Interview: ‘Treme’ co-creator David Simon post-mortems season one

Senior Television Writer
06.20.10 69 Comments

HBO/Paul Schiraldi

What’s your follow-up act when your previous series is held up by those who saw it as the greatest drama ever produced for television? Well, if you’re “The Wire” co-creator David Simon, it’s “Treme,” the weekly love letter to New Orleans and its people – specifically to its musicians and those musically-adjacent – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The passion “Wire” fans had for that show brought expectations to “Treme” that the new series couldn’t possibly meet – especially since Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer were not trying to do “The Wire: New Orleans.” The overwhelming focus on character over plot was a jarring shift for many, as was the anger towards the outside world expressed by the characters played by Steve Zahn and John Goodman, whom some viewers assumed were just mouthpieces for the creative team.

I learned quickly to accept “Treme” as its own thing, and while I had some issues with the first season (particularly with the character of Sonny, whom Simon and I talk about in this interview), I loved the warmth of it, and the performances (both acting and music), and the sense of place and community and time it gave me. You can read my review of the finale here, and after the jump is a very long interview with Simon about the first season, and about some of the reactions to it. If you’ve read a Simon interview before, you won’t be surprised to find the man to be his usually blunt (and profane), unapologetic self.

At the very end of the interview, we spent a few minutes looking ahead to some events from New Orleans in the second post-Katrina year that might be incorporated into “Treme” season two; I put a warning before that section so that if you view history as a spoiler, or simply don’t want to know anything, you can stop reading.

At what point did you and Eric know that you were going to show that Katrina flashback in the finale?

Back in the writer’s meetings. It was planned when we sat down for the second round of writer’s meetings. I will actually credit David Mills with coming up with the idea.

What were you aiming to do with that?

It’s kind of self-evident, isn’t it? We wanted to reflect on the transformational power of Katrina and its aftermath on all of the lives of our characters. Very tellingly, David made the point that in some respects, we’d been talking about Daymo as an abstraction. We’d only seen him in the context of the morgue. A lot of what we’re dealing with, because we’re doing a post-Katrina story, not a Katrina story, is about the aftermath of the storm. It’s about the survivors, not about the losses. But here was an instance in which it was probably our only opportunity in the entire run of the show to reflect on loss in such a direct way. It’s the reason for the (dream sequence) at the beginning of episode five, halfway through the run, to see Daymo once so it would be resonant at the end. It’s always amusing to me to watch people commenting on the chapters without knowing the story. As a singular flashback, the beginning of episode five doesn’t feel particularly resonant. I think you look at a lot of it differently when you get to the end of the story. I think you look at a lot of things when you get to the end of the story. So it’s kind of frustrating, for people trying to blog the show each week like yourself, people trying to comment on it or to anticipate the storyline, to debate the filmmaker’s choices. But it’s a no-win situation. We wouldn’t want to have people not discussing the show, but at the same time, you can’t take the discussion seriously until everyone gets to the end. At the end, people can reflect on what they’ve seen, and whether it added up.

Well, in terms of things you’ve read, whether it’s something I’ve written, commenters, writers elsewhere, what misconception has bothered you the most? Where have you found people to be most far afield of your intentions?

“Bother” is too strong. I’ve been through this now for five seasons of “The Wire” and one of “Generation Kill.” This is my seventh time telling stories this way. And I’ve come to realize that the only commentary I can take seriously are people who react to what’s on screen and how that reflects on the reality they know. That’s the only biofeedback that matters to me.. All the feedback of, “I wish the show would be this, I wish the show would be more of this, I wish this character had less to do, I wish this character had more to do,” that’s of no use. It’s of no use because we’ve already finished production, but on a more philosophical level, it’s of no use. Choices have been made based on the last half hour of film. Every season of ‘The Wire’ built to the last half hour, to the endings. This is my seventh time of having the initial reaction to our storylines be, “I don’t understand where they’re going. Why do they have this? This doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t like this character.” If you go back and watch the first episode of any season of “The Wire,” or the first episode of “Treme” or “Generation Kill,” knowing the ending, the choices will be entirely reasonable as a first chapter of something that is novelistic. If you experience it only as something that’s an episodic entity unto itself, I can’t answer that, because I don’t really think about that. I’m not irate about it, I just can’t take it seriously.

