David Simon of HBO’s Treme

David Simon of HBO Treme. Backtalk interview. Photo by Aaron Lafont.

Co-Producer David Simon. Photo by Aaron Lafont.

The second floor of the bus and train station is doubling for City Hall offices today. Down a hallway crowded with equipment and crew, past Oliver Thomas—who’s playing himself—is a room where Treme co-producer David Simon is watching a monitor. The show is readying its second season, which will debut Sunday, April 24 at 8 CDT. This season covers the period from the fall of 2006 to the spring of 2007, and teasers for the season suggest that David Morse’s police lieutenant will be a bigger part of the story as crime returns, and Kim Dickens’ Janette Desautel returns in some capacity, despite leaving at the end of season one.

Simon is an articulate, passionate spokesperson for his work, but he’s had to be. The shows he has made are novelistic in the sense that each season is a story, and they confound those used to television as a series of half-hour and hour-long diversions. “I didn’t have a hit with The Wire,” he says. “It was hard to keep it on the air. I had to be a pitchman for the show. If the show had been The Sopranos from the jump, I could have laid back and said, ‘It is what it is. I’m not doing interviews.’ If I’d done that, though, there would have been 13 or 25 episodes of The Wire and not six seasons.” But it’s come with a cost as viewers and critics assign characters’ views to him—particularly those of John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette in season one—whether they’re his or not. “The first episode was written by Eric. That’s Eric’s dialogue, not mine. It’s influenced by a variety of voices—the work of Chris Rose, Ashley Morris, and some things that were as mainstream as The Times-Picayune editorial stance—which, to other ears, might sound a little radical but was indicative of what people in New Orleans were saying on a routine basis.”

 

Now that you’ve had to time to live with it, think about it, see it, how does season one sit with you?

I never look back. All of the stuff is never quite finished. The last time I look at most episodes unless I’m obliged to sit on a panel or something is when we finish with the post-production and send it off. Looking back can be really debilitating because nothing is perfect. The Wire wasn’t, The Corner was not, Generation Kill was not. There’s a lot to enjoy, but while you’re enjoying stuff you’ll see a shot that’s a little bit awkward, or dialogue you wish you could fix.

Overall, when we finished the season we were happy with what we conveyed. We felt like we got a lot in there. We were not in agreement that there was no plot; we were just aware that the plot wasn’t rooted in the usual tropes of television. What was at stake was, by standards of culture and community in New Orleans, very important to us, and that’s why we told the story. But it was not wheeling bodies on the edge of life and death to the emergency room, or life and death with cops and guns. We weren’t going to take the trombone out of someone’s hand and put a gun in it. We would watch something profound was happening in our minds, which is to say someone’s going to lose the restaurant they love or someone’s going to create something musically that is going have deep meaning for them, and these things were important to us.

Have there been other shows about culture? Frank’s Place, maybe?

Yeah, in a way. You know I have respect for Frank’s Place. It was the first thing that argued for New Orleans intelligently. It was the first thing to argue for culture intelligently. Where you live and how you live somehow matters, which is becoming increasingly rare in America as we become more and more generic.

[Treme] is a very patriotic piece in a weird way. It’s about as close as I can get to overt patriotism, not because I don’t feel very American or connected to the American experience, but the things that cause other people to wave a flag and speak well of America are not the things that cause me to do that. I think if you watch New Orleans attempt to restore itself after a near-death experience, and you saw what was at stake and how many, many people reacted and what they put up with and what they endured, it brought out a sense of community and a peoplehood that couldn’t help but touch on something vaguely patriotic.

That experience made me believe in people in a way that I didn’t.

I felt the same way watching it. I became more convinced that ever after watching New Orleans after Katrina that our institutional imperatives, political leadership, our economic—all that, were incredibly hollow. Even more hollow than I thought when I started The Wire. I’m really writing these shows about the end of empire and about the end of any sort of politically charged community. And yet, there are still Americans who are enduring as Americans, and it still matters. I feel like we said what we wanted to say very carefully about what the stakes were. We’re not lying this year if there are a couple of life and death moments because as you’re all aware, in ’06, ’07 as the crime came back, there were more life and death moments. The stakes got raised on New Orleanians, so we’re entitled to raise them within the show. But even there we’re trying to keep in mind what happened when, what the key moments were, and not veer too much into the fictional when it comes to describing the return of crime and systemic failure of the city to deal with it. We were really aware that we were making a show about culture and the idea of the city as a highest the aspiration of community for her good people.

