Writer, producer, and former The Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon spent most of the 21st century’s first decade making the ambitious, novelistic HBO drama The Wire, which ran from 2002 to 2008. Pre-Wire, in 2000, he and David Mills adapted The Corner: A Year In The Life Of An Inner-City Neighborbood, a nonfiction book Simon wrote with his frequent collaborator, novelist Ed Burns. Immediately after The Wire, in 2008, HBO aired Generation Kill, Simon and Burns’ adaptation of Evan Wright’s report on the U.S. Marines’ run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
In other words: David Simon had one hell of a run in the 2000s, bringing his skills as a journalist and his frustration with faltering American institutions to bear on some uncommonly sophisticated television. The Wire in particular is an unparalleled masterpiece, detailing the inextricable interconnectedness of gangsters and government; Generation Kill today seems unsettlingly prescient in its depiction of a massive military force defined more by arrogance than accountability.
And yet it’s possible Simon’s output in the 2010s eclipses what came before.
This April 11th marks the 10th anniversary of the premiere of Treme, the New Orleans-set ensemble drama that Simon co-created with Eric Overmyer, as his big, sweeping follow-up to The Wire. The show ran for four seasons, and drew a fiercely devoted following, albeit a small one. In 2015, Simon returned with Show Me A Hero, a six-part miniseries (co-written with William F. Zorzi) about the fight over desegregating housing in Yonkers, New York. Then Simon rounded out the decade by collaborating with George Pelecanos on The Deuce, a lightly fictionalized journey through the pornography and prostitution business in New York City’s Times Square, from the ’70s to the ’80s.
None of these series ever had the buzz of The Wire, which itself always under-performed with viewers and awards voters. But they all expanded on the ideas in Simon’s ’00s work in unexpected ways—largely by shaking loose of genre altogether. While it’s true that The Wire was always more than just a cop show, and Generation Kill more than just a war story, it’s even harder to pin down where any of Simon’s recent shows fit, genre-wise.
What is Treme, for example? A drama, sure. But it’s not a drama in the way that This Is Us is a drama, or Pose, The Crown, Downton Abbey, or Mad Men (to name a few of the non-genre shows nominated for “Outstanding Drama Series” during the 2010s). It doesn’t have an episodic plot, and it’s low on startling “wow” moments. Even though it’s populated by some of the finest actors of this era—Khandi Alexander, Kim Dickens, Wendell Pierce, Steve Zahn, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Clarke Peters, and more—Treme has the structure and perhaps even the intent of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, capturing life as it unfolds.
Specifically, Treme is set in the months and years following Hurricane Katrina; and it covers different aspects of New Orleans after the deluge. Chefs, musicians, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, activists, and cops all cross paths, as they struggle to resume jobs, relationships, and personal missions that in some cases were pretty tenuous even before the levees broke. There are some gripping individual struggles throughout the four-year, 38-episode run of Treme, and some small triumphs alongside scenes of pain and loss. But these stories play out mostly in the casual interactions between the characters, in scenes unrushed and unassuming.
It’s not hard to say what Treme is “about,” because as a former journalist, Simon rarely buries a lede. The show is blunt at times about racial and class divisions, and about the multiple ways that the residents of a city can provide a civic service. But the atmosphere and the cultural traditions of New Orleans are more foregrounded than the themes. Ultimately this is a snapshot of people caught in the quietly heroic act of being present, whether they’re cooking a meal or playing a tune or arguing in the street.
Perhaps because it’s just a six-hour miniseries—and perhaps because it tells a true story—Show Me A Hero is more direct in its approach than Treme. While it too has an impressive ensemble cast, it’s primarily focused on one character: Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac. Elected mayor of Yonkers in 1987 at only age 28—after campaigning to fight against court-ordered public housing—Wasicsko abandoned his platform upon realizing that resisting legal compliance could bankrupt the city. The angry voters that swept him into office quickly revolted; and he spent most of his two-year term arguing with his city council and his constituents, trying to get them both to think pragmatically.
Typical of a Simon production, Show Me A Hero ventures well beyond city hall. Each of the six episodes spends some time with the white and Black citizens on either side of the integration debate, taking their respective concerns seriously. We see middle-class white voters who’ve become increasingly obstinate and unrepentant, after decades of being called bigots for resisting social progress; and we see Black voters who’ve become cynical and exhausted, after hearing a litany of empty promises from opportunistic politicians.