Having said that, it’s sort of a perfect example of something. It’s interesting you brought the flashback up, because David and Eric and I had a discussion about it: Do we need to see him before then in order for Daymo to resonate? Ergo, LaDonna’s dream right at the exact midpoint of the run, referencing Daymo, because we’re going to be in her head at the funeral. I said to David, “People are going to see it as being out of theme when they see it in episode five.” And he said, “Yeah yeah, people are going to say that it’s like Tony Soprano flashback bullshit. And you know what? It will be out of theme until it’s not.” But in the end, what’s more important: story as a whole, or the episodic? Did we lose people, because the episodics don’t play as perfect episodes? Sure we did. Always, going back to “The Wire.” You should read the reviews we got for the first six or seven episodes of “The Wire.” That’s the game we’re obliged to play if we’re going to believe in the thing as a whole.

Some people have suggested that “Treme” is a show that is light on plot. You disagree with that.

I absolutely disagree, but I think you can only make the actual judgment when you look back and see what the characters have been through and what it represented. But it’s not that it lacks plot. What it lacks is the life and death stakes of the television trope. If you tell me that somebody is going to lose the love of her life, which is a restaurant, and it’s going to happen in real time, and we’re going to see them make a choice to abandon their city – that’s an awful lot that’s happened to a character. On the other hand, are you measuring it by asking, “Did I see a gun put to this person’s head? Did I see them raped? Did I see them wreck their car drunkenly and end up in the hospital? Were they put on trial for their life? Were they sent into an ER and the doctors hovered over them making life and death decisions? Were they hurtled into the West Wing where they had to consult on a decision that would mean the lives and deaths of thousands?” Those are the standard tropes of a standard television drama. I’m uninterested in telling a story that is a lie, and those are not the stakes of post-Katrina New Orleans, and I’m interested in post-Katrina New Orleans.

For me, I don’t think people can tell the difference when they speak of plot between the notion of whether something is a plot that’s progressing or whether they’re having dramatic moments that are typical of television standard – which is to say, cop show, medical show, legal show, “West Wing,” whatever, where the stakes are high. That’s what people are saying.

When they say “Nothing’s happening on it,” I don’t know. One character took his own life, another lost a restaurant and gave up her own city. Another one lost a brother and put her marriage into danger, another one moved towards wrecking his own home life and reacquainting himself with his ex-wife. And others have had some degree of success in terms of negotiating this broken world of post-Katrina, or had some failures in negotiating it, like Batiste. I don’t know. There’s a lot of plot in my head. I just know what I’m not doing, which is I’m not playing by the rules of what is functional television drama. That’s it. I wouldn’t change a word. But did I anticipate this reaction? I anticipated a lot of, “Jesus Christ, it’s not ‘The Wire.'” Frankly, I could give a fuck. That’s someone saying, “Waiter, there’s soup in my soup.” If you tuned into “Treme” for a show that said upfront it’s about life in post-Katrina New Orleans, and you were expecting “The Wire” or something that heightened or – and I’m not dissing this show (“Breaking Bad”), because it’s a very good show – someone who’s diagnosed with cancer and becomes a drug dealer, that’s not my premise. I’m not interested in telling that right now, with this city at this time. It’s a more delicate piece. I’m very comfortable with the execution, and I’m very comfortable with the audience we’ve found, and I knew I had to leave some people behind. Not a problem.

(Later, after our initial discussion ended, I called Simon back to talk about plans for a “Treme” soundtrack, which I related in this story. When we were done, Simon wanted to revisit this portion of the earlier interview.)

