I have a certain amount of indifference to the idea of the average viewer,” says David Simon.
After all, he did create The Wire, which mined the underside of Baltimore to expose the desolation of the American dream, not exactly a show for the masses.
Simon's latest journey out of the ordinary is Generation Kill, a dizzyingly realistic examination of military culture, a distinct milieu with its own at times impenetrable language and codes. The seven-hour HBO miniseries is an adaptation of Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright's Iraq War diary.
Generation Kill follows the highly skilled Marines' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion through the first 40 days of the Iraq War. The 1st Recon Battalion's mission was to advance north from Camp Mathilda in Kuwait, securing the most treacherous route to Baghdad.
Traditionally, Recon Marines are not deployed for combat missions. Their expertise lies in stealth operations. But in Iraq, they were ordered to race headlong into combat—in tin-plated open-air Humvees. This misuse of resources is at the heart of the series and provides Simon a through-line that will be familiar to viewers of The Wire: characters futilely fighting the bureaucracy in which they are trapped.
Taxpayers long ago became disillusioned with a war that is estimated to cost them close to $3 trillion. At the beginning of 2007, Iraq accounted for nearly 20% of the top stories at major media outlets, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. By the last three months of 2007 that had dropped to 9%. So far this year that has declined to 3%.
“I think people are very alienated from this war,” says Simon. “We have opted out from almost any connection to it.”
This is the environment of indifference in which Simon and HBO executives find themselves. Never mind that Generation Kill was greenlighted before the wave of Iraq War dramatizations came and went on TV (Over There) and movie screens (Rendition, Redacted).
“I can't say that we're not a little concerned about it,” concedes Kary Antholis, senior VP of miniseries for HBO Films.
Antholis, who brought Wright's book to Simon in early 2005, recognized Kill as a meditation on war stripped to its banal essence. “The way that [Generation Kill] came out creatively,” Antholis says, “I just hope we can find an audience because it's that good. I hope that that rises to the surface along with a sense that we're not paying enough attention to what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Simon's nuanced exploration of societies can be too esoteric for some viewers. Homicide, Simon's first series, was never a ratings hit. The Wire reached a fraction of the viewers of HBO's other signature series, The Sopranos and Sex and the City.
Simon is developing multiple projects for HBO, including a movie about the addict who robbed drug dealers who was the inspiration for Omar Little in The Wire and a drama about the musical and sociopolitical dynamics of New Orleans. He received notes on the latter's pilot script, he says, and turned in a revised version recently. If he gets the green light, Simon hopes to start shooting in New Orleans this fall.
Before he was interrupted by Generation Kill, Simon and Bill Zorzi, who worked at the Baltimore Sun with Simon, were writing scripts for an HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero, based on Lisa Belkin's book about desegregation efforts in Yonkers, N.Y. With echoes of Boston's forced-busing crisis, the story is a sociological examination of race, class and municipal incompetence—not exactly feel-good blockbuster material, but well suited to Simon's style of “immersion” television.
“There are two ways of making television,” Simon explains. “You either lean back on the sofa and watch passively, or you lean forward and try to think about what you're watching. And we're trying to make the second type of television.”