Justifying David Simon


Last week, the TV-themed corners of the Internets were all atwitter around a pair of interviews David Simon gave, first to The New York Times, then to Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. I won’t try to summarize them fully, but I did want to weigh in on one of Simon’s core arguments about the place of episodic criticism. (Note: as I was writing this, Noel Murray posted his own take about this and related issues at The A.V. Club – like nearly everything Noel writes, I recommend it, and in this case, agree with pretty much all of it, so please read it!)

Part of Simon’s gripe is his annoyance over Grantland’s “Best Wire Character” bracket, especially in the site’s silly write-ups, if not the fan voting itself—even though I did vote (Bubbles 4EVA!), I agree about the way that type of fandom missed the point of the series. More interesting is his critique that weekly reviews of long-form serialized television often misconstrue a series, lacking the perspective of how any episode or plotline fits into the whole. I fully agree with his points on this for many series (including Simon’s own), where the long arcs often include moments in earlier episodes that might be less than satisfying or clear without the context of the whole. This is not to say there is no use for episodic reviews, which function (as Noel expresses eloquently) more as sites of conversation than definitive assessment. And as a media scholar, I find those in-the-moment evaluations and conversations essential windows into reception practices—what I wouldn’t have given to be able to look at such evidence from earlier programs in television history that I’ve written about, like Soap or Dragnet! But the rush to judgment, and the associated critical consensus that can develop around a show from week to week can be more damaging than illuminating to understanding the larger picture in the moment.

Case in point: Justified. Yesterday saw the conclusion of the third season, ending in a fantastic episode that brought together many of the season’s diverse plot threads and wove them into an emotionally powerful tapestry about fathers and sons, family, and going home. Before the finale, the online critical consensus was that season 3 was a let down from season 2’s superb tale of the Bennett crime family, with too many competing criminals and lack of thematic consistency. While I actually liked the season overall more than many critics, as I always found the performances compelling and the moment-to-moment dialogue and tone so pleasurable, there was a real sense of concern in the critical sphere of “what happened to Justified?” and could it regain its footing next year. But in the wake in the seemingly universal praise of the finale, perhaps those critics and commenters should revise their assessments of the show’s strengths. At least I would hope that they would notice how the themes and threads were subtly there throughout, even if they were not always apparent in the moment – I certainly have thought back on previous episodes and reconsidered how Arlo’s ramblings, Quarles’s backstory, and Winona’s pregnancy all relate in ways that I’d never picked up on.

My own experience doing weekly reviews is modest, as I blogged the final season of Lost for Antenna. In that process, I kept wanting to put a pin in certain moments and plotlines, withholding judgment until the final revelations help explain what we were watching and why. Certainly many people felt let down by Lost‘s finale, and I would argue in large part it was due to so much weight being put upon that reveal of the sideways universe’s true meaning, and the concept couldn’t quite support that much pressure. While I loved the opportunity to pontificate & converse about the show each week, I also saw how that evaluative context changed my reactions and expectations in ways that I might wish it had not.

There is no “pure” way to watch a program, but that doesn’t mean that all contexts and practices have equal impact – writing and reading episodic reviews, and engaging in such sites of conversation, changes our expectations and experiences in palpable ways. Some shows benefit from that – from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like Mad Men does, and I’d say that many comedies do as well – but others can get mired down in parsing out details or filling in gaps that we might need to reevaluate down the road. But two things that online culture is particularly poor at is withholding judgment and reevaluating experiences, as people tend to double down on their own perspectives more often than not. There is no simple answer here, as the benefits of weekly reviewing & conversations are compelling enough to keep going, and I’ll still read & write them. But I’d hope we could all dial down the absolutism, and try to step back and imagine larger contexts, and be open to them when they reveal themselves, rather than needing to revise our earlier scorn (or praise) in light of how things end up.

