David Simon talks 'Treme,' America, and a possible end to his TV career: 'Maybe I'm in the wrong line of work.'
Treme is not really like any other show on television. Set in the city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the series follows a huge cast of characters through myriad subplots set in the city’s overlapping cultural spheres, with regular tangents into the worlds of jazz musicians, local politicians, celebrity chefs, and even the occasional fishermen. The show was co-created by David Simon, the famously provocative TV auteur who created The Wire. Treme shares The Wire‘s symphony-of-a-city panoramic perspective. With the show returning for its third season on Sunday night, Simon got on the phone with EW to talk about the long-term plan for Treme, how post-Katrina New Orleans is an allegory for post-Recession America, and the possibility that he might move on from television.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you set the stage a little bit for season 3?
David Simon: In the third season, the money comes back. It doesn’t get to where it’s supposed to go, of course. That would be too much like right. The first season was about the people coming back, the second season the crime came back, and the third season, the money starts to show up. The money that was promised long ago. How that money routed itself, or didn’t, is the theme of the season in some ways.
What’s also depicted in season 3 is the journalism that ultimately resulted, many years after Katrina, in a string of prosecutions. There was an inertia on the part of the NOPD to investigate itself, and on the part of the federal government to investigate the NOPD. Google A.C. Thompson, and you’ll know what happens in ’07-’08, in terms of his work for Pro Publica and The Nation magazine. A.C. was a consultant on the season with us, and the journalism depicted is the precise arc of what he did in order to progress his stories.
Last season, the new character Nelson Hidalgo seemed like a stand-in for the flow of money into New Orleans.
That character and several others are, I think, indicative, of the disaster capitalism that the country’s become very accustomed to. If you look at the manner in which capital has affixed itself to policy, in terms of everything from our overseas wars to domestic policy, and how much money there is to be made in the wake of trauma and disaster, and how little is often accomplished — that dynamic was evident in post-Katrina history.
Nelson Hidalgo finds any number of allies. And sometimes, the allies are local or federal. Sometimes, the dynamic involves somebody having some genuine ambition to do something worthy. Sometimes not. Sometimes, a genuine ambition was the point of origin, but it soon fell by the wayside. At other points, there was no honest ambition to begin with. It was just an opportunity to put your hand in the next guy’s pocket.
The show blends a very macro look at societal shifts with assorted smaller subplots — like, can Davis McAlary get a job, or can Sonny clean himself up? Is it difficult to strike that balance as the show becomes more expansive?
We’re wedded to the idea of ordinary people being our frame of reference. The reason for doing Treme in the first place was: What happened in New Orleans after the flood was entirely allegorical to what’s happened to the country. We’re all in the same dynamic. In New Orleans, it might have been flood control, and it might have been disaster capitalism, and it might’ve been civic institutions that weren’t functioning, or were actually malevolent, in the case of the police department or the corrupt political infrastructure. But Americans have been experiencing the same thing for the last decade, in terms of our financial structures, and the fraud and the dystopia inherent in everything from Wall Street to corporate pay.
Our own political infrastructure seems utterly incapable of reform. Americans have been bereft over the last decade of any means of control over their destiny. That’s the general feeling on the part of a lot of people: A certain alienation from American civic institutions, and economic institutions. That is where we find ourselves, after the last decade. Well, New Orleans got there first, and got there very bluntly, on the heels of an occurrence that began with the hurricane.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, since the third season of Treme is set in 2007 — before the start of the Recession.
That’s the reason to do season 4. The allegory is revealed. You get to the fall of Lehman Brothers, and the collapse of the market, and the sudden realization that people were selling s— and calling it gold, which profoundly affected the world economy. The gamesmanship that you’re witnessing in microcosm in New Orleans in these years is entirely allegorical for what the country is about to discover about itself.
If you think about The Wire, or anything that’s truly long-form, where you’re building one season on the next, you’re trying to stay thematic, but you must begin at the small points of people’s lives. As those lives go forward, as they traverse the universe you’ve created, the themes can emerge organically. You can’t have people gives speeches at the beginning: “This is just like…” If you go back to The Wire, it was probably not till the end of season 2, when we dealt with the Port, you started people saying, “Oh my god, this show’s about economics. This show’s a critique of capitalism.” At first it was just, “Man, this is a show about the drug war.” And nobody was even saying it was a harsh critique of the drug war when it first showed up.
A few months ago, you expressed some concerns that there has perhaps been a misreading of The Wire. Has that experience effected your perspective on the production of Treme?
Our point of view has remained stable, in terms of what we’re doing with The Wire, what we’re doing with Treme, what we were doing with Generaton Kill. A lot of people thought Generation Kill was one thing after they watched one or two hours. You don’t get what Generation Kill is in totality until you get to the end of the seventh hour. Of all the things I’ve worked on, Generation Kill is probably the best executed project I’ve ever been involved with, in terms of trying to convey a specific reality — a specific theme — and achieving that.
