Critic's Notebook: The Next Great TV Drama of Our Time Is Right Under David Simon's Nose

The recent New York Times story on the history of alt-right extremism and homegrown American terrorism needs to be told on the small screen immediately — and the 'Wire' mastermind is just the man to do it.
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Paging David Simon...

There's a job waiting for David Simon when he finishes the third and final season of The Deuce for HBO. He's so perfect for this new series, because it has the chance to be The Wire 2.0, a game-changer of enormous foresight and such urgency that it can't wait to exist — a series that takes place in the streets and towns of America, involves local law enforcement and reaches up to the White House, a web of historically important storytelling that will be as culturally and sociologically transformative as Simon's The Corner and The Wire put together.

And yet, in a perfect world, there are going to be dozens of talented, visionary writers lining up — starting last week if there's an actual God in this world — to pitch this story to HBO or FX or Netflix or Amazon in a time-frame that can't wait for The Deuce to be finished; it's the most important story in America right now.

That series? The fictional version of the harrowing, exhaustively detailed and ominous story from Janet Reitman in The New York Times on the rise of alt-right extremists, homegrown terrorism and the various national and local agencies that let it fester, the president who fanned its flames and the root causes of its existence that ultimately revealed that our fractured country has always been that way, will remain that way and isn't likely to change whether Donald Trump gets ousted or not.

You can make a solid argument that Reitman's New York Times story will be in the Pulitzer mix for sure, but its value goes beyond the timeline and weaving together of events that allowed violent homegrown terrorism, nationalism and virulent strains of hate to, in its words, "metastasize," creating the problem nobody seemed to want to deal with (for many intriguing reasons) — and which has spawned headline-grabbing murders from Pittsburgh to Florida to Charlottesville and beyond, with no signs of abating.

Dramatically, that's the motherlode of storylines. That takes how The Wire granularly tracked how the war on drugs transitioned to the war on terrorism and left a city and its people and institutions gridlocked and suffering — then quadruples the impact as it expands to a national scale. 

One of the dramatic appeals of writing about cops and criminals is that these are relevant stories that never seem to go away. People who watch those shows see their cities and towns, no matter where the drama is actually set. They understand good guys and bad guys and the gray areas in between that speak to survival, institutional racism and the quagmire of local politics and policing that often are overwhelmed looking for a solution.

Well, that New York Times story can't be oversold for its national relevance — it's the story of our now, our until-recently-unspoken national nightmare, our new bogeyman that crept up behind us when we were all looking at Al Qaeda and ISIS and the Middle East. It's a story so fresh, people are still in denial about it being an issue, or even existing, or being a threat that will linger beyond Trump. Great storytellers with sociopolitical vision, like Simon specifically, must see all these interwoven connections and froth at the prospect of telling a complicated, compelling fictional narrative that mirrors the non-fiction story we're living in when the television is off; it's the opportunity to create the next great drama series of their lifetime.

This is not wishful thinking. This is not a hopeful prompt for someone to step up and take the challenge. Someone is absolutely going to tell that story. The only question is how quickly they can get started on it because they're already behind, as the Times story so ominously showed.

The possibilities are endless for this potential series — and any fan of dense, well-constructed, universe-building dramatic series should be able to see those possibilities as well as root for someone talented to bring them to the small screen. Simon is the logical first choice, because his TV series have for the most part sprung from the street-level reporting he did as a journalist and the books that helped spawn those series. What he was able to do with The Wire was see the long-view of Baltimore as an ecosystem and subject matter for myriad stories, tackling drugs, gangs, cops, politics and journalism and the integrated nature of all of them. This was the guy who built a complex first season of The Wire for HBO that had, at its center, multiple storylines from the perspective of the drug dealers running their wares through the housing projects of Baltimore, as well as the cops and detectives dealing with the political pressures of the police department. And then, once that season wrapped, he had the audacity to tell HBO that season two would be about "the decline of the working class in American cities, focusing on the Baltimore waterfront and its unions." That was a foreshadowing of how Simon was universe-building to shine a light on all the strands of a city, its people and its ills, not just a guy who was writing a cop show.

In an interview I did with Simon at the ATX television festival during the summer, he talked about how he and producing partner Nina K. Noble had already written two versions — and tossed them  — of a new political drama for HBO. A third go at it was in the works (and possibly still is). Those initial scripts got tossed because the political ground is shifting faster than a story that stays believable can be created. But maybe now is the time for Simon to drop that politician-centric, Capitol Hill story and focus on something like this alt-right extremist/homegrown terrorism story, which transcends politics but also emphatically lays blame, via the Times story, at political inaction from both parties, including when Barack Obama was in charge. Here's a story so vast and current that it is bigger than just one political party because its scope reaches deep into society — into local law enforcement, the FBI, Homeland Security and other branches of security; American Nazis; Antifa; Fox News as a propaganda machine for the right; an ineffectual televised media from NBC to CBS to CNN to MSNBC that didn't have the resources or the wherewithal to tie together the rising tide of hate-filled crimes that pointed to a larger, deeper, national issue; politicians who looked the other way at policies of injustice or, worse, fanned racist, nationalistic flames to stay in power; and into small towns of America at one end and then far beyond to nationalistic politics in other countries.

It's an enormous story. Who the hell wouldn't want to tell it? 

Never mind five seasons and 50 hourlong episodes, here's a story practically begging to be dramatized for as long as any great writing staff could keep it relevant. How is this not the hottest potential property out there?

As much as Simon might be the logical and maybe the greatest fit, the issue here isn't who will write this — it's how soon can it get started and on the air. And while it would be a lot easier to make this in miniseries form, that's a wasted opportunity. This is not a small-scale story. This isn't even just any story. It's the essential American story of our current times.

Get it made.