in America that I think is working, and I think it's working very well. And it's the Harlem Children's Zone. And hundreds if not thousands of people have been to see this program and come away awestruck by it, and tried to implement it in their different cities and towns. And, again, there's only one program like it. And that tells you something. Why aren't we doing what is working?
HEATHER: Well, it's fabulous to see McNulty do what he did to get that funding. Because I see people in San Bernardino County bioterrorism unit do the same thing. They'll put money through on one project, but they're going to use it for another because they can't get the funding to do their job. It was incredible to watch that.
Mr. SIMON: Well, I have to say, you know, the allegiance of the show has always been with labor or middle management. No matter where we went, that's pretty much where our point of view stayed. And it really - the show did take a lot of time to address itself to how individuals function or don't function within institutions. And, you know, I think - you know, Camus had that quote in "Myth of Sisyphus" where he said, you know, if you commit to an absurd and, you know, probably futile cause, or a futile cause, it's probably absurd. And if you don't commit, it's absurd, but only one choice offers the slightest opportunity for dignity.
And that kind of was the argument of the show, which is, you're probably going to lose anyway. But some fights are worth fighting and losing. Because maybe the next guy after you will have an easier time losing and maybe the next after him will almost win and maybe somewhere down the road, somebody will get the hang of this thing and something right will happen. But if it…
HEATHER: Absolutely. Thank you, guys.
Mr. SIMON: Yeah.
SMITH: Thank you.
Mr. SIMON: But if nobody fights, nobody fights.
SMITH: Thanks for your phone call, Heather. Is there a particular character or story that you wrapped up last night that you think brings the most hope?
Mr. SIMON: Ed?
Mr. BURNS: It's certainly not Dukie.
Mr. SIMON: No, not Dukie.
SMITH: Oh, yeah. You can tick off the people who did not give you hope or ended up in the ground. But…
Mr. BURNS: But it might be - I would say Bubbles. I would say it's the other end of Dukie.
Mr. SIMON: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Mr. BURNS: You know, I think, the show has not been cynical about - and the one reason I think people are willing to watch it, otherwise I think it would be just, you know, it would just be - drive people into madness. There's a couple of - you know, I think the humor and the fact that the characters are definitively human, and there is reason to hope in individuals. And that every now and then, despite the odds, they surprise you. And, you know, Bubbles was able to do that.
SMITH: We're speaking with David Simon and Ed Burns, co-producers and creators of HBO's "The Wire." Ed Burns joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. And David Simon is in our New York bureau. We are also taking your phone calls at 800-989-8255. Look at this, I've checked my own phone number.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go now to Nadia(ph). Nadia calls us from Tucson, Arizona.
NADIA (Caller): Hi. Hi, guys. I love the show. And I just wanted to talk a little bit about - or to ask you about - the Carcetti storyline especially now given that we're in this campaign season. And I'm a political scientist and I study, you know, institutions and individuals for a living. And I just noticed the extreme, sort of, disconnect between the public face of the politicians and, sort of, I noticed that every Carcetti speech was just pretty fantastic. And if I had no idea about, you know, sort of everything he was doing behind the scenes I'd think, oh, he's fantastic guy. And then, you know, you think about what it takes to sort of get to the top of the political machine and through the governors and ultimately the presidential candidates.
And so I wonder how much of that - sort of looking at people like Obama and Hillary Clinton and McCain and sort of thinking about what it took for them to get to where they are now and sort of the public face that they display. How much we rely on just the words and to, sort of, the cynicism with that? If...
Mr. BURNS: Yeah, we did enjoy ourselves playing with the idea of demagoguery and the political hyperbole. I remember at the end of third season, when he was still a councilman, we had Carcetti give an impassioned speech, and the camera gently panned in on him as he rhapsodized about saving neighborhoods and demanding better for the city. And it really was a beautiful speech. And, you know, we wanted - the writers worked on it for a long while. And yet, everything about the speech was just a recall and retread of the drug war.
Mr. BURNS: And he was arguing for more warfare. And - whereas, the whole of third season had shown this police commander trying to struggle with it on pragmatic and practical terms, in terms of Bunny Colvin. And I was amazed to find that a lot of viewers, you know, longtime viewers, had watched that episode and they followed Carcetti right off the cliff. They were - despite what they have been showing for, you know, 12 episodes in terms of, you know, the box that the drug was is, they were - they thought he was the solution, because he sounded like the solution.
And, you know, that taught me a lot, you know, I kind of went all candid on myself. I forgot what I was writing because I was shocked that so many people went with Carcetti.
NADIA: It was the most devastating storyline to me - or one of the most obviously devastating storylines, maybe because - and even the people in charge. And, you know, when you think about democracy and the roles that individuals even sort of in terms of who we support and where we think we actually have control. But at the same time, we - you know, we reelect these people and our choices are basically made for us.
Mr. BURNS: Mm-hmm. Indeed.
SMITH: Thanks, Nadia, for your phone call.
NADIA: Thank you.
SMITH: We can take a short phone call now from Thomas(ph) in Kansas City. Thomas, you're on the air.
All right. Let's go to Bob(ph) in San Francisco, quickly.
BOB (Caller): More with this topic. I just have to say that it's probably been something that I look forward to every Sunday whenever I could watch it. I've lived in Baltimore. So thank you for the A-rep(ph) references to East Baltimore. I was at Hopkins on Wolfe Street faced all the - walked all the alleys and checked all the A-rep. And I also taught one year at Walbrook High School, the year it opened on the west side, and watched the kids there. Best job I ever had.
And going back to Baltimore, lived on Utah place, renovated a house, and kept going back and watch the change of as the drugs took over the city from the mid-'70s until in the '90s. And I just think what you did was an amazing look at how we've destroyed the urban areas of the United States because we think everyone can be rich if we don't deal with the working-class people. So you guys are terrific. And I love Baltimore. You did such a wonderful job. I checked each street to make sure that one that I knew that I'd walked on before. And thank you.
SMITH: Thanks a lot for you phone call, Bob.
Both of you, quickly, we have about a minute left. What's up next for the two of you? Ed, give it to them.
Mr. BURNS: Well, we just finished a seven-part miniseries, "Generation Kill," with HBO. And I don't know what comes next. We'll see.
Mr. SIMON: It's about the Iraq war, a platoon of recon Marines during the first five weeks into Baghdad, based on a book written by Evan Wright, who's an embedded reporter with them. It's a - we're hoping it's - we're hoping we've done the right thing with it.
SMITH: David Simon is the creator, writer and executive director of HBO's "The Wire." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks.
And Ed Burns is a writer and co-executive producer of "The Wire." And he joined us from WYPR in Baltimore. Thank you both.
Mr. BURNS: Thank you.
Mr. SIMON: Thank you.
SMITH: I'm Robert Smith. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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