In two decades of covering David Simon’s television career, one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that he was never boring or predictable.
And he came through again last week in an interview that I had imagined as a simple Q&A advancing the five-episode series finale of “Treme,” which starts at 9 Sunday night on HBO.
In my last question, I asked what was next for him. And I was surprised to hear the creator of “The Wire,” which many analysts rightfully consider the greatest series in the history of prime-time television, say he might be leaving the medium.
“I don’t know,” Simon said. “I turned in work on a couple of series and a miniseries to HBO to finish out my development deal, and they’ll either want to make some of it or they won’t. It’s kind of up to them.
“I have to say,” he continued, “I’m sort of at this point wondering if I’m not a strange fit for television. And ‘The Wire’ was sort of fire in the bottle, because nobody watched ‘The Wire’ when it was on the air. And nobody watched ‘Generation Kill.’ And nobody watched ‘Treme.’
“So, on some level, while I have a very good reputation after the fact for writing for television, when the stuff’s actually on the air, it isn’t all that much of an asset for a network. So, I don’t know about HBO. They may be getting hip to the fact that nobody watches my [expletive] when it’s on the air. And that’s not likely to change, I don’t think.”
The more I expressed my surprise at what Simon was saying about possibly walking away from TV, the more he sounded like he sincerely might do it.
“I’ve gone a long way in television and had a lot of fun doing what doesn’t quite work,” he continued. “It may be time to do something else — I don’t know — or not. But I’m curious to know what HBO thinks almost on an academic level. If we don’t make any more television, I’ll still be very grateful, and it will still have a been a wonderful sojourn.”
Simon, 53, is always deep and analytical. And I am certainly not the first interviewer to say he is one of the best minds to ever work in the medium. But he seemed more open to self-analysis than I remember him being.
“Certain things begin to matter more to you when you’re older,” he said in answer to a question about how he might have changed during the making of “Treme.”
“I think the show is still quite political, but the components of the show are ordinary people. They’re not gangsters. They’re not recon Marines at war. They’re not anything that readily acquires the usual currency of television,” he said. “And they’re very interesting to me as people. And I think the writing reflects that. There is a lot greater attention to detail with regard to interpersonal relationships on this show than on anything I ever wrote.”
Simon said he thinks the female characters in “Treme” are written better than those in any of his other shows. I agree. To me, the female characters — led by Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli), Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) and Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) — are easily the most compelling.
“When you’re in your 20s or 30s, even later, it’s a dubious proposition that a lot of male writers even want to know what’s in the heads of women,” Simon said. “I think they’re terrified. But as you get older, you become a little bit more judgmental about your own writing about people and how people relate to each other. And there’s not a better challenge than writing characters who are life-size.”
But, Simon added, the focus on such a characters was first and foremost a function of the story he was trying to tell.
“A lot of this is that’s what the story was about,” he said. “ ‘Treme’ wasn’t trying to be ‘The Wire’ over again. And, certainly, I expected innumerable comparisons to ‘The Wire.’ I don’t think you could do anything after ‘The Wire’ and not get that. I mean, we got that with ‘Generation Kill,’ which I thought was kind of silly.
“But the truth is, ‘Treme’ was a different story and it was about different societal issues. And it required different components to tell the story. So, there’s no point in comparing and saying, ‘This one turned out better than that one.’ I’m not saying ‘Treme’ is best or ‘The Wire’ was best. What I’m saying is this is the best-executed show I was ever involved in.”
One extraordinary aspect of the execution involves the rich and organic role of music. There is no question that “Treme” uses music more extensively and wisely than any series in TV history.
Simon and his team created a more intense musical experience for viewers in part by recording the musical performances live as they filmed the drama rather than recording the music separately in a studio and later dubbing it in, which is the standard and far less complicated production process.
“We’re actually recording what we’re recording when we’re filming, which people in television and film don’t do,” Simon said. “We’re particularly proud of not having cheated that. You can hear mistakes in the music. … And that’s what you hear at a concert. … You hear the uniqueness of the musical performance instead of a recorded performance. … I don’t think anyone’s ever recorded live music as part of the framework for the show, certainly not to this degree.”
“Treme” will always have a special place in Simon’s heart, he said, because it is the last work he did with his friend since college, writer-producer David Mills, who died of an aneurysm while filming in New Orleans.
“I think I’ll always hold a particular connection to New Orleans with David, because he moved down there, he fell in love with the project, and it was the last and some of best work we did together,” Simon said. “I miss him a lot. Just about every day I think of him. He was a good man.”
Mills’ name appears at the end of the final episode, and there is a David E. Mills Memorial Scholarship at the University of Maryland that Simon helped establish with other friends and family of Mills. It goes to student journalists who work on the campus newspaper, The Diamondback. Mills and Simon worked together on that paper when they were undergraduates in College Park.
Between journalism and television, the former Baltimore Sun reporter has already had a couple of remarkable careers. And he’s obviously still engaged in both. But he does sound like someone in a period of passage or transition — or, at least, serious reflection.
Simon says he still “owes” a book on a publishing contract, and that he’s turned in a first draft of a stage musical using the music of the Pogues. He’s awaiting “notes” on the latter from Garry Hynes, artistic director at the Druid Theater Company of Galway.
“There’s stuff to do,” he said. “There’s always work, you know. There’s always work.”
As for TV, he’s meeting with HBO in a month, he says.
Here’s hoping for the sake of the medium that HBO and Simon decide to stay in business with each other.
“A lot of people have a lot of prescriptions for what would gain more audience in these stories that I’m trying to tell. And I look at the prescriptions and I say, ‘But I don’t want to tell that story. That’s not the story that I actually think matters in the Iraq war or post-Katrina New Orleans,’ “ Simon said.
“So, yes, I might be able to construct a better franchise, but do I want to service that franchise? Do I want to be involved in that franchise? I’m sort of, I’m in a strange place.”