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David Simon Brings ‘Hero’-ic Nuance to HBO Dramas

David Simon produces spare, sophisticated unflinching dramas. Which is notable, given his journalistic training, and the fact that his former profession – in its quest for what’s next – often finds scant time for the sort of nuanced look at what ails big cities that Simon has delivered in his dramas.

The Wire,” of course, stands at the heart of that filmography, representing a modern classic devoted to the fruitless nature of the drug war and its toxic effect on both the police and the inner-city residents who have found it to be a lucrative if dangerous source of employment. Yet he has taken other deep dives into urban dysfunction, from “The Corner” to “Treme,” the latter chronicling post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, to his most recent effort, “Show Me a Hero,” a true story premiering Aug. 16 about the blowback against efforts to bring public housing to Yonkers, N.Y.

Simon’s work, steeped as it is in exploring race and class divisions, has come to mind often in recent months, given the civil unrest unleashed by the deaths of young African-American men in cities like his native Baltimore as well as Ferguson, Mo. Time and again, the media look flat-footed in response to such events, seeking answers before quickly moving on to the next story of the moment.

During an interview on his recent swing through Los Angeles to promote “Show Me a Hero,” Simon (pictured, right, with director Paul Haggis) downplayed the notion that his fictional examination of Baltimore captured the city’s turmoil better than, say, cable news ever could. “No fictional narrative is a surrogate for actually discussing it,” he said.

That said, Simon, once a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, remains an astute observer and acerbic critic of media, citing the failure of mainstream media to identify those voices that would provide genuine insight into these stories, and the willingness of cable pundits to weigh in on issues about which they are at best ill informed.

“The 24-hour cable cycle is full of people who act as if they’re experts on everything. … I wish people who’d never actually covered a city would shut the f–k up sometimes,” Simon said. “Everyone’s seen enough cop shows that they think they know what policing is.”

Simon is particularly pointed, not surprisingly, in his critique of media in relation to the drug war, adding that, as a society, “We’ve used drug prohibition to stomp on our underclass.” As for a frank discussion of whether the cost of those efforts outweigh the benefits, because of the dearth of diversity at major media outlets, he said, “You couldn’t get a good argument going for 20, 30 years in these newsrooms because nobody was arguing from the point of view of what it actually was like on the street.”

Simon has enjoyed creating projects in his own protected sphere by working almost exclusively for HBO, which recently ordered two more pilots from him. The relationship, however, does come with a tradeoff: the network allows him to mine subject matter that interests him – who else would greenlight six hours on public housing, he concedes – but the distribution limits of the premium space, along with the material’s ambitious nature, blunts its reach.

When it was suggested Simon’s productions have brought more nuance to some of these complicated matters than most news coverage, he said wryly, “I can bring a nuance to it. Regrettably, not an audience.”

Not that he’s complaining. As Simon noted, if he wrote a book about these topics, selling 100,000 or 200,000 copies would put him on the New York Times bestseller list. On HBO, with multiple airings and demand platforms, several million people might watch even a relatively low-rated production.

“HBO has given me this much (latitude), and I’m grateful for it,” he said. “These guys are like the Medicis, from my point of view.”

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