Isaac embodies the contradictions of this situation well. He plays Wasicsko as optimistic, ambitious, good-humored, and a little underhanded. Like a lot of people who are hungry for power—and not necessarily committed to any ideals—Isaac’s Nick quickly learns that while it’s easy to whip up a mob, it’s almost impossible to control one. How he responds to a mess partly of his own making is what gives this miniseries its tension and its heart.
Simon himself would probably be the first to point out that Show Me A Hero was in no way an auteur project. Throughout his TV career, Simon has favored collaboration—most notably with Nina K. Noble, his co-producer on all of his shows. In this case, key contributors included Isaac, Lisa Belkin (the reporter who wrote the original book about the Yonkers hubbub), Gail Mutrux (the producer who sent Simon that book), William F. Zorzi (the co-writer who took the lead on developing the miniseries for over a decade), and director Paul Haggis (the controversial, Oscar-winning Crash writer-director who helmed every episode).
It’s also worth noting just who Simon has worked with over the years. On The Wire, he invited in some of the most acclaimed crime novelists of this century: Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos. He also hired women and people of color to direct episodes. In the 2010s, the directing roster on Simon shows has remained culturally diverse; and the writing pool has broadened too.
This made a huge difference on The Deuce. Simon and Pelecanos set themselves a difficult task with this show, taking stories about the history of sex work in New York City and putting them in front of a modern audience with a lot of opinions about the differences between personal sexual liberty and exploitation. Allowing different kinds of perspectives into the writers’ room and into the director’s chair defused some potential complaints.
It helped that The Deuce didn’t shy away from its more disturbing elements. Unlike some stories about adult entertainment that make the erotic seem cutesy or alien, The Deuce was always bracingly explicit, conveying both the sleazy appeal of illicit sex and the many problems it can cause. By the end of its three seasons—spanning about 15 years of the Times Square smut business, plus a modern-day epilogue—the show had touched on drug abuse, sexual violence, AIDS, racism, gentrification, and the countless ways the moneyed class squeezes their best earners.
Like Treme, the narrative here is scattered between about a dozen major characters. One, though, arguably matters the most to the series’ overall thrust… and it’s not the one HBO pushed when The Deuce debuted.
Though the show was pitched to the public back in 2017 as the story of mobbed-up twin brothers (both played by James Franco), The Deuce’s most consistently powerful performance came from Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing the complicated Eileen “Candy” Merrell. A sex worker who becomes a porn star, and then a porn director, and then an aggressively feminist experimental filmmaker, Candy struggles always to remain independent, while also owning her fascination with the dynamics of human lust. But she also can’t shake her fear that by mass-marketing sexuality, she’s debased it—and in the process has made the world of sex worse for women.
If there’s one idea that winds through Simon’s shows in the 2010s, it’s that good intentions rarely survive the grinding, torturous process of scaling up. That’s mainly because the system—and its underlying power structures—will always defend itself ferociously against any attempt at radical change.
This new decade is beginning with another Simon HBO miniseries: an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, co-created with Ed Burns. It’s the first fiction adaptation for Simon. It’s also the first show from him that ventures into the fantastical, imagining what life might’ve been like for a typical New Jersey Jewish family in the early 1940s… if a Nazi-sympathizing antisemite had won the U.S. presidency. Though the source material comes almost entirely from Roth’s imagination (and some of the author’s personal experiences), the story very much aligns with what seems to be Simon’s worldview. In The Plot Against America, it’s in the wealthy’s best interests not to rock the boat, and so the country mostly just keeps rolling on as usual, even with a fascist in charge.
Bleak? Sure. But not hopeless. Whatever pessimism Simon and his collaborators may feel toward the prospect of positive, wide-scaled social progress, they do express a persistent faith in people like Show Me A Hero’s Nick and Deuce’s Eileen: to evolve, to learn, and to reach out to others. In fact, if there’s any lesson to take from Simon’s 2010s TV shows, it’s that no matter who’s running the world, nothing’s ever stopping us from being creative, or being kind, or finding good people to work alongside. Even if we can’t turn this ship around, we can at least keep nudging the wheel.