HBO just aired the series finale of “Tremé” — you can read my review of the finale here — and as I often do when that show ends a season (or “The Wire” before it), I got on the phone with co-creator David Simon to talk about it.
But though we talked about a few specifics of the final season — for instance, what decisions he and Eric Overmyer had to make about how to work within a reduced budget that allowed them to make 5 episodes rather than the 10 or 11 of previous seasons — the conversation mostly veered into a discussion of where Simon finds himself at this stage of a critically-revered but commercially-unsuccessful career. As he notes at one point, he’s now been a TV producer longer than he was a newspaper reporter, but he still isn’t sure he quite belongs in the business — “I don’t think I have demonstrated that I’m a particularly good fit for television” — and wonders if might leave HBO for another creative “insurgency,” or leave the medium altogether.
So lots of that, and about the reactions to the series over the years, all coming up just as soon as I kill the rest of the day making myself pretty…
In an ideal world where the show had done well enough for HBO to give you a full fourth season, and maybe held out the possibility of a fifth, what would you and Eric have been able to do differently? Or was this the story you had always planned for the fourth season, just compressed into five episodes?
David Simon: I’m not sure. I think somewhere around season 2, I think we realized we probably couldn’t stretch to 5, we were covering all of our themes. So a fifth season would be kind of a tall order. I felt we could deliver the characters to where they needed to be in four. But with five episodes, there were things we couldn’t do. We were not able to address in more detail some of Sonny’s resolution. There was more we could have done with (Toni) Bernette and some of the dynamics of the case work we had to look to doing what we could do, not to all of the things we might have done. We had to make Annie go a little faster than we otherwise might have. I think every character suffered a little bit. But mostly, we just came in later. We sort of treated it like half a season. Certain things happened off screen between seasons 3 and 4 that we might otherwise have chronicled: the dissolution of LaDonna’s marriage, or Janette getting out of the one restaurant and resolving to start from scratch in another. We had to basically imply a journey and arrive a little bit further down the road.
You have always structured the show with each season taking place about a year later so you can cover the next Mardi Gras. Knowing this was going to be the last season, and knowing that the Super Bowl and the BP oil spill took place two years after season 3 ended, was there any thought given to skipping a year to get there?
David Simon: No. No thought given to that. I don’t put the Super Bowl in the same category as some people do. I was here in New Orleans when they won, and I’m a Ravens fan, but I certainly don’t root against the Saints. You can’t help but love the way this town embraces its football team. But it’s a football game, and while it was a night of great camaraderie and very warm resolve on the part of people who had returned to New Orleans, the symbolism always go so far in the municipal dynamic. We just won the Super Bowl in Baltimore, and Baltimore’s still Baltimore, for better or worse. There was a little bit of feeling that would be fun to do, but that didn’t seem like an existential reason to continue the show when we had done as much as we could with the themes we were interested in, which was basically culture and the city, and what culture means, and what culture can and can’t do. I’m not sure that the Super Bowl, or even the BP oil spill, argued for any better resolve than we already had. At a certain point, we started to feel as if we were saying what we wanted to say with the characters and with the theme. I think we’d abandoned the idea of five seasons a while back. It was a matter of trying to keep the quotidian feel of the show, that these are ordinary people living human-scale lives, and time moves as time moves. Trying to keep that with a five episode season was tricky.
Albert dies in episode four. How did the two of you come to decide that A)the cancer would come back and he would die, and B)that he would die on camera, as opposed to it being something waiting out there for him sometime after we stopped following his story?
David Simon: I don’t know that we ever thought about it not happening on camera. The important thing for us was to get to the transmission of culture, to see the Indian gang go on, to see them come out without him, to see his son’s role in it, as well as the surrogate parental role he plays in the tribe for the other guys who are not his offspring but nonetheless his brood as well. From the very beginning, we had the idea of the son being brought back to the Indian culture. In season 3, we wanted to see him go out with the son, Delmond, and they marched together one time, and we knew that the next time, Delmond would march alone. Originally, that would have been season 4 and 5 if we hadn’t felt we were spending story and character at a faster rate. We had a good healthy debate about whether he should become the chief, and we decided he hadn’t been there all those years, and he would acknowledge that. So that was sort of a discussion, but we always knew those were the last two Mardi Gras. We were building backwards. At some point, tellingly, probably during season 2, I thought, ‘We couldn’t have them wait another year. The father’s really pressing on him to recommit to the culture, and he’s feeling it himself. I don’t know if we can sustain this for five seasons.’ You have to try to be attentive to what’s happening organically between your characters.
You say that you generally try not to just make characters into mouthpieces for things you might believe. There are several moments in the final season where people like Davis and Toni think back on all they’ve tried to accomplish over the years and feel frustrated with how little actually changed. Was there any of you being reflected in that, or am I reading too much into it?
David Simon: You’re reading too much into it. (laughs) I don’t know what to tell you.
So where was that coming from, then?