Nobody watched The Wire when it was on. Nobody watched Generation Kill when it was on. But now Generation Kill is selling more DVDs than ever. Quietly. On word of mouth, and on the say-so of a lot of people in the military who recognize it as being a very consistent and accurate portrait of modern warfare.
I guess what I’m saying is: I’m fairly confident that if we’re able to tell the story, the story will find its audience. It will exist OnDemand; it will exist in DVD form; and eventually, people will catch up to it. Nobody dug The Wire until The Wire was off the air, for the most part. Not nobody, but the vast majority of the audience. Same thing was true of Generation Kill, and I believe the same thing about Treme to an extent. People figure out once it exists what the story really was, and whether it has merit or not. And we’re proceeding in the same way.
The only thing that’s revisionist now is that The Wire was a hit when it was on. We finished with our worst numbers. I’d love to be able to make stuff that people came to right away, and had faith enough to watch it on Sunday nights, and it was can’t-miss television. Haven’t made one of those things yet! At some point, they’re gonna figure out that I never will, and then it will be time to go back to books or something.
You’ve mentioned that you see Treme season 4 as when the allegory becomes explicit. How likely is it that you’ll get to make the fourth season?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask [HBO]. We’ve pitched the way we see the show concluding. I’ve made all those arguments to Mike Lombardo and Richard Plepler, and they get to decide. It’s their dollar.
Is there anything else you’re planning to work on once Treme ends?
To be honest with you, I’m re-evaluating what the future holds in terms of episodic television on a personal level. These things are exhausting to undertake. You gotta be completely committed to a long journey. I don’t know quite how to say this, except to say it: I came from prose journalism and book-writing. You don’t start a book project — and I did two of them over the course of several years — you don’t start a book project, and somebody takes 8-10 chapters and says, “Well, that was pretty interesting, but we’re moving on.”
And I’m not being flippant. If you’re a grown-up, and you’re trying to pretend to be a writer — or you’re a writer and you’re trying pretend to to be grown-up, either one — it’s problematic to be in a dynamic where you can start a project, envision a purpose to the project, pursue the ending of that project in the best possible form — not trying to keep the show running because it’s a franchise or because you want to stay on the air, not using more episodes than you need, not spending more money to put it on the air than you need to actually execute the storyline — and then to still be vulnerable. I understand HBO’s calculations, and I understand their need to prioritize, and I understand that it’s really their decision. But all of that sort of tells me that maybe I’m in the wrong line of work, and that I’ve had a good, long run that’s been improbable to begin with.
That’s said with no lack of gratitude for HBO for having sponsored this kind of storytelling for more than a decade now. What we do is not a very profitable enterprise, and they’ve been very very tolerant, and very very supportive. They’ve been very liberal in terms of allowing the people involved in the production of these shows to find their own vision and try to execute. There’s a concomitant responsibility on our part to spend the money properly, and not to overspend, and to put every dollar on the screen that you can. It’s a two-way street. It’s not as if I feel creatively constricted at HBO. It’s more a matter of: I believe if you tell a story and finish a story, and it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, it will stand.
If you’re into storytelling for its own purposes, if you believe yourself to be a storyteller, if that’s your job, then the end of the story is as important as the beginning, in every sense. It’s not easy to be the shepherd in the field and wait to find out if you’re gonna… eh, that’s bad metaphor. Let me get another shot at that: It’s not easy to be in the midst of the story, and try to conclude it in the proper sense, and have things beyond your control making that dynamic vulnerable. At the same time, what’s that great line from The Godfather, “This is the life we chose”? It is television.
At a certain point, you only have so many years left, and that’s always at the back of your mind: Did I just spend 3-4 years conceiving of a story that I didn’t finish? And I lived that with The Wire. The Wire was canceled after season 3, and The Wire was nearly canceled again — I had to grovel and beg and plead — after season 4. To their great credit, HBO listened, and on the argument of story – not anything else because we didn’t have an audience – on the argument of story let us finish. This is not a new dynamic. I’ve been living with this for the last 6-7 years. It just is what it is.
Have your groveling tactics improved?
I think they’re the same. You ask the HBO guys, they’re probably as exhausted with it as I am. I don’t begrudge them any weariness they feel with these arguments. But I do believe in the arguments. It’s not a matter of the paycheck. I gotta say: HBO never ceases to surprise me with their commitment to doing the improbable. The Wire is here because of that commitment. The Wire, whose audience declined from season 2 on dramatically, would not exist but for HBO looking at it as pure story. Their history is pretty extraordinary.
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