In praise of the man behind The Wire
ONCE upon a time, making television drama was a pretty straightforward business. Everybody knew their job and everybody knew their place.
In America, writers spent years at the bottom of the food chain. They were hired hands who could be dismissed with a snap of the fingers.
The climate for writers was more favourable in Britain, where a name like Nigel Kneale or Dennis Potter in the credits was sometimes enough to draw an audience.
Back in the US, directors ranked higher than writers, but not by much. They too were disposable and replaceable. The ones with the real clout were the producers and executive producers (the distinction is often blurred), yet even these were ultimately at the mercy of the TV network bosses.
As American television in the black-and-white era evolved into a writer’s medium, some writers became writer-producers with hitherto unprecedented levels of power and creative control.
The supreme example was the great Rod Serling, whose personal views and liberal political and social concerns shaped every aspect of his most famous creation, The Twilight Zone (1959-64). As well as producing the series, the prolific Serling wrote 92 of the 156 episodes and hired like-minded writers to pen the rest.
If Serling, who died in 1975 at the age of just 50, were around today, he’d be called a showrunner, a term that only came into use in America in the 1990s.
It took a bit longer for it to spread to the rest of the world. The first British television writer-producer I recall being referred to by the media as a showrunner was Russell T Davies, who successfully relaunched Doctor Who in 2005 and has rejoined it in a bid to reverse its dwindling fortunes.
To people whose interest in television goes beyond the genre, the story and the star names in the cast, showrunners such as Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), Jesse Armstrong (Succession), Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Bridgerton) and, in Britain, Davies and Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty, Bodyguard) have become household names.
Sometimes, though, with great power comes great self-indulgence. In 2018, Netflix announced it had struck a deal with Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story) for a whopping $300m (€280) over five years.
Four years into the deal, Murphy’s most notable Netflix accomplishments are the silly alt-history miniseries Hollywood and the wretched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel Ratched, two of the biggest piles of steaming crap I’ve ever had to sit through — holding my nose all the way.
You’ll never see Netflix offering a $300m deal to David Simon, even though there’s no showrunner working in television who would deserve it more. He wouldn’t be interested, anyway. He’s publicly expressed his dislike of the Netflix data-based model, in which the only thing that counts is the size of the audience.
If Simon’s The Wire had been on Netflix rather than HBO — the only broadcaster he’s worked with since 2000 — it would have been cancelled after the first season.
The Wire never once broke the 4.5 million viewers barrier. During its fifth and final season, it frequently struggled to hit a million viewers.
But HBO loyally stuck with Simon and he loyally stuck with them, from The Corner (2000) through The Wire (2002-08), Generation Kill (2008), Treme (2010-13), Show Me a Hero (2015), The Deuce (2017-19), The Plot Against America (2020) up to his latest, the real-life police corruption miniseries We Own This City
Simon is the greatest writer-producer (the greatest showrunner, if you wish) working in US television, and has been for two decades. He makes TV that’s actually about something: people, politics, society, human nature.
He can be righteously angry, but he’s always compassionate, humane and sympathetic. He’s the kind of sane voice America, damaged and tearing itself apart, needs.
The Wire never won an Emmy, yet we’re still talking about it 20 years after it premiered. How many of Simon’s more over-rewarded peers will we be talking about 20 years from now?