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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Writer-producer David Simon didn’t want to do this interview about “Treme,” the New Orleans drama that just wrapped up its second season. When I put in a request to HBO, the initial response that came back through a publicist was, and I quote: “Oy, what can I tell that isn’t self-evident?”
But I asked again, promising that this wouldn’t be a nit-picky discussion of plot and character, but hopefully an interview that talked about larger issues: the style and architecture of the show, its storytelling philosophy, its view of art and culture, and the ways in which it is similar to or different from Simon’s previous series, “The Wire,” “The Corner” and “Generation Kill.” And he said yes. The conversation ranged over nearly two hours. Excerpts follow.
Salon: What sort of philosophy — or what sort of messages, if any — are you trying to convey on “Treme,” about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? And how do you respond to critics who have contended that this series, like “The Wire” before it, conveys a pessimistic vision of city life, and the United States generally? Especially season two of “Treme,” which was dominated by crime, the threat of random violence, and local government’s culture of corruption and indifference to individual suffering?
David Simon: In New Orleans, people from the post-Katrina world really startle [at the show] and say, “You people are grafting your politics onto what happened.” But [what you see on the show] are their politics, the politics of citizens in New Orleans, the politics of the last five or six years in that city. The reporting is still very careful.
And I don’t know what to say about the notion that I’m misanthropic. You can still have great affection for people, and for Americans, and for people in New Orleans, for artists and musicians and cops and drug dealers, and think that we’re all going to hell politically and economically. It’s possible to hold those two disparate ideas in your head at the same time. It’s actually relatively easy to do.
Salon: What are the special problems, the special challenges, that a series like this poses? On every other series you’ve been involved with, maybe with the exception of “The Corner,” you had a sort of a spine that was just there, and very much visible, whether it was the investigations on “The Wire” or the mission on “Generation Kill”….
Simon: [On "Treme"] we have a spine, too, which is what happened in New Orleans over the last six years. You come into the writer’s office. It’s not a bunch of dilettantes deciding what songs from their record collection they want heard on the show, and what this character could do that is really fun or interesting. When you come into the writer’s office on “Treme,” what you see is bulletin board after bulletin board of color-coded cards listing what happened in New Orleans politics, what happens in terms of crime culture, what happens in terms of redevelopment, city hall, the education system. What happened when. When did New Orleans experience this? When did people become aware of this? When did people start learning about the mid-cities recovery zone?
Sometimes it’s a little funny to read reviews where the writer says, “Why’d they do this?” Or, “Oh, my goodness, they’re using crime now to make the story more interesting.” No! There was no crime the first year after Katrina. I don’t know how many different ways to say it.
The spine is there. And it’s rooted in the actual events that occurred in New Orleans, beginning in August of 2005.
Salon: All I meant by that is that you had previously used the word “delicate” to describe what is being done on the show. And I meant that–
Simon: Oh, yeah, well, as you know from your own life, major political events in your community and in the world by and large impact you intellectually. And maybe to a lesser extent, in a muted way, they might influence you economically. Or they might have a positive or negative effect, if you have a particular interest. But most of what passes for current events in the world, we experience intellectually. Our lives are about the day-to-day.
And these are ordinary people. We’re not doing a show about mayors and police chiefs and recon Marines who are invading a country. We’re doing a show about people who are trying to reconstitute their city or their culture just as a means of getting through the day, not because they’re on a mission. Most of them are not on a mission. Some of them are politicized, to an extent. But for most of them, life is about the day-to-day. [Series co-creator] Eric [Overmyer] and I do not want to make a show where it’s Season 3, and these two people are trapped in a drainage ditch and the water’s rising. Fuck it. I hate that. That’s television.
So, you’re right. We’re locked into ordinary people experiencing ordinary life in a place that is a little bit extraordinary.
Simon: That’s it! That’s all the story is about. But how they experience it, how they come to terms with it — and by the way, they are getting NO help from the greater society, from city government, from state government. At every point that they look to anybody above them for help, for guidance, for leadership, it’s not there. That’s thematic.