David Simon: I think a lot of people who are on a long uphill journey and are not amply and overtly rewarded for many years have every right to self-reflect. IF they’re at all aware of their circumstance, they’re going to self-reflect. I know the line I wrote for Toni Bernette, that actually comes out of the mouth of a Homicide detective in Baltimore who was joking about how long he’d been a Homicide supervisor. It’s from Terry McLarney (a major character in “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets”). He said, “I’ve been a Homicide sergeant for a lot of years; that’s a long time to be ignored.” I remembered the line, and he was somebody who, it was in one of these professions where you always feel like you’re digging out from under, it’s like you’re always mowing the lawn and it always needs to be mowed.
I’ve gotta tell ya, Alan, this show more than any, it’s become my baggage. Because I speak in other venues politically and about current affairs, and take interest in that, everybody reads that stuff and think it’s good grist for whatever the mill is by which you grind out what stuff means. And they apply it to characters without regard to who’s writing those characters or why, or whether those characters represent unreliable narrators in the piece. It was epidemic from the very moment that “Tremé” began to air, with people assuming this soliloquy by Creighton Bernette, or this one by Davis (was me). We were actually very aware that Davis and Creighton, especially, were unreliable. When Creighton says “San Francisco is a cesspool with hills,” that’s a clue. When Davis goes so far as to presume has has possession of the N-word and starts to explain it to somebody and gets punched in the face, that’s also kind of a clue. And yet throughout the run of the show, the numbers of people who would interpret characterization or dialogue as being indicative of what we were or weren’t trying to say just seemed to grow. I can either be more enigmatic and continue to do television or give up on the idea that everything any character I ever write says is not going to be misinterpreted. I’m probably not going to figure out a way to be enigmatic about anything. Welcome to the nonsense.
Coming off of this, how are you feeling about the television business at the moment and your place in it?
David Simon: I don’t know. I don’t think I have demonstrated that I’m a particularly good fit for television. I think I can tell dramatic narratives in longform of television quite well. I think I can be careful, I can know where I’m going, I can get there. There are some narratives that are readily applicable to television in longform. You can tell them in a novelistic way, but they require at least one of three fundamental currencies, which are violence, sex and comedy. And so absent that, the golden age of television, such as people are calling it, certainly makes it possible to tell novelized stories that we couldn’t before. But a lot of what I’m interested in is kind of what’s real in the world. There are things that are not applicable within the current framework and the current economy. I think “Tremé” is a little bit of a lesson in that, although nothing I couldn’t have predicted going in. We knew what we weren’t going to do. But even with the stuff I’m interested in and forwarding to HBO, what works in terms of maintaining an audience is not stuff I’m particularly interested in doing. So there may be some role in doing some limited-run minis. Or there may be some other insurgency, either at HBO going forward, or outside of HBO that wants to do the other kind of storytelling, the kind you’re not getting anywhere on television now, and is willing to trade audience for something else. That’s kind of what HBO was like 10 years ago, 12 years ago: they were throwing stuff up that had never been tried before. And there’s less of that now. So I don’t know. I certainly have more work at HBO, but I see a ceiling, in terms of what I’m interested in. It’s important to reflect on that, because I’ve been doing this now for longer than I was a newspaper reporter. Maybe it’s time to do something else. I’m trying to figure it out. You asked a good question.
So having done this for longer than you were a newspaper reporter, do you feel like you’re a TV producer now?
David Simon: I just think I’m a storyteller, and there are a lot of different mediums, not the least of which is prose. I’ve written a couple of books, I owe a third book to an editor, I’ve been doing some work on some theater stuff that has proven to be really interesting to me, just because it’s fresh. A lot of the stuff that HBO is having success with in these late years is not stuff that I’m interested in — they’re not franchises that I would be comfortable devoting any time to. It’s a different world, and ultimately, I’m also a little bit exhausted by the form itself. It’s a lot of work. You’re committing a lot of years. If you’re going to do something for three or four or five years, you have to love the story, you have to love the characters, you have to think you’re breaking new ground, or you’re doing something that hasn’t been said before. Or else you’re wasting an awful lot of time being derivative. We were dealing with stuff in terms of culture and what it means to the American city and the people trying to reconstitute their city that I hadn’t seen on TV before, and I was interested in it. That could sustain me for three or four years of work. I felt like I was breaking off fresh material. And there are other things that I think would be interesting paradigms for longform television, too. But I might be the only one. (Laughs) If that’s the case, then that’s the case. But that’s not a reason to go and do another gangster story. And this is my problem with being out of journalism: I’m also not interested in depicting the world as being more dramatic or hyperbolic than it is. As a way of example, (“The Wire” co-creator) Ed Burns and I tried to do some scripts on the history of the CIA. Well, the history of the CIA is CIA agents didn’t die very often during the Cold War. Neither did KGB agents or NKVD or whatever, because there was a gentleman’s agreement between the Russians and Americans: “We won’t kill each other. We’ll fight all kinds of surrogate battles using others, but the agreement is we won’t kill each other.” Then I can’t be hyperbolic about what my OSS or CIA agents faced, historically. I can’t give you a period piece in which we can fetishize the violence. I could, but I’m not gonna. What I’m interested in doing is arguing in the framework what was or what is to my best understanding. That doesn’t make me a particularly good fit either for television.
