Now it's official: 'The Wire' is a work of genius

David Simon, the show's creator, has been awarded a grant normally reserved for pioneering scientists

Fans all over the world have been saying it for years. But now David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the hit television show that took us into Baltimore's drug-addled underworld over five seasons and 60 episodes, has it in writing from as unimpeachable a source as you could think of: he is a genius.

More precisely, he has been given one of 23 grants handed out this year by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Each grant bestows a foundation fellowship on the winner and pays them $500,000 (£300,000) over five years. And because they are handed out to an unpredictable list of brilliant people with no specific entry process or criteria, they have earned a simple nickname that indicates the extraordinary prestige attached: the "genius" grants.

A mildly astonished Simon struggled to come to terms with the honour yesterday. "I've looked at past years' lists and there are people contending with fundamental environmental issues and trying to deal with socio-economic inequality – real tangible, make-the-world-better stuff," he told the Los Angeles Times. "So while I value storytelling, I feel a little bit of a nagging notion of shame pulling on my shirtsleeves."

While production ended more than two years ago, The Wire still has a fiercely loyal following. It achieved a reach comparable to hits like The West Wing even though its subject matter was often dark and jarring. For the city of Baltimore it was advertising that no tourist office would commission.

Simon was one in a typically diverse range of winners. Those honoured yesterday also included David Cromer, an actor and director well known for his commitment to revivals of classics and off-Broadway productions in New York, as well as a sculptor, an animator, a fiction writer and notable scientists specialising in fields as diverse as tumour growth and DNA research.

"They are explorers and risk takers, contributing to their fields and to society in innovative, impactful ways," the MacArthur Foundation's president, Robert Gallucci, said. "They provide us all with inspiration and hope for the future." MacArthur was an insurance tycoon and philanthropist who died in 1978.

There are no strings attached to the money, allowing recipients full leeway on how they spend it. Simon indicated yesterday that his first instinct was to give it to charities, most probably organisations committed to improving the inner city in Baltimore, where he lives when he is not shooting new episodes of the television series Treme in New Orleans.

Cromer joked that he plans to spend the cash on buying cake. Taking a more serious tone, he said having the grant will enable him to think of projects that may be more artistically than commercially viable. "It purchases you freedom," he noted. "I can do things now that aren't necessarily going to generate income."

Simon concurred. The Foundation's "stamp of approval makes it easier to argue for other stories that might not otherwise get told by the entertainment industry," he commented. "That's very valuable." He went on: "It makes it easier to go into the room with the network and argue against doing the usual thing in television."

And he does have plans. With Ed Burns, with whom he co-created The Wire, he is exploring a project centred on the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in 1880, which profoundly coloured the American union movement, as well as what he calls a long-term effort to develop scripts about the birth of the CIA in 1947. And he says he is working on a book about the drug economy in Baltimore in the Fifties and Sixties.

The Foundation cited Simon for his full opus of television dramas, saying that they viewed urban life "through the lens of a hard-edged, cautiously optimistic realism".

Cromer, 45, is best remembered in New York for staging Thornton Wilder's Our Town, on an off-Broadway stage with a hugely successful two-year run that ended just three weeks ago. He is now preparing a revival of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth on Broadway to open a year from now starring Nicole Kidman. He was cited for "reinvigorating classic American plays with a spirit and urgency that eschews nostalgia and provides audiences with unexpectedly fresh and compelling theatrical experiences".

Genius grants: Five more MacArthur winners

Jason Moran, jazz pianist

The 35-year-old draws on music from across genres, incorporating elements from classical to rock and funk, to create his distinctive jazz sound. He cites the hip-hop group Public Enemy as one of his great influences for fusing music with social commentary. Moran, from New York, has also incorporated new technology for imaginative multimedia performances. He has been described by The New York Times as one of the most independent minds working in jazz.

Matthew Carter, font designer

The oldest of the grant recipients at 72, Carter, who is British, is one of the most celebrated font designers. He has created 250 individual fonts, including such universally used styles as Georgia and Verdana, with what the designers called "staggering" variety. In reaction to his award, he reflected: "They're saying to me, you've done all this work... Now do more. Do better. It's very nice at my age to be told by someone that we expect more from you."

Carole Padden, sign language analyst

No deaf person has ever won a MacArthur grant before. Padden, 55, became the first thanks to her work as an analyst of the evolution of sign languages. Known in particular for work on a Bedouin sign language used in a remote part of Israel, she "demystifies" her subject, the citation for the grant says, "and opens windows of understanding". Padden says that the award "will help me do the kind of work that I've dreamed about doing".

Marla Spivak, entomologist

The title barely captures Marla Spivak's work: it is her job to protect the honey bee from destruction by disease. Her research has led her to breed much hardier varieties of a species essential to agriculture – and she has educated beekeepers around the world. She called the award "a huge opportunity" that would allow her to implement her ideas "in much more creative ways".

Kelly Benoit-Bird, marine biologist

She uses sophisticated sound equipment to examine the behaviour of ocean creatures and to address long-unanswered questions about how the food chain works under the waves. The use of sonar equipment allows scientists to map the movement of animals at depths where humans are unable to go. By doing so, the aim is to unravel some of the mysteries of the food web in the sea and work out how changes to habitat can affect this. Her work has included investigating how dolphins hunt their prey in small co-ordinated groups. Explaining her work, Ms Benoit-Bird, 34, said: "I'm interested in how they make a living, how they find their food, while they try to avoid becoming someone else's food."