Salon: It’s interesting how all of your shows, all of your series, touch on this to a degree — the extent to which individuals can be rightly very angry with their treatment by, or their neglect at the hands of, the system… and yet the system barely registers them because they’re just individual people.
Salon: And there are no villains.
Simon: Right. And people who are expecting resolution in the classic TV sense … Look, American television has been a juvenile medium for most of its existence. This is true. Because of the commercials, because of the need to placate the maximum number of eyeballs, happy endings abound, redemption abounds, perfect revenge is often achieved in an action sequence. It’s very much unlike life as I have experienced it, and as most people have experienced.
Life is glorious and vibrant and joyous at points, but it is essentially tragic. That’s not a unique David Simon perspective. That’s the perspective of anyone who contemplates anything as simple as mortality. You’re gonna die, and everyone you love and care about is gonna die. Life is finite. Some of them are gonna die too soon, and some of them are gonna die with things unsaid and things unfinished. And if you look at life in a fair and accurate context, you see that it is often deeply tragic, regardless of how well or poorly you live portions of your life — and certainly some people get luckier than others.
Television, by and large, has not dealt with that–
Simon: –because first of all, there’s no money in it. And second of all, because they’re scared of distracting you for a moment from what you have to do, which is buy Lexuses, or buy iPods, or buy bluejeans, or buy feminine hygiene products. Every few minutes, they need you reassured enough that you’re gonna pay attention to the ads.
There’s been this wonderful, relatively brief window on premium cable where they haven’t had to worry about that, so you can tell a grownup story. A little bit, I think. You can try. That’s the challenge.
Salon: There were a number of threads this season that dealt very specifically with mentors, and the mentor-student relationship: Antoine Batiste teaching those kids at his school, Harley teaching Annie about being an artist and musician, Eric Ripert playing himself in those restaurant scenes with Janette, Delmond learning from his father Albert about music while making the album, and so many others. Were there any mentors that you’ve had who came to mind, or who kind of hovered over this season, throughout the writing process?
Simon: The people who mentored me in my own professions are always foremost in my mind. [As a journalist] I had great editors. At the Baltimore Sun, I had Rebecca Corbett and Steve Luxenberg, who are two really fine journalists and who made me better every time out. And then when I went to write books, [former Broadway Books editor and later Henry Holt & Co. president and publisher] John Sterling. It would be nice if I gave him a book in the next decade! [Sterling] made my books better than I could have made them on my own, and helped me understand long-form narrative in ways I couldn’t have understood when I started the projects.
And then ["Homicide: Life on the Street" writer-producer] Tom Fontana took me on when I was looking at television as kind of a lark, as something I might do for a couple of years for money as I finished my second book. I had no intention of making a home in that medium. It was years before I looked up and realized that I had. Tom was incredibly gracious and open about sharing everything he knew about how to make television shows. Those are the four people I would mention as mentors.
Salon: How do they relate to the characters on “Treme”?
Simon: I would say — well, it’s not just me on the show. There’s Eric Overmyer, and George Pelecanos especially. When it comes to the theme of men working with boys, nobody does that better than George Pelecanos. And George has a lot to say about that. He grafted the [Dennis] “Cutty” [Wise] story onto “The Wire.” I don’t think it’s ever been done better. If he has a primary cause, it’s that — it’s the idea of mentoring, and what it means to have strong role models. With George it’s a particularly male thing.
But in any event, there were a lot of people kicking in on [the mentoring theme] on “Treme.” It was appropriate to the year, you’re correct. It’s hard for me to gauge what I feel about the people who mentored me, and how I’m shoving those experiences onto Antoine Batiste or Eric Ripert or anybody. You know, in some ways the Ripert side is a question for Anthony Bourdain, if anybody. [Bourdain was a writer on Season 2 of "Treme," contributing to the restaurant storylines.] It’s a collective, if anything.
Salon: There is kind of a hive-mind thing that happens when you’re writing a show, isn’t there? I appreciate your taking great pains to separate yourself from the people you collaborate with, because you’re not all the same person, but …
Simon: I’m a little tired of it being ‘The David Simon Show.”
