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'The Wire': David Simon schools USC

March 4, 2008 |  9:07 am

Simon200 There may be no more pitiable position on a university campus than to be an overconfident twentysomething approaching David Simon with an ill-conceived comment on "The Wire."

After watching Simon lead a lively talk at USC about the relationship between journalism and the public, a fresh-faced young man in rumpled khakis started speaking to Simon about the "Machiavellian" nature of a few of this season's characters. As the post-chat reception continued around him in a narrow law school hallway, you could see Simon's wheels turning.

"It's not Machiavellian. You're misusing the term," he said flatly, tossing aside the rest of the young man's statement. Simon then outlined the finer nuances of the "very specific" behavior characterized in "The Prince," and though the student weakly tried to defend his usage, Simon would have none of it. "[The characters] are ruthless, but they're not Machiavellian," he finished with a slight smile.

Such are the risks in squaring off with David Simon, who in an affable and engaging talk in the bowels of USC's Musick Law Building also shed some light on the roots of "The Wire," its controversial newspaper storyline and his own attitudes toward the uncertain future of journalism.

In a few opening remarks, Simon repeatedly cited Greek tragedy's influence on "The Wire," explaining that in the place of the meddlesome Greek gods who randomly ruined people's lives he subbed in modern institutions. In what seemed a preemptive nod toward any outraged Omar fans in the audience, Simon also leaned on the same source to explain the fate for some of his show's most popular characters. "Those who want to know why Omar had to die, why Stringer had to die," he said, "Strap on a helmet, get in the game and read Antigone. Read Medea. It had to happen."

After revealing the powerful influence Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" held over "The Wire" ("It's the only important political film . . . Watch the movie before every season and you'll get it."), Simon touched on his well-documented time as a reporter for the Sun and its impact on Season 5. After initially asking the audience what they thought the heart of the newsroom arc was, he finally explained the central message wasn't Templeton's fabrications, Gus' heroics or the paper's out-of-touch editors -- the key was what didn't happen.

"This is why I'm the king of meta," Simon said with a mischievous grin. "Everything that you know about 'The Wire' up to this point never appeared in the newspaper." He then recounted the many plot points taken from Simon's real-life Baltimore experiences -- the corrupt mayor asking for cooked crime stats, the elementary school test scores spawned from students being taught the tests, the deaths of Prop Joe and Omar -- all indicators of the city's real problems that never appeared in the Sun's pages, in reality or on HBO. "Watching a TV drama to get the truth, that's the real joke," Simon added.

An interesting insight, certainly. But as clever as this fun-house mirror sleight of hand may be, is it enough to forgive what still played like lesser drama in Simon's undeniably personal but less nuanced depiction of "The Sun's" newsroom? The finale -- and repeated viewings on DVD -- may ultimately decide.

Regardless, Simon has no regrets. He even made a point of exonerating HBO for "The Wire's" shorter run this season by explaining that if they truly needed more time to wrap up their story (which initially included the revelation that Randy is indeed Cheese Wagstaff's son), HBO would have provided it. But he feels the tighter story is stronger for it. In Simon's view, "The Wire," its characters, and to an extent the complex issues plaguing Baltimore itself have ultimately been served.

"Until these problems become the currency of debate, the 'other America' will keep being the 'other America," he told the crowded classroom as his talk wound to a close. "Except now they won't have a show because 'The Wire' is gone."

-- Chris Barton

Photo by Chris Barton / LAT

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