'I try to land on society's fault lines'

The man behind such popular shows as The Wire and Treme defines his TV work and explains the thinking behind his upcoming new series, The Deuce


s well as entertainment, is there a journalistic element to your work?
I would be very careful not to characterise it as journalism, especially when I am doing a series, which is when I get to make stuff up. And there has been a bit too much of that in real journalism. It's hard for people to distinguish between the two in some ways; some people in journalism have trouble, sadly. I have too much respect for what journalism should be to claim any part of that for what is essentially drama. But, the last thing I want to do is just to make entertainment. I trained as a journalist; I'm not one now, but I want to engage the same argument, the same debates. So, my purposes are the same, but I am very clear that it is not the same form.
Your shows are about serious subjects: drugs, war, politics. What is it they have in common that attracts you?
They are usually the fault lines for a society. I try to land in those places where the argument is most important. I come from a place where there are really two Americas. So, where the haves and have-nots bang up against each other, that's probably a place where there's a story worth telling. Peace and war, and you have Generation Kill. I look to land on a fault line, and a big enough fault line that it matters.
What's the fault line for The Deuce, your new series?
It's about the rise of the sex industry, which of course became a multi-billion dollar reality in the last quarter of the 20th century. In my country, a lot goes back to Manhattan in the early ‘70s, when Times Square was a no-man's land. I'll be mortified if all we do is make a show about porn. But there's a story in there about the rise of an industry, which was illegal, in a back room, in a paper bag, under the shelf, and then out in the open. There were all these people who gained, lost, exploited, were exploited, so it's a show about capitalism, about market forces and about labour, and money and profit. There's a parable there for market capitalism that I find powerful, if we execute it well. Maybe we won't, maybe we'll get four episodes in and realise we've created something awful.
Your track record is good.
Maybe this is the one that kills us dead; I don't know. But right now I think we have a smart take on it. We shot the pilot and HBO looked at it and said yes. So, we have seven more hours to film over this summer and fall.
What are the dos and don'ts of pitching to studios?
Well, I keep getting turned down for stuff that is less obviously commercial. I hate to reinforce this but one thing I know about my industry is that certain currencies work: violence works, sex works, comedy always works. That is the triad of surefire TV franchise currency, and to me it is a little bit sad because there are more things under heaven and earth. I just came off doing a show which I cared about that is effectively about culture. It was an argument for the American city and multicultralism, but I couldn't put a gun in everybody's hand. I put a trombone in Wendell Pierce's hand but that doesn't have the same currency. You can have all the careful plotting in the world, you can have it mean what it's supposed to mean, you can make the arguments, you can make the characters as human as all care will allow, and people will still look at it and say “nothing happened”.
So you're taking a risk with The Deuce, in case people just watch for naked bodies.
The viewer I fear most is the guy who takes off his clothes and sits down in front of the TV on 10 o'clock on a Sunday night and waits for The Deuce to come on. I don't want to make a show for that guy. I want to use the cinematography and the story, and the show's purposes and how we present them, to thwart that. I don't want to make porn just to make porn. So, we're thinking a lot about that, we're thinking frame-to-frame and trying to be careful. To their credit, HBO is thinking along the same lines. They've been pitched any number of ideas about the sex industry in the past 20 years, but this is the first they took the pilot for. Whether we execute it or not is another thing.
The US appears to be a contradiction between progress and and puritan.
We are as prurient as people can be and yet puritan, all in the same breath. And the trick of the show is to land it somewhere between the two. I don't want to sneer at people who were effectively the pioneers of this new and disturbing yet ultimately successful industry. They already paid one price and the last thing they need is someone looking back 40 years and sneering at them. I don't want to do that, I don't want to be puritan. But I don't want to make porn.
I read you wanted to make a show about the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. Are we ever going to see that show?
I could not get anybody interested. If you know the story, you know how perfect it is as a narrative. To me it is a lesson about the limits of ideology, how human beings have to live and endure in a complicated middle ground. War reduces everything, and it was modern war being experienced for the first time. It was a dry-run for what was about to come with World War II. It was also experienced by people who arrived in Spain believing certain things, many of whom left still believing those things, but there was a reckoning to be made about what war can and cannot accomplish. There is a terrible beauty, to quote Yeats, that was born here from 1937 to 1939 that our history has lost track of. Many were communists and they were all of the left, so our national history doesn't recognise them, and very purposefully didn't recognise them. Our government called them ‘premature anti-fascists' and marginalised them.
But they were heroes…
To people who knew what they did, they should have been heroes, and they were on the right side of history, clearly. But their connection to the NKVD and to Stalin and the Internationale was such that when they tried to enlist after Pearl Harbour they were either stamped as undesirable, despite having combat experience and being willing to fight for their country. Instead of making them all NCOs, they were either marginalised and told they couldn't join the armed forces, or were taken on as privates and sent to guard jeeps in Alaska. And then the country not siding with democratic Spain was a grievous tragedy. At the same time there were excesses on the Republican side, and so it's a complicated story. Some came into it thinking one thing about why they were here and left thinking differently about war, while others were energised from meeting Spanish people and realising what was at stake. It's a beautiful story, but it's a hard sell.

From journalism to television

Neil Stokes/Gemma Busquets

The TV series writer and producer began his career working as a journalist on the Baltimore Sun newspaper in the early 1980s. In 1991 he published the book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was the basis for the NBC series, Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–99), with Simon acting as writer and producer. However, Simon truly burst on to the TV series scene with his critically acclaimed show The Wire (2002–2008). He also adapted the non-fiction book Generation Kill for HBO, and then for the same studio, Treme, which aired for four seasons. Simon most recently wrote the miniseries, Show Me a Hero, with journalist William F. Zorzi, while in August 2015 HBO commissioned pilots for The Deuce, about the New York porn industry in the 1970s, which is about to start filming.

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