Salon: But you all are on the same page, though, in the sense of….
Simon: In the sense that we’re all in there talking it out, oh yeah, sure. I don’t think there was ever a moment where any one person said, “In season 2, we’re gonna have this mentor theme, and we’re gonna touch on it here, here and here.” We pursued the stories organically. For example, Antoine Batiste was going to go in the schools and teach because he was ready to experience something outside of his own margins. And by that I mean we very purposefully made him a very knockaround, workaday musician in the first season.
Simon: But then we gave him two competing ambitions: Fronting his own band, and giving something back to the musical community that gave so much to him. We played with the idea of those two being in competition. There was never a moment where we said, ‘Oh, this will dovetail nicely with Janette’s journey through the New York kitchens and what she will bring back to New Orleans.” Nobody ever said that. We were dealing with each story organically. If there was a moment later on where we realized one was echoing the other, we probably remarked on it. But things begin organically, they begin with story and character and what you want to say.
Salon: That dynamic, though comes up, too in…Well, let me back up a second and admit that intentionality is a tricky thing when you’re talking about making a TV series, or engaging in any kind of creative process. I mean, you know this: Sometimes as a writer you mean to do things, even if you weren’t consciously thinking about it when you did it.
Simon: Sure! You’re still planning a theme around actual plot events. So it is intentional. Maybe more so on “The Wire,” because on “The Wire” we were making certain arguments about public education, for instance, so certain things had to happen, or fail to happen. We were making arguments about the inability to reform the political structure. So we knew certain endings. And we might have known certain endings here.
But it’s a little bit more organic on “Treme,” because it’s a way more delicate, way more nuanced show in terms of individuals — in terms of men and women in the context of culture, and their contributions to culture, and what they gain from culture, and why it matters that we live in cities, and why it matters that we live compacted in these cities and we’re so different, and what the potentialities are and where the problems are. That’s a little more delicate than the question of where they’re going to find the $62 million to fund the school deficit [in Season 4 of "The Wire"].
We’re not trying to set up those kinds of problems here. We’re not trying to do the same show twice.
Salon: Let’s return for a moment to the idea of a city and her culture. New Orleans is obviously a special case, because the art and the music are so much foregrounded. They’re so much a part of the city’s identity.
Simon: They’re visual. And they’re aural, with an “au.” And you can catch them on film.
Salon: It seems to me that the issues you examined on “The Wire” were applicable to any large city to a certain degree. But it’s a little different with the question of the arts in New Orleans, the state of the arts in New Orleans, because so many cities in the United States don’t give a damn about the arts at all. In New Orleans, some people there care more about the arts than others. But they all have to care, sort of, because it’s New Orleans.
Simon: There are, actually, some people in New Orleans who don’t care at all, and who actually resent the culture of the perpetual party. A lot of them life in Jefferson Parish, it seems to me, judging from the comments that we get.
Salon: What can other cities learn from what New Orleans has gone through, with regard to the arts — with regard to recognizing the importance of the arts?
Simon: Listen, they don’t teach the melting pot in school anymore. They don’t like the analogy. They teach “the salad bowl.” That’s what my kid was taught — the idea that there are all these different ingredients, and they mix together and it makes a great taste, but they don’t actually melt together and become homogeneous. Why whatever metaphor, though, that’s something I actually believe in.
Salon: In the salad bowl, or in the melting pot?
Simon: In whatever they’re calling it this week. This is, to me, a story of fundamental patriotism. This is as patriotic a story as I can imagine myself telling. I’m not proud to be an American in every respect, but I’m exceptionally proud when I see New Orleans reconstituting itself after that storm, and doing it by lifting its own bootstraps, and with some genuine indifference from the rest of the country.
Salon: I was gonna say, they would have been glad to accept help, if more had been offered.
Simon: Well, it’s hard to say. There’s that whole Bobby Jindal, “I’m not taking federal aid” nonsense. But you’re right, they would have been happy to accept more genuine help, as opposed to disaster capitalism, which is where a lot of the money went. See Halliburton, and people like it.