I didn’t mean to be kvetching about the bad stuff people have written. If people are saying they love where the story is going in episode two or three, I don’t buy that, either. If they like characters, if they like a moment, if they like a way something was filmed, then that’s okay. When they start to sort of evaluate the arc that they can’t know, the story arcs themselves, even if they’re loving it, I just can’t take it seriously. Nobody knows what we’ve built until the end. In some ways, even though we’ve planned it out and know where we’re going, until we look at the last edit of the last episode and send it off – that’s the only point where we can look at it and go, “This worked really well, this not so much.” Until then, you can’t really tell. That’s what I was trying to say. I was not trying to say I do not take criticism seriously. Obviously, anybody who gets to the end and says, “I don’t think this worked,” that’s entirely legitimate. But I can’t take seriously stuff in the middle. It’s like reading a book report in the middle. Not to say there isn’t valid commentary about the process. Just not about arc.

(Back to the original interview as it took place.)

Well, I’m curious. You alluded to some stuff with Batiste in there, and certainly I enjoyed every minute of watching Wendell navigating his way through life in New Orleans over these 10 episodes. But I’m curious what you saw as Antoine’s arc over these 10.

Over these 10, I think what we’ve depicted is the life of a workaday musician. Of a guy who has genuine talent but lives on the margins, because 10th-best trombone player in New Orleans lives hand to mouth. Whereas in any other city in America, he might be quite celebrated. Just like the 10th-best piano player in New Orleans lives hand to mouth. I wanted to see the life of a workaday musician. I wanted to see him living on the margins and see him with all of his flaws. I didn’t want him to be pure heroic. He has the indulgences that a lot of the people we know in the music community have. Ultimately, I’m looking at his arc over more than one season. There may be moments where he reaches for a brass ring, where we see just how far it is from Antoine Batiste to being truly celebrated as a musician. These are all quiet questions. It’s not a matter of, does he put down the trombone and pick up a gun?

That’s the question that we had to ask ourselves in the beginning of this: do we want to write a story about musicians, and the other people in this particular culture? And we did. I’ve got a lot of grown-up people who wanted to watch this story. The real telling thing will be the On Demand numbers and the DVDs. And we’ll see how large that audience is and whether we miscalculated or not. Would I add two murders and a house fire and a gang rape? No, I wouldn’t. If you want that, there’s plenty of opportunities to see it on TV.

One of the things that I found interesting about Batiste is that in the flashback, we see that before the storm, he was living what seemed to be a much less marginal life.

Yes. He was in mid-city, he had a car, he had his record collection. And he was probably content with that, and then he had to take a huge step backwards. And there’s also no implication that he was living with Desiree at the time. She and the baby were someplace else. So he was a lot more fancy-free as a bachelor.

When Delmond and Janette wind up sitting near each other in the airport, it occurred to me that the Albert and Delmond story was taking place largely independently of everyone else’s. I mean, everyone’s story was their own, but we saw pretty much all the other characters frequently crossing paths. Was that just how it played out?

I don’t need to make a false move in order to have a perfect weave where all the characters know each other. Where it was appropriate to have the characters intersect and happened naturally in the course of writers’ meetings, that’s what happened. We really thought about every glance between two characters, whether or not this was reasonable or plausible, or whether it was too early. Nothing precludes something from happening down the road, but it has to be organic. When he turns the corner there (in the airport), everyone who’s been conditioned by television – just as people who are conditioned buy television expecting Creighton to wash up on shore in the next episode, just a little bit tired from his swim – they were also expecting, “Oh, they’re going to meet! That’s a couple!” And maybe down the road, but that wasn’t the point of that scene. The point of that scene was just two exiles on their journey. But the expectations of television are such that it’s another reason to close your eyes and just plow ahead.

Just like you did on “The Wire” and “Generation Kill,” you threw people into the deep end of a culture they’re not that familiar with. Specifically with the Mardi Gras Indians, you clearly felt comfortable not having to even use the kid (Darius) for exposition. It was just, “We’re going to watch them work, we’re going to show them doing their thing. People will figure it out, or they won’t.”

