Baltimorean David Simon, whose groundbreaking television series "The Wire" examined the institutions of his hometown with a passionate and unsparing eye, today won a 2010 MacArthur "genius" award.
The 50-year-old Simon is one of only a few people ever to receive one of the prestigious fellowships for work in television. The MacArthur carries a $500,000, no-strings-attached grant parceled out over five years.
"The great value of this award is that it will make it easier for all of us to argue for stories that might not otherwise be perceived as popular television," Simon said.
"I can't wave around Nielsen ratings and I can't wave around Emmy awards when I want to get these stories told. An award like this gives us more gravitas. It gives us a little more currency. And it indicates that this medium of television is capable of much more social good than has been demonstrated to this point."
Simon hasn't decided yet what to do with his financial windfall, but hinted that he might donate all or a large chunk of it to charity.
"The entertainment industry pays quite well, so my first inclination is to pass it through and do something charitable," he said.
But Daniel Socolow, who directs the fellows program, recommended that Simon postpone his decision. In the future, Socolow told Simon, the money could come in handy to fund a project that is artistically worthy but non-commercial.
"He's been at this longer than I have, and I'm hearing what he's saying," Simon said. "But frankly, I'm still feeling some sort of impulse to pass it through in some way."
Simon is one of 23 fellows for 2010 and the only Maryland resident. Other honorees include an entomologist protecting honeybees from being decimated by disease; a linguist who studies the evolution and structure of sign languages; and a sculptor who creates seemingly lighter-than-air concoctions from marble.
"It was a little intimidating to read the list of people not engaged in something as abstract as creating a television series," Simon said, "people who are working to improve the environment, address social inequality, serve the cause of civil rights. You do feel a vague bit of shame. But I'm not about to give the award back."
Socolow described Simon as "a very powerful, searingly serious thinker and artist," and added: "David crafts richly textured narratives that engage a wide-ranging audience, and that confront some of the most daunting challenges facing America in the 21st century."
Like most of the fellows, Simon has worked in different genres. He was a full-time journalist until 1995, though he took a year's leave of absence to write a book about the people he met while covering the police beat for The Baltimore Sun. That effort, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," later inspired the famed NBC show.
Simon got his first experience in television by serving as one of "Homicide's" writers and producers. His second exposure came when he and David Mills co-wrote and produced "The Corner," a six-part miniseries (based on a book by Simon and Edward Burns) that won three Emmys.
"The Wire" was the first show for television that Simon created that wasn't based on an earlier book, and it was with "The Wire" that he solidified his position as a television auteur. Though "The Wire" never had a large audience, the viewers that it did have were enormously influential.
There were glowing reviews and profiles in publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker. College courses are being taught today on the series' social importance.
"I think 'The Wire' is by critical consensus one of the best — if not the best — American television show ever made," said Jason Mittell, an associate professor of film at Middlebury College, where he's taught a course called "Watching The Wire: Urban America in Serial Television."
" 'The Wire' is a completely new mode of storytelling for television," Mittell said.
"It took the conventions of the pop show and exploded them. Viewers spent as much time with the criminals as with the cops. Major characters were not introduced until the fifth episode.
"By the end of the first season, it was clear that 'The Wire' was neither a cops show nor a crime show but one that looked at the war on drugs, the docks, City Hall, the schools and the media. It was an urban show. And, that is a new genre for television."
Simon's portrayal of the gritty side of Charm City has been criticized by such local boosters as City Council member Catherine Pugh. In 2002, the year "The Wire" debuted, she decried "the negative images of Baltimore as portrayed in 'real-crime' fiction, TV, dramas and movies" and proposed a resolution seeking ways for the city to "project a more positive image."
But Linda Williams, a film professor at the University of California- Berkeley, thinks that complaint is short-sighted. She thinks the show helps viewers to understand and even come to respect the city and its people.
"David Simon has achieved something that never before has been achieved on television, and that I don't think will ever be achieved again," Williams said. "None of the other shows, even the good ones, explore institutions and how they connect to the characters."
Simon says in a video posted on the foundation website that the series are his "ruminations of the end of empire, what it is like for a society to no longer have the will to pull itself as a whole, as a single entity, forward. It is a recipe for the disenfranchisement of significant portions of the country, for a divorce of one America from the other."
After "The Wire" went off the air in 2008, Simon and the playwright Eric Overmyer began working on a series about how the residents of New Orleans were trying to rebuild the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"Treme" might be less epic in scope than "The Wire," but Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, thinks it is just as innovative, albeit in a different way.
"I've never seen anything like the way they have incorporated music into that show, either in television or in films," Dietz said.
"In even the great musicals, the numbers always has a tacked-on feel. But he blends music into the life of the characters and the city in a way that I've never seen before. You'll be watching a scene, and a parade will come through. Or a pickup band will play at the airport. Or the camera passes a pair of street musicians. It's so organic."
Though Simon's schedule is increasingly taking him out of town, he is working on two projects that are set in the Baltimore area: a film on an undisclosed topic that he is writing for Paramount Pictures and an HBO miniseries that he is crafting with Tom Fontana. The miniseries, he says, will look at parallels between Abraham Lincoln's assassination and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
At the moment, though, Simon is heavily involved in pre-production for shooting the second season of "Treme." So when, about 10 days ago, he received a message to call an attorney in Washington on a personal matter, winning a MacArthur was the farthest thing from his mind.
"Being a sensate human being, when I heard that a lawyer had called, I thought, 'Oh, great, this can't be good'," he said. "I thought I was being sued for something. I wondered if I could have run over someone's dog and not remembered it.
"So when I heard the news, my immediate reaction wasn't elation. It was, 'Oh, this isn't so bad. I can manage this.' It took me about a minute and a half to regroup and properly catalogue what was going on."
Simon is married to the novelist Laura Lippman, who also is a former Baltimore Sun reporter.
"Laura and I have celebrated with a certain amount of dry sarcasm," he said. "She is ready to thank the MacArthur Foundation for giving her five years of fresh material. The phrase, 'Hey, genius, you forgot to take out the trash last night,' has been uttered in my house."
Meet the 2010 fellows:
• Amir Abo-Shaeer, a California high school physics teacher.
• Jessie Little Doe Baird, an indigenous language preservationist from Massachusettes.
• Kelly Benoit-Bird, a marine biologist living in Oregon.
• Nicholas Benson, a Rhode Island stone carver.
• Drew Berry, a biomedical animator living in Melbourne, Australia.
• Carlos D. Bustamente, a population geneticist in California.
• Matthew Carter, a Massachusetts type designer.
• David Cromer, a New York theater director.
• John Dabiri, a biophysicist from California.
• Shannon Lee Dawdy, an anthropologist living in Illinois.
• Annette Gordon-Reed, a Massachusetts historian.
• Yiyun Li, a fiction writer from California.
• Michal Lipson, an optical physicist from New York.
• Nergis Mavalvala, a quantum astrophysicist from Massachusetts.
• Jason Moran, a New York jazz pianist and composer.
• Carol Padden, a sign language linguist in California.
• Jorge Pardo, a California installation artist.
• Sebastian Ruth, a violist, violinist and music educator from Rhode Island.
• Emmanuel Saez, an economist living in California.
• David Simon, creator of the Baltimore television series "Homicide," "The Corner" and "The Wire."
• Dawn Song, a California computer security specialist.
• Marla Spivak, an entomologist from Minnesota.
• Elizabeth Turk, a sculptor in Atlanta.