But in any event, not to get into the politics of it, I do feel genuinely patriotic about certain things as an American. They’re not the things that a lot of people genuinely associate with patriotism: Flag waving, or a sort of miltaristic pride, or that sense of, “Goddamn it, our country is the best country in the world, and our shitty health care system is not socialist, no matter what you say.”
Simon: There’s a lot that I’m obviously content to critique about the country, and that I am not particularly proud about. But there are things about the American spirit that I admire very much, and that make me think that I do not belong anywhere else in the world but here.
Salon: It sounds that you’ve got more of a Frank Sinatra, “The House I Live In” sort of patriotism.
Simon: Well, what I was gonna say was, my patriotism is around the city-state.
If you talk to a lot of people in New Orleans, they’ll tell you they live in the Third World. They’ll tell you, “You’ve left America, you’re in New Orleans now.” They’ll say that! They mean it as a joke. They know they’re part of the United States. But in many ways, they feel otherwise. On The Soul Rebels Brass Band album that came out a few years ago, there was a spoken word essay at the beginning where they say, “When I go to other countries, I don’t tell them I’m from the United States, I tell them I’m from New Orleans.”
And what is wonderful about the city, and what works when nothing else seems to work, is the idea that people are experiencing urban life, which is the only life that America is going to have going forward. I mean, we’re not going back to small-town values. Sorry! Y’know? Regardless of the rhetoric of any given politician at any moment, it’s big-city values that are going to save us or thwart us. Small town values are irrelevant. Eighty-three percent of us live in metropolitan areas now, or areas that are at least oriented toward cities, and the health of those cities determine the health of metro areas. Get it straight. Jefferson lost that argument, Hamilton won.
Until we find some affection for who we are and who we’re going to be, and until we become inclusive about it — “inclusive” being the important word here — the future is either gonna be gated communities and a lot of poor people, or we’re gonna figure out how the city works. And that’s going to be the new America.
And so what interests me about New Orleans, and what I find stirring, is a certain patriotism for community, and for the city-state.
Simon: I don’t know if that made any sense. But you asked what can other cities learn from New Orleans? The answer is, pay attention to the art that comes out of there. Because it doesn’t happen without everybody kicking in. Right down to that seminal moment in Congo Square where the pentatonic scale and West African rhythm met European instrumentation and arrangement.
Salon: Which is a moment that you kind of, in a coded way, replay in Season 2 — in the Mardis Gras episode.
Simon: Did we? I don’t even remember.
Salon: [Laughs] Delmond’s moment, the moment that inspires the creation of the album that his dad will eventually sing lead vocals on.
Simon. Oh, yeah. That moment is sort of a deep New Orleans folkway mixed in with modern jazz. But I see what you’re saying.
Salon: The intersection of different kinds of music, is what I’m getting at.
Simon: Oh, absolutely. I once was at — I’m trying to remember what bar it was, it was about fifteen years ago, some bar in New Orleans. Tuba Fats was playing with The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. The Klezmer All-Stars were playing Eastern European Jewish klezmer music. And Tuba Fats was one of the fundamental forces behind sustaining the brass band culture there for many years. And, they’re jamming. I remember this incredible, twelve-minute, tour-de-force, with everybody soloing. And they finished. They concluded so abruptly and so perfectly that there was a moment where people weren’t sure whether to clap. Tuba Fats just leaned into his mic and said, “Yeah…We know this music.”
Simon: [Laughs] it was like, y’know: Only in New Orleans!
But there is something demonstrable in New Orleans that people can take to heart. I’m not saying we should all form brass bands and bury our dead above the ground in Kansas City. That ain’t happening! But by way of metaphor and allegory, there are things you can learn from this city about living together — about the value of the city, about the fact that we are either going to figure this out or we are going to fail as a society. That’s what the show is about.
Salon: “Treme” definitely gets into the political, social and creative issues you’re talking about. But I wonder, how do you balance the need to address these issues, these big subjects, against the need to be….well, entertaining. I almost hate to use that word, because it’s such a loaded word, but…
Simon