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“The King stay the King”- D’Angelo Barksdale: A tribute to David Simon

“The King stay the King”- D’Angelo Barksdale: A tribute to David Simon

If you haven’t watched The Wire, a series that first aired on HBO in 2002, here’s some advice. Don’t. If you do, television will be ruined for you forever. The Wire created by David Simon and Ed Burns is indisputably the most intelligently written, insightful, brilliant television series in the world. Think I’m being gushy? Tell that to the academics who are responsible for having the show used as a legit college course in over four American universities.

Behind the genius of the show, which deals with different faces of the city of Baltimore through a complex web of unforgettable characters, is David Simon, a crusty, opinionated, mouthy journalist turned writer. (Side note: Journalist turned writers are the best. They make me dream of the days when people will say, “Sheena? Yes she had a pretty good byline. Damned if I knew she’d be getting the Pulitzer some day.)

The show ran for five seasons on HBO. Of course it had a strong plot, great characters and unbelievable dialogue, but lots of television has that. What makes this one stand out? It is really the story of a city, the story of terribly flawed post-modern institutions in every civilised democratic society. It explores what these flaws mean to you – no matter which team you play for – the police force, government, education, the drug racket, even the media- you’re doomed before you start out. The Wire was created, by Simon’s own admission, along the lines of a Greek tragedy. Only the vengeful Olympians were the government, the media, your high school, and the helpless mortals were protagonists who were “confronted with a rigged game and their own mortality.”

This is why I admire David Simon, based on what I’ve seen in countless viewings of The Wire.

First of all, he has something to say and he found a way to say it so that people would listen. A story is just a story but the stories that stay with you are the stories with subtext. The Wire is a great story with incredible subtext but as powerful as you find the subtext now, if Simon had to sit you down and start a five part lecture on the pitfalls of government and failings of capitalism, you’d be yawning your head off in a minute.

Second, the characters. Not only are they a million of them but each of them is painstakingly sketched out, down to the way they speak, act and think. In this interview with Nick Hornby, Simon explained how he spent years “gathering string” on politicians, drug dealers, cops and school level kids. Details are everything. Oh and here’s the other thing about his characters. None of them, not the incredible Stringer Bell, whistling Omar or the cheery Bubbles, take precedence over the plot. Characters, well loved ones, are killed sometimes, because if they had to be in a similar situation in real life, they’d die. We deal with it as viewers because we’re so drawn in by the plot, we say, “Well, he had to die. There’s no way he could have survived.”  And that’s good writing.

He also takes time with his narrative. The shape of Simons writing for the show unfolds like a novel in that he’s in no particular hurry to rush through the facts and get you from point A to B. I can’t help but compare this to what he said in his lecture on the Audacity of Denial, about the four ws and one h of newspaper reporting. “A four year old can tell you when, how, where and when. It’s the why that’s important.” In his storytelling, it’s the why that takes centre stage.

But all this is neither here nor there. The point is, David Simon wrote about a world I knew nothing about, a world that never touches any part of my life, stays outside my social, professional and personal life, never reaches my news papers or my computer, and he still drew me in and forced me to stay.

– Sheena 

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