Or, by the way, if they’re alienated by not knowing something, I lost them on “Generation Kill,” I lost them on “The Wire,” and I’ll lose them on “Treme.” I think there’s a net gain. I think I actually pick up people who are tired of being spoonfed by television and who are willing to experience a new culture in a way that doesn’t give them all the answers right away, that makes them work a bit for the answers, and to acquire them as you would acquire them if you landed on the streets of New Orleans with some innate curiosity. I feel like I pick up more viewers than I lose. But how do I know? I could be wrong, but it’s more interesting for me to do it that way.

What do you feel was the story you were telling with Sonny this year?

The story that I was telling with Sonny has to do with a musician who is not up to the New Orleanian standard. I didn’t want to do a show about musicians where everyone had the requisite amount of talent. I wanted to have him to be a devotee of the music who came to the city who is in a relationship with somebody who has a great deal of talent, and that starts manifests itself in a way that puts a great deal of strain on a relationship. That would be tough for two people in a relationship who are both secure in themselves. If one of them is not secure, and one of them is vulnerable, it lends itself to something discordant. What I was trying to do was to ultimately begin at the point just prior to the lowest ebb of them as a couple. That’s a very delicate dynamic, to have two creative people at varying places in their career, and then their careers are diverging. I believe they made a classic film about it.

They made it (“A Star is Born”) several times, I believe.

It struck me as being very interesting: the notion of somebody who does not have the level of skill. Davis may not be the greatest musician in the world, but he’s sort of a raconteur of imagery and media, and he’s fully intellectualized, and so indifferent to his own shortcomings, that he somehow triumphs. That’s interesting to me as well. But Sonny is somebody who right now is playing cover songs and playing them with much less finesse than Annie. I wanted to put someone in a world where creativity is at a premium, and he can only at this point bring so much. I wanted to give him a level of frustration with that.

I don’t mind if a character is selfish or insecure. I just don’t need all my characters to be winning. And in the same way that people often miscalculate or fail to acknowledge the equivocation between high-stakes and plot itself, I think people generally mistake their dislike of a character as poor acting. I have watched some extremely good actors over the last decade who we’ve used in ways where we knew a character was supposed to be belligerent or irritating. I’ve watched the actor’s work maligned until a point where a plot turned or revealed another aspect – often seasons later. When you think about Prez, or Ziggy within the context of season two, we’ve had these moments. We did one in “Generation Kill” with Sgt. Major Sixta. He was a complete pain in the ass, despised by all of the men, it was told from the point of view of the men. No one was at all sympathetic, except for Marines who understood his role. His role was to be purposely alienating and to draw fire away from the officers and onto him, and to create a sense of allegiance on the part of the men in their hatred of the Sgt. Major. And we only revealed it in episode seven. To me, the payoff for that is so much more profound. The most oversold thing in television is redemption. “Well, we feel a little bad about this character, but by the end of the episode, he’ll be warm and fuzzy again!” That, to me, is bad writing. Sonny’s ship might not have come in, maybe it will never come in, but we know what we’re doing.

In this run, some of the initial response was overwhelmingly to criticize Steve Zahn’s acting or John Goodman’s acting, because they started purposely from a position of cultural antagonism towards outsiders, which was true of New Orleans three months after the storm, and it was something that needed to be said. That city felt under siege. People wondered, “Does David Simon really think that San Francisco is a cesspool with hills?” But for someone like Ashley Morris (blogger and inspiration for Creighton),or a variety of people who were actually speaking to it, or to the fictional character of Creighton, it’s an entirely reasonable thing to blurt out under the circumstances and in your anger. I look upon this, and I go, you can not like this, you can want to not watch a show where people have a divergent opinion, where they say bad things about your city, or where they seem to be insulated and self-absorbed. Although who isn’t self-absorbed when their town has a near-death experience? Were New Yorkers not talking about 9/11 for years afterwards? Was it not a subject of intense discussion and self-awareness? Did New Yorkers not sound to outsiders self-absorbed and preachy when they spoke of 9/11? The sense of entitlement that New Yorkers feel and that they’re not willing to grant to someone else who’s had a life-changing experience is really remarkable. But that’s the nature of empathy: it only goes so far. But what’s amazing to me is that most lay people people don’t see acting. Goodman was brilliant. He wasn’t chewing furniture. There were moments when he went over the top. He was brilliant. Same thing with Zahn. Zahn, to me, defined that character from jump. And it was only when the character made a few right moves that people said, “Oh, I sort of like that character. He’s not bad.” I mean, it’s one thing to talk about the character; it’s another thing to talk about acting as if people know what the fuck they’re talking about. Most people want to watch shows and they want to like the people they’re watching and they don’t want to think hard about why they’re ambivalent about a character. That doesn’t make it a grown-up endeavor, to do a show where you’re basically spoon-feeding warmth and simple plot.