UPDATE:  Check out Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent response to a number of pieces, including my own. And if you want some excellent Wire criticism that definitely looks at the series as a whole, watch Erlend Javik’s great video essay:

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/39768998]

6 Responses to “Justifying David Simon”

  1. 1 Scott Ellington

    I think Simon said a boatload of interesting things, and several fascinating points were raised in these four illuminating articles, for which I thank you. As the dust and indignation settle, I think a couple of the less-obvious issues want revisiting:
    The defective mechanisms with which broadcast and cable networks assess the “value” of television shows remain mysterious, and the traditional requirements (prompt butts in seats weekly…) that enable an audience to show its support have begun to seem a trifle counterproductive to the production/appreciation of complex narrative.
    David Milch wrote offensive, profane dialogue into the mouths of members of an illegal community in Deadwood, and David Simon did something remarkably similar in Generation Kill. The reasons to employ abusive language may seem, on close inspection, to be dissimilar, but provocative remarks (in both story-cases) served to bond survivors together in the absence of a higher authority — which relates directly to the provocative remarks Simon made in the continuing exploration of complex narrative at this unpredictable frontier where new and old social media meet.

  2. 2 RachelIBK

    Hi Jason,
    thanks for your post and the helpful links. Simon’s most recent comments bring up two big questions for me.

    1. After a piece of art is created, does the creator have a right to try to dictate its reception? Do you we need to listen to what Simon says about the show, in order to “understand” it?

    2. Related, doesn’t it seem like Simon has a very strict guidelines for how Wire fans should watch and respond to the show? He claims at one point during HitFix interview that he doesn’t have a certain viewer in mind, but is just “trying to tell a story.” It’s a bit problematic then to turn around after the show is made and claim that the folks at Grantland are essentially “doin’ it wrong.” I think (and he has said elsewhere) that Simon certainly has a viewer in mind, one who’s not into the playfulness of online brackets, or the hermeneutics of academia, or any such nonsense. Nope, he’s writing for the cops, and drug dealers, and dock workers (or so he’s said in other interview) who really “get” the world of The Wire. And as much as I think this aim has made the show a triumph of detail and nuance, I can’t help but thinks his posturing smacks of reverse snobism. These definitions of what’s “good” and “bad” viewership and fandom seems to me limiting and exclusionary, which seems to go against some of the impulses in the show.

    • 1. A creator has no right to “dictate” a work’s reception, but s/he also has no obligation to shut up about it either. Simon is free to say what he wants, and we can choose whether to agree, to listen, or to mock. Once it’s out there, it’s all fair game, but I think creators can & sometimes should weigh in – not to limit & fix meaning, but to participate in the conversation.

      2. I see it more as Simon highlighting that he & his collaborators made the show to appeal to a particular audience who cared about urban life & that he doesn’t really get how one would come away from the show with the grand takeaway that “Omar is cool” (while acknowledging that Omar is, in fact, cool). I think it’s less attempting to police the boundaries of reception than commenting on what people are saying, and reminding us about his not-at-all obscure intents to subvert the glorification of either criminal or cop that such brackets (and more so the stupid Grantland write-ups about the characters) seem to miss. It’s also important to remember the context of the first interview: he was being asked about Richard Price’s new show, and the discussion diverged into the bracket stuff – it’s not like he went on the offensive to the press. And then when he read how the interview was edited, he reached out to Sepinwall to clarify things.

      I have more to say about authorial discourse & intent in the Authorship chapter of Complex TV – coming soon to a website near you!

  3. 4 RachelIBK

    Hi Jason,

    On Number 1, point taken. Number 2, I still have some reservations. I think Simon has every right to point out what his (and Price’s and Lehane’s, etc) central concerns were when making the show. I’m just not sure that something like the fan pool precludes a serious consideration of the series as a whole. Simon has always been very clear about what he was trying to say with the show, but I guess I have issues with his repeated characterization of The Wire against other TV, and his assertation that most shows pander to the low common denominator. Give that episode structure and deep character development are hallmarks of TV, it seems like his problem is with the way people typically respond to shows. Yes, The Wire is different from a lot of TV and it trying to do some very new things. But it’s still a television show, released in individual episodes and with deeply drawn characters. It may not be policing reception, but it does come across as a kind of disdain for the form of television, which is a pity coming from a man who has made some of the best TV around. It makes sense that someone with a critical perspective would be to create something that often feels new and innovative, but it also shows a bit of narrow-minded, outdated thinking about what TV “is”.

  1. 1 Girls and the Jump to Judge « Just TV
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