Looking back, and allowing for things like only having the budget for five episodes for this last season, do you feel you told this story as well as you could tell it?
David Simon: I actually gave a quote to Cynthia Littleton that I think has been misinterpreted by Brian Lowry. I said this was executed as well as anything I’ve ever done, and that’s true. This story about culture-bearers in New Orleans after the storm, and what they were able to bring back to their city, and what they were able to achieve, when all about them, other civic function was not performing, was told as well as I can tell any story. And the net result, I’m as proud of it as I was of “Generation Kill” or “The Wire” or anything. And that got shortened, I saw, by him, into ‘He thinks it’s the best thing he’s ever done.’ And the truth is, I don’t know what the best thing is. I never measure stuff against each other. It’s just, ‘Is this the best story I can tell about this, given the resources or my ability or the people I work with?’ That’s what I was trying to say. This was the best story I can tell about this. The best story I can tell about young men at war was “Generation Kill.” That was the best story I could find. (Author) Evan (Wright) did a great job, and working with Ed and George Faber and everybody else. In some ways, that one probably stands better than any of ’em, but I can’t even tell. I can’t measure it against “The Wire” or against “Tremé.” They’re all separate creatures. They’re operating with different currency.
“The Wire” wasn’t a hit when it aired, but it’s developed this huge afterlife that casts a long shadow over everything you’ve done since.
David Simon: Nobody’s watched anything I’ve done when it was on the air. You want to know a fun thing: the last couple of dinners I have had with Richard (Plepler) and Mike (Lombard), the guys running HBO, both times, they have suggested to me that the ratings for “The Wire” went up towards the end. Twice in a row: first Mike did, and then Richard suggested the same thing at a subsequent dinner. And I keep saying to them, ‘No, it didn’t. It went down every year after the second.’ And they said, ‘No, no, it went up after the kids.’ And I said, ‘No, it went down.’ They look at me and go, ‘You don’t have that right!’ ‘Check the numbers, but it’s your numbers, brother!’ The retrograde view of “The Wire” is that it was a success when it was on the air, but it wasn’t.
In terms of the expectations that created by the time “Tremé” came on the air, was that difficult for the new show to deal with? People are asking, “Well, when are the cops going to show up?” and even when you brought in a cop in season 2, it wasn’t “The Wire: New Orleans.”
David Simon: I don’t think there was anything I could have done other than tell the same story, or a hyperbolic story for people that would have placated anybody who wanted to see the wire all over again. If you wanted to see “The Wire” again, you should have stuck the DVDs back in the TV. I expected that. It came, you can only shake your head and laugh about it, and there’s nothing you can do. What was more debilitating was realizing that because in other venues — not in screenwriting, and not in dramatic narrative, but in essaying, blogging, making arguments about economic or political issues — I had been vocal and engaged, that I had created a prism by which some people were going to view character and story in a dramatic world, and that this was going to become a useless currency for discussion. That was the extra bump that I wasn’t really — I was surprised when it happened. It made sense when it happened, but I hadn’t thought about it. You expect people who are trying to write intelligently about drama or narrative to understand things about character and about the narrator and about how you write different characters and what you give them and how you grant them their own autonomy. You expect that, but if you go back and look at a lot of the official nonsense that greeted “Tremé,” that was fairly extraneous. Nothing you can do about it.
Where did the idea come from to end the series on that image of the makeshift scarecrow Davis left in the pothole months earlier?
David Simon: That happened in my neighborhood, about three blocks from my house in New Orleans. We had a huge sinkhole. The hole just was there, unattended for a while, chewing up car axles, and then someone put one of those orange and white barrels atop the hole, and it stayed that way for months — at least six or eight. And then Mardi Gras came around, and the neighborhood adorned it. One day we came by and there was a boa and some beads, there was a hat, and then he was holding a scepter — I call it “he,” I’m already anthropomorphizing the traffic cone. I actually watched that thing come together as we journeyed towards Mardi Gras, and then it stayed that way for months after. Finally, after a year or more, the city got around to filling the pothole. I watched that and thought, ‘What a wonderful metaphor for this town.’ Coming into the last season, I offered it to the other writers as something I thought we should use, run it as a theme through the five episodes. That’s it. I’m real attentive to not telling you what you should think “Tremé” is or isn’t at this point. I’m actually better off with saying to the locals in New Orleans what it isn’t: that it isn’t journalism, that it isn’t a story about all of New Orleans post-Katrina, no story’s about everything and everyone’s entitled to their own history. I’m really attentive to what it isn’t. But as far as what it is, that’s for guys like you to decide, and viewers themselves to decide. It’s presumptuous of me to get much into it, don’t you think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org