You got at something that was written in quite a bit of the criticism at the start of the series: the idea that you were using Davis and Creighton as mouthpieces for your own beliefs.

The funny thing is, I don’t write every script. A lot of these lines are written by someone else. But if you went back and looked at Ashley Morris’s blog, and you looked at other people who were writing in the same way. Probably the portion of Shut the Fuck Up Juice that a lot of people outside New Orleans might need to drink if they are at all serious about trying to understand the divergence between what they see on screen and what they think in their own heads is on a blog called Back of Town. It’s done by a series of bloggers who were all there in Katrina and the aftermath. Some of them are very good writers, and they’re very smart about what they’re seeing. That doesn’t mean they hold the show apart from criticism. I read it because it informs me. I’m learning when I read that blog. Every now and then, someone veers off and starts to become predictive about what they think should happen or what they think characters should represent. Most of the time that’s not much help to the filmmakers, but every now and then they see themes that are indicative of a reality that Eric and I wanted to capture.

That’s who we’re writing to, in the same way we wrote “Generation Kill” for Recon Marines. One of our directors, Simon Cellan-Jones, did episode 7 of this show and he did episodes 4, 5 and 6 of “Generation Kill.” And he said something to me that I found very funny: “Well, you made ‘Generation Kill’ for 26 Recon Marines, and now you’ve made ‘Treme’ for at least 400 New Orleans musicians. So by your standards, you’ve become almost sickeningly populist.”

But the truth is, that’s been our recipe for doing work. It hasn’t been a recipe for grandiose success. No one watched “The Wire” until word of mouth got around. From our purposes, in terms of what gives us meaning as storytellers, that formula has worked pretty well. I think all the work has got to stand because it’s true to the events themselves, and to the people who lived the events. So I read Back of Town, and it tells me that we’ve not gone so far awry that the people who actually lost their homes, some of them are still exiled, all of them went through the torture of Katrina and its aftermath – the show is resonsant in its details. And that matters to me, in the same way it mattered to me that Marines found “Generation Kill” to be compelling in its depiction of modern warfare. And I don’t really care what Democrats or Republicans or politicians or people who were for the war or against the war thought about “Generation Kill.” I don’t care that somebody blogging in New York says when a character rants in New Orleans that they feel they’re being preached to. Those fuckers didn’t give a shit when it was really happening and they were being preached to by people who had lost everything. They didn’t give a fuck five years ago; why would I expect them to give a fuck now?

So no, it wasn’t me. I’m trying to be a conduit for what people in New Orleans really felt. If you don’t think they felt anger, and you don’t think they felt self-absorbed about the tragedy that was the near-death of their city, why don’t you think for a moment about how New Yorkers reacted in the aftermath of 9/11 and think about what’s plausible and what’s not?

Everyone – even the people who have been hesitant to embrace the show – has loved the music. How happy are you with the amount and kinds of music you’ve shown? Do you want to show more of it next year? Do you feel this was the right balance? What did you learn about taking a step back from the drama and showing performance as much as you did?

