David Simon's Total Immersion

'The Wire' and 'Treme' writer/producer gets below the surface of his subjects

David Simon’s The Wire garnered nearly unprecedented critical praise — by the end of its five-season run on HBO, some were calling it the best show to ever grace television — but drew a fraction of the audience of the cable outlet’s other series Sex and the City and The Sopranos. To its credit, HBO stood (and continues to stand) behind Simon, a television iconoclast who’d rather walk away than betray the authenticity of his subject matter.

Informed by Simon’s dozen years as a crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun, The Wire eschewed typical TV tropes in favor of a nuanced, multi-threaded narrative that often took several seasons to play out and that pulled the neat trick of tackling big societal issues (drugs, education and crime, to name a few) in intensely specific, personal ways.

That same sense of immersion permeates Simon’s latest endeavor for HBO, Treme, a music-drenched series set in post-Katrina New Orleans that centers on that enduring city’s unique cultural milieu.

Simon recently took time out of his busy Treme production schedule to answer a few questions prior to his stop at the Mercantile Library on Monday.

CityBeat: Throughout your career, whether in journalism or TV, you’ve had an interest in telling the stories of the forgotten people, the underbelly, of society. Where does that interest come from?

David Simon: There’s a natural curiosity about what you don’t know. They put me on the crime beat in Baltimore. That’s where I started; I didn’t ask for it. It was a decision outside of myself. I grew up in the suburbs. I didn’t know a lot of Irish or Italian or black cops; I didn’t know the police culture. I certainly didn’t know the street culture of a city like Baltimore. And at a certain point in order to tell stories properly, in order to get certain nuances right, you were obliged to experience and encounter people different from yourself. I found that to be very interesting.

In a way, I’ve always been trying to write stuff from a — or at least imply — an interior voice rather than the outsider. Maybe all that is a narrative device, but for me that makes it more relevant and immediate.

CB: You’ve said that you’re more interested in your subjects’ perspective of what you do than the audience’s.

DS: Absolutely. That’s kind of why I can’t break through and do what someone would call a “hit.” One of the directors who worked on Generation Kill (a miniseries Simon did for HBO) and who recently did an episode of Treme said, “Well, Simon, you basically made one film for 26 RECON marines, and now you’re making this show for at least 400 New Orleans musicians, so you’ve become obscenely populist.” He was making fun of me, but on some level that’s the barometer in terms of how we try to write. It’s more interesting to us.

A lot of people will watch Treme or Generation Kill and will say, “I don’t understand everything they are saying right away.” Or, “They’re talking for themselves; they’re not talking for me. They’re not explaining things to me.” Some people will say, “That’s unpleasant. I want to be catered to as the reader or as the viewer.” I just don’t have any interest in writing for that person. If you need to have your hand held before you enter somebody else’s world, that’s pretty sad.

CB: Treme is also different than what you’ve done in the past because it’s so centrally based on music.

DS: Right. It’s about ordinary life. There are no gangsters putting guns to peoples’ heads, we’re not invading any countries, we’re not following the money or following power.

CB: So has it been a bigger challenge this time to create a compelling narrative?

DS: It’s compelling to me, it’s compelling to people who know the story of what it was like in the aftermath of Katrina. Again, I’m writing it for what New Orleans experienced. And after spending a lot of time down there and seeing what brought the city back, it wasn’t the politicians, it wasn’t the political leadership, it wasn’t any institutional imperative, it wasn’t government fiat. What saved New Orleans was the culture. That was the only thing that came back, the only thing that insisted on coming back and it was the only compulsive element that led to the city surviving in any state. And so that’s the story.

This is a show about culture. It’s fascinating to me. It’s a beautiful story I think ought to be told by somebody, so we’re having our shot at it. But if somebody needs a gun to somebody’s head, I can’t help them on this show. They can go rent The Wire.

CB: How did you transition from journalism to television?

DS: When I got into journalism, there was a presumption that if I went to work for The Baltimore Sun that I was going to work for the paper of record in central Maryland. By the time I got out of journalism the idea of a paper of record had become a laughing stock. What I loved about the craft and what I still love about the craft became problematic — it became more about winning prizes, among other things — and at some point I opened my mouth one too many times to the editors about it. I became disenchanted and I got a buyout.

So there was no plan. I didn’t look at TV and say, “That’s the future.” I didn’t think, “Oh, I can make more money,” or “I can say what I want to say.” Television was in many ways a default. I went to work on Homicide, which was a show based on a book I wrote. I thought it was an interim step. Now it’s been 17 years. I’ve now been in television longer than I’ve been in newspapers, and it’s still not a plan. I’d like to take credit for having any kind of vision, but I got nothin’.

CB: In a lot of ways I think your career evolving organically was a good thing.

DS: It was a good thing. I certainly didn’t wake up one day and say, “I want to make television.” I still haven’t had that day (laughs). At one point I was describing to David Mills (writer on everything from NYPD Blue to Homicide) what I was going to do with The Wire. He said, “You’re not really obeying all the tropes of what makes a television show work.” David loves the process of making television, and he said, “You’re not doing stuff that makes sense to me.” And I said, “Yeah, I know, but I like this story a lot better. It matters more to me and if I can’t tell this story, I’ll go back and write a book.”

He started laughing his ass off and said, “Everybody out here in this fucking town is clinging to this thing that is constantly shifting — if medical shows work, everyone wants to do a medical show — everybody’s trying to hold on while the ground shifts beneath them, and you’re just acting like you don’t give a fuck.” And I’m like, “Good thing, because I don’t.”

If at some point HBO says, “Listen, thank you very much, we gave it a decade, you did a lot of nice TV that got a lot of good reviews, but we need to get more of an audience than you can give us,” I’ll totally agree with them and say, “Thank you for the opportunity.”

DAVID SIMON is the featured speaker at the Mercantile Library’s annual Harriet Beecher Stowe “Writing to Change the World” lecture series at 7 p.m. June 7. Tickets are $20 for Mercantile Library members and $25 for non-members. Get details here.

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