I live in Charlottesville, VA, which is a big-time literary town. A long list of writers call this area home, including John Grisham and Rita Dove. There are many more. The town hosts an annual printgasm known as the Festival of the Book, with lectures, readings, book signings, etc. The fest coincides with the first blush of spring in this notoriously beautiful area, so it’s an incredible way to spend a few days.
This year one of the keynote presentations featured David Simon and George Pelecanos, discussing their experiences in writing the HBO series The Wire. The show has been rightly praised as the best show on television, and I attended the lecture hoping to gain some insight as to how these two men were able to get such an iconoclastic idea on the air, even at Home Box Office. I was not disappointed.
Rather than try to synthesize the moderated Q & A into an article, I’m going to present the most interesting Qs and distill the A from what both writers said.
Q: Why not follow one storyline or set of characters? The show’s creators imagined this as a novelistic exploration of the problems we face as a society. They found them all contained in the city of Baltimore. That thematic thread binds together the seasons, which jump around between cops, criminals, education, politics, and (upcoming) the media.
Q: How did you get HBO on board with this notion? They didn’t. They sold season one in toto as a cops and robbers show. After that season was a modest success, Simon returned for a second season pitch in which he laid out his true vision for the story arc. Everyone in the room chuckled when he recalled an HBO suit complaining “Wait… is that the same show we bought?”
Q: How do you get the dialogue right? Writer Ed Burns was a member of the Baltimore police force. After retiring, he became a teacher in the Baltimore school system. His familiarity with cops, criminals, and kids from the area really helps. The most interesting part of the answer to this question was the notion that cops have a slang that is peculiar to them, and a little outdated. There was a lot of nuance to picking the right slang elements to include in dialogue. They noted that they try to avoid flash-in-the pan slang terms, because they make an episode seem out of date within about six months.
Q: Why don’t you use/why did you kill my favorite character? Several reasons. Because these guys do die. Because no matter how beloved, a character gets stale if he/she is used too much. Simon referred to his time with the show Homicide when the Pembleton character in the box with a suspect became the dominant paradigm of the show. The show as a whole was not an audience favorite, so Simon was not able to deviate much from what was working, but he did win the battle to incapacitate Andre Braugher’s character with a stroke, essentially taking away the tools that made him formidable (intellect and speech) for one season. With The Wire it was known from day one that audience demand would not drive character actions. The writers actually used the term “We were determined to give viewers what they need, instead of what they want”.
Other memorable discussions:
As much as viewers like the McNulty character, he was in danger of becoming a one-note drone. In real life, this type of guy is a Don Quixote, trying to do a job that is full of sleaze and bring down a hydra by cutting off just one of its heads. These guys don’t win in real life. The writers made a conscious choice to keep the character on a back burner for a while in order to make him more multifaceted later on. The line was “In order to build his character, we had to make him disappear for a while”. When one female audience member bemoaned the lack of McNulty, Simon said “You’re leaning into the punch that makes network television so predictable”. Great line.
In general, this was a wonderful way to present the topic. The two writers sat at a table in a modest performance venue on Charlottesville’s downtown mall, and the place was packed. Since we weren’t on grounds of the University, it was nice to be able to buy a beer at the bar and sit back and just listen to the speakers as if it were an extended episode of public radio’s Fresh Air. While I long ago gave up any pretense of writing fiction or screenplays, I still learned a lot about how to write, and how to make decisions that might be painful in the short run that are right for the long-term health of a project, by listening to these two veterans.
This is exactly the kind of thing I love about living in a college town. I get a decent amount of intellectual stimulation, good music, and unique events without the hassle of living in a city.
Get Hip to the Charlottesville literary scene by reading Cville Words
. They really delve in and explain this town’s love of words far better than I can.
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