I think we didn’t show it as much as we could have. Most of (the live performances) are under a minute. We’re out of most songs without showing between a quarter and a third of the actual performance. I think if you stay too long, it drags, and if you don’t stay long enough, you’re denying yourself something that is remarkable. We’re actually catching real musical performance on film that is being played by the musicians in the moment it’s being filmed. Not to disrespect “Glee,” for what it is, but if you watch that for performance and for its musicianship, I think you’re short-changing yourself. It may be a completely delightful story, I’m not suggesting otherwise. But if “Treme” did nothing else other than assert for the culture of American music, it would be worthwhile. It might not be ambitious enough to satisfy the writers or justify the drama, but it would certainly be worthwhile to watch it to see the extraordinary level of musicianship throughout America’s first musical city. But that’s not the whole point. You’re exactly right to call it a balance. We debate where to cut in and where to cut out on every performance. It’s a matter of what the characters are giving us, because sometimes the characters are giving you story within performance, in which case you can stay a little longer. But if it’s purely spectator-driven, you probably can’t stay that long. I think we’ve held pretty well to that. You can argue five seconds here, 20 seconds there. But it’s a balance.

Wendell and Rob are still miming their instruments and you have real musicians doubling for them. Do you feel when you’re showing musical performances with those characters, as opposed to one with Annie, that you want to be spending more or less time with it, because you’ve got the real musician versus the actors faking it?

It doesn’t really matter. They’re part of a musical context, you see them playing with Dumpstaphunk or with Kermit, where you’re getting a complete musical dynamic. It’s not as if people are focusing solely on the trombone. They’re miming it well enough, and what they’re miming, we might not be hearing them, we’re hearing Stafford Agee from the Rebirth playing trombone, or we’re hearing Shamarr Allen when Delmond is playing with Galactic. You’re hearing very good musicians.

Overall, do you think the amount you showed this year is what you’d like to stick to, or are you going to play with it as you go into season two?

I don’t know. I think in some ways, the first season is about establishing the universe and what’s at stake in terms of the depth culture. But there are whole tracks of culture we’ve barely touched on. We haven’t really dealt with bounce music and hip-hop, and New Orleans is a hotbed of that. We’ve barely done Cajun and we’ve done no Zydeco. It’s even deeper than we’ve depicted, and we haven’t done that much traditional jazz. But having said that, there were some episodes that had more music. I think Mardi Gras, we probably spent a lot more money in terms of buying music, because on Mardi Gras day, in the run up to Mardi Gras evening, you hear music all over town. To have a moment without music is a choice more than to have music is a choice on that day. And then in other episodes, we had one or two performances at most, and the rest was just sort of jukebox. It depends on the episode, and on what’s happening. But it is a show about music. If somebody’s fast-forwarding through the music and saying, “Man, I wish they’d get to the plot,” again: “Waiter, there’s soup in my soup.”

I think that’s one complaint I have not seen yet.

I can’t imagine anybody would watch the show if that was the case. And by the way, if you’re not particularly interested in music, if you’re tone-deaf, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people, music is a valuable part of their lives, and some don’t respond. If you don’t respond to music, this is probably not the show to sustain you, because we’re saying music matters.

(Here’s the point at which we discuss in vague terms some possible storylines for season two. Stop reading if you want to come to it fresh.)

One of the things you would do every year on “The Wire” was to greatly expand the cast; we would go to a new part of Baltimore, meet a lot of new people in it. With this show, you have your core group of people, and it’s been very character-focused thus far. Are you planning that kind of expansion going into season two or will it still be predominantly about what’s happening to this group?