Were there certain things that had to happen in season one to establish this as a television show?

We need to make viewers care about New Orleans, even if they’ve never been here, and make them wonder whether or not there’s a place that trades in this kind of magic realism. Without being shown very deliberately what was at stake, there was no way we could make any further arguments.

We had to introduce the characters. With every show, you have to train viewers to the rhythms of the new show. Doesn’t matter how many seasons we did of The Wire, people who were used to watching TV said, “It starts so slow; nothing happened.” Season three, I remember, we introduced “Bunny” Colvin, then the Western District as a plot line, but we’re nowhere near a moment where we’re going to deal with the actual themes. This is the first episode. I remember reading reviews like, “Starts really slowly, a lot of characters introduced, really complicated, vernacular.” Once again, it’s not an accessible show. We did this panel at the Museum of Television in New York and we showed the first episode to a room full of people who had seen every episode of The Wire. They’re watching the first episode of season three and they’ve already seen all of season three, and we said, “Watch to see what the characters do, watch how they make their entrance, where the themes begin to be marked. Where the motivations of people are being fueled by events, and let’s talk again after we watch this episode as to whether or not nothing happened.” Because actually everything happened, but you don’t know it at the time.

People watching a show like this in real time, it’s like reading a book. And I’m not picking a book and saying it’s as good as this book, it’s just a book that we all know—Moby Dick. [Ishmael] goes to the inn, there’s no room, they give him a room with Queequeg, a guy with all there weird tattoos. He has to share a bed, he goes to church, the homily is given with all these maritime metaphors, and that’s the first couple chapters. You don’t meet the whale, you don’t meet Ahab. You’re basically getting to know Ishmael, and people are comfortable with that because books have always been a patient narrative by standards of novels. TV has been ridiculously impatient.

I’ve been through this now with The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill. I no longer believe anything a critic or viewer tells me about the show I’m making, good or bad. If they tell me they love it, if they like certain moments, they like certain acting, they don’t like this guy if they hated this scene, if they liked that song, if they thought this was well done or well executed, that makes sense. If they start telling me about the story they think I should be telling at the rate I should be telling it, I tune it right out. I don’t believe they have the context to evaluate that.

That was a long-winded way of saying that the first season is asserting that, yes, we have a story to tell, yes, we know where we’re going, no it’s not plotless, but it is taking as its purpose a story that requires a different kind of pacing that most people are comfortable with in television.

Although I wrote about the season while it was going on, I tried not to comment on the events themselves until I knew how the story ended because the ending affects things.

TV is acquired episodically, except it’s not anymore. There are people who wait and join HBO at the end of a run. They pay for two months so they can wait until it’s on HBO On Demand and powerwatch their way through them. There’s people who don’t even join HBO, they just buy the box set. There are people who download it all digitally months later and illegally. And then there’s people who do watch it episodically. Since I’m not interested in the episodic nature of the story—and really I’m not—I’m interested in seeing them as chapters, not as stand-alones. Eric and I are not in the business of servicing the one to the exclusion of the other. We care more about the whole. So if that’s the case, it’s kind of regrettable and yet understandable the situation in which television critics who are commenting on the show find themselves. But that’s not my fault, and I can’t fix it. If I could, I would. But I can’t figure out how to help them except that if in this many cycles through, you don’t know to trust us to know where we are going….You can argue anything you want about the execution of it, but what you can’t do is argue the purpose of anything or the relevance of anything without seeing the whole.

I read that you saw Wendell Pierce’s Antoine Batiste as the heart of the show; I saw Khandi Alexander’s LaDonna that way.

Khandi’s role is essential. Khandi carries the drama of the first season because of her brother, because of the outcome of that storyline.

To me, the work-a-day musician, the working class ethos of New Orleans where the wages paid to produce this kind of magic are so utterly routine, where the lives themselves are so economically and socially fragile. To be the 14th best piano player in New Orleans might be to be the best piano player in another city. And yet, here you’re scratching out gigs and playing the front room of a restaurant at dinner hour. It’s remarkable. There was something about Wendell moving from gig to gig and yet coming back after the storm and being unable to contemplate any other life than the one he is pursuing—to me it was unkind, maybe that’s a better way to say it. So the “heart of the show” is maybe a little too loaded and I should revisit that, but there was something really iconic about that and essential as almost a centerpiece of what we’re trying to do.

I was unsure all season if I was supposed to like Batiste or not.

If you like a character unequivocally, we’ve probably done something wrong. I don’t believe in perfect heroes and I don’t believe in perfect villains, but there are characters that you know are not capable, at the point of which you encounter them, of doing any good. But multitudes of characters go the other way. They are capable of having great moments followed by human pratfall or selfishness. We’re always trying to find our way to people who can do both. Sometimes, we’re playing the long game and we have it mind that somebody isn’t perfect, but their flaw hasn’t shown up yet. It will show up in season two or season three because that is when we will encounter a dynamic, a predicament that would bring out maybe the worst in that person. Conversely, someone that’s been disappointing throughout the run might come to a later point where it is their time to shine. They reach a crossroads and do the right thing. It’s not about giving the villains a puppy or about giving the heroes a quick addiction. It’s really about exploring where people fall down and where they get up. On The Wire, with Bubbles, he gets off drugs. It took him five years. Knowing people who have struggled with that and having written about that, that’s a victory. Anyone who watched Bubbles struggle with that addiction for four-and-a-half years had exactly the right emotion, which is, “When is this guy ever going to pull out of this?” We were playing the long game on that, and in the end I think it’s really resonant.

Were you surprised by the reaction to John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette?

I was not surprised that in the quote-unquote cultural centers of our country there was an almost immediate resentment at being placed as outsiders to other people’s anger and other people’s insistence on the validity of their culture. New Yorkers know everything before you tell them and if they don’t know it, it’s not worth knowing. And I say that with a great love of New York and as someone who spends a lot of time there, but I certainly had a sense of it when I moved to Baltimore, and nothing has changed my mind about that. At the same time, a lot of New Yorkers have a genuine sympathy for New Orleans; I’m speaking in generalities.

We’re also playing what we knew nobody else knew when they’re watching the first episode, which is that we’re playing a flawed character. We know where he’s going at the end of season one. We’re building in the notion that he is an all-or-nothing, didactic, angry, and self-doubting intellectual who feels as if he shot his bolt in terms of his own creative impulses. He has things driving his anger that have nothing to do with Katrina.

Am I wrong to see Creighton as Davis McAlary 30 years down the line when he doesn’t get the same buzz off the city he once got? It felt like both are characters who are or were fed by the music community and the culture, but it stopped feeding Creighton.

I think there was something of age there. It was somebody who is feeling creatively void and unable to execute. Davis doesn’t have that problem; if anything Davis has the confidence in his ability to execute that at times may exceed his talent. But what he does have is verve and wit and the desire to try. And we were certainly putting somebody in a different point in life.

Frankly, we referenced Stevenson Palfi. I don’t think anyone kills himself because of a hurricane. That can be a contributing factor; it could be the provocation that ultimately results in the act, but there has to be an underlying dynamic that has to do with that person in their personhood that causes someone to destroy themselves in that deliberate way. And from what I understand of Mr. Palfi, he was struggling with his work. He had a lot of demons that had nothing to do with Katrina.

We reference that because we thought about the rate of suicide after the storm. It did go up. Who did that, and who felt as if starting over was an impossibility, while other people having lost everything were nonetheless able to take one step forward and keep going. When he was running on adrenaline in the beginning—in anger, which a lot of New Orleanians I think were—you can’t overestimate the adrenaline after the storm when they first got back. Some people were almost manic in that “Goddamn it, we’re coming back, we’re coming back!” And then as it became clear that it wasn’t going to get easier, it was going to get harder and that a real deep patience was going to be demanded of people to restore their lives, the adrenaline wore off and that’s when the depression set in.

We went to John knowing we were doing that with the character and pitched that to him as the arc. Once we were working with John, he was a delight. Eric and I joked, “Eh, maybe we don’t have to….” But we knew we had to. It wasn’t because we were going to lose John; it was what the story required.

How far ahead are you thinking?

It would be bad if we didn’t get a third season, I’ll say that. We see arcs that go to the end of three that can’t possibly be resolved before the end of three. After we execute the season, we see what we’ve done, how much we’ve said about New Orleans and what’s left to say. I’m not interested in running a story out in order to sustain a franchise. That’s not what HBO expects of me; that’s not what I expect of them, and Eric feels the same way. We’re here to tell a story. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The trick is to know we’re done with the story. It would be three (seasons), it could be five, it could be four. We won’t know until we look at how we’ve arced this, where the characters are going, and we also look at what we are saying “no” to if we only have 10 more [episodes], in terms of history of New Orleans after the storm. We really need to do the research and see how long it’s going to take to show where all the money went, and when was it clear that the school system was going to become have/have-nots; when was it clear what was happening there? When was it clear what was going to happen with the problems with the criminal justice system that was part of the problem and in no way part of the solution? How much does it take to tell the story? If all you’re doing is adding two more years on to get to the Saints winning the Super Bowl, don’t do it because it’ll ruin the previous seasons.

When you pitched for HBO, did you have a vague projected distance in mind?

Vaguely. We joked after we saw the BP thing and the Super Bowl happened in the same season, “Oh, Christ, can’t wait to get to season five!” But that was a joke and we hadn’t thought about it in any intelligent way. It may be that that is the place to end the show and that there is plenty of material that won’t be addressed in the first three seasons to justify it, but you have to keep climbing a mountain and at any point if you plateau, and all you’re doing is being incremental to your story and purpose and themes, then you’re ruining your viewer’s experience. No one believes this because there’s so much money in TV that if you get a franchise up and running, your job is to keep it running, but that’s a hack’s road.

I would be as ashamed to go to HBO with any incremental argument as I would be to not finish when I know there’s more to say. No one says to you when you get to chapter 18, “Listen we’re not going to do the last six chapters,” but television is its own beast. I find that to be the most debilitating thing, to do these things with the constant fear that you will be thwarted before you can say everything you want to say. I just had a conversation with HBO and said, “It’s my job to tell you what the plan is, and to have a plan, and have it be the best plan. I don’t know if it’s three, four or five [seasons] and neither does Eric. But we will know somewhere between the end of this season and beginning of the next one. And it’s my hope there will be a next one.”

My irritation with television shows without endings is their tendency towards soap opera, at the point they become about the configuring and reconfiguring of characters to no particular purpose.

No purpose at all. If two characters sleep together, if they break up, that has to mean something in terms of the theme. We tried to do that, and we think about this: If at any point you’re basically repeating the idea, “Isn’t it interesting what’s happening to this person?”—what a horror show. I think that’s the case with television because there’s just too much money. Fortunately, I’ve gone a long way without actually having a large audience, so there’s never been too much money. No one’s ever wheeled a truck up to my driveway and said, “Can you give us a sixth season of The Wire?”

If they had, the moment where they had to make the argument for another season of The Wire was after season three. There could never have been a season six after we ran the season four and season five arcs because those arcs were about, for example, McNulty walking away. Losing himself in the pursuit and anger and walking away. We can’t have him walk back.

I went to HBO (after season three) and said, “You must let me finish this. I have an idea for a two-season arc that will let me do education and finally the last nail in the coffin, the media.” Because we were basically making an argument about why we no longer recognize problems, much less move to solve them. “I need to do these two story lines. You need to let me, and The Wire will have resonance if you let me do these.”

By season five, if they had come to me and said, “Give us another season,” I’d have said no. There is no other season. The same thing will hold true here, which is to say once Eric and I have figured it out, we’ll argue for that, but it’s got to be honest, and we have to be honest with them because it’s expensive. To have them give us another wheelbarrow full of money and hand them something incremental, that insults them. It’s us not being honest as writers or fair with them as producers. Either it’s enough or not enough, and we’ll explain why.