No, there will be other stories to tell. Here are some things that couldn’t happen in the first 3-7 months after the storm: we couldn’t deal with the Road Home money and where all the money went, because Road Home didn’t even start up and become a meaningful nightmare until well after a year, when it became clear the money wasn’t coming. We could only get to the beginnings of the betrayal of the insurance industry. We could only deal a little with the idea of “Where’s the help?” A lot of the money got funneled to politically connected firms that contracted out to the actual firms that did the work. There’s a level of scandal that didn’t make itself apparent until the time period of the second season. The crime didn’t start up again in a significant way until late spring/early summer of the ensuing year, and then it became profound. In some ways, the second year was much harder than the first. In the first year, there was almost an adrenaline to trying to get back and assert for the city, and that sustained people. That adrenaline faded in the second year. The rates of suicide in New Orleans were four times the national average in the year ensuing. The Creighton Bernette story was, in terms of his inability to create, his struggles on his own – because nobody kills themselves just because their city suffers; there has to be something internalized – was not unusual. If you look up the name Stevenson Palfi, a great documentary filmmaker who lost a lot of his material in the floods and struggled to get his next movie made after making a great film called “Piano Players Rarely Play Together,” he took his own life. That’s not Ashley Morris, we’re drawing from that and some other notable suicides that happened in the aftermath and into this second year. There was a second wave political alienation that occurred when a council president who was widely regarded by liberal whites and African Americans as the political future of the city, Oliver Thomas, who was himself indicted for some acts of corruption in that second year. There are opportunities to go into the political and to go into the police department, and a lot of the other things that happened in the police department since. There was a sense that a lot happened during the storm that was covered up in terms of homicide, and that didn’t start coming out until the second year.

We’re actually being true to the thing. In some ways, people outside New Orleans are prisoners of what they don’t know, or of what they know now, five years later. But it was unknown at the time; certain things hadn’t happened. in the same way, people of New Orleans are prisoners of what they do know. Early on, I was listening to the radio in New Orleans, and someone called in and said, “They got the dome wrong. Superdome, the roof was all torn up. When Lambreaux and his daughter are driving over the bridge, the dome is a clean white.” Well, no, the dome, by the November date when we did the pilot, had a fully-completed temporary white top on it. The torn pieces had been removed by November. Nobody remembers that. People were traumatized. We heard there weren’t enough refrigerators on the street, but by November, most of them were cleaned up. It’s an interesting thing dealing with the real. I value the real, that’s the purpose of doing the show, and to cheat that too much for the sake of drama would defeat our purpose.. But some of the people outside New Orleans have no sense of the real or are indifferent to it and want the show to be pure entertainment. And the people in New Orleans, the level of experience they went through is so intense that they’re captives to their own memories, which is entirely understandable. So it’s an interesting dynamic.

And it’s different from “The Wire,” where it took place in a real city and you were drawing on lots of real events and characters, but all of it was fictionalized in some way.

Right. We weren’t depicting Baltimore’s near-death experience. We were depicting systemic things that had been happening over generations in Baltimore. When we decided to do the school system, we decide, “Okay, this will be a fictional school year, and we can show trends from the last 20 years.” Here, there’s something we’re obliged to show fealty to, for better or for worse: the near-death experience of an American city. It was as if 9/11 had destroyed 4/5 of the real estate of Manhattan. It was that profound a moment for New Orleans. People were scattered across the country. That’s too profound an event to play around with that much. We’re very conscious of our responsibility there. I make it sound like it’s a burden, but it’s an extraordinary event and it’s worth chronicling and it made the show interesting to do. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying it is.

But we’re not going to go ahead and say, “Oh, this is the education season.” We need to deal with the school system when it comes back, we need to deal with crime. There are other things to do, and new characters to introduce when appropriate. And there are other characters who have been introduced, but facets of them have not been developed.

Am I making an erroneous assumption in thinking we’re going to see a lot more of David Morse?

I think not. It would be very good to have a police POV at the point at which crime erupts, and the federal investigations of the New Orleans Police Department start to compound. That would make perfect sense, wouldn’t it? Similarly, while Desiree was out of work and home caring for the baby, we’ve put her as part of the school system, and we’ve made reference to the way they’ve laid off everybody and the school system is not coming back. That has all sorts of manifest issues, not just for the schools, but the black middle class in New Orleans, to have that many people thrown out of work. Nothing stays static, but this is not the show where we’re going to be building slices of the city, piece by piece. We’re telling the story of the aftermath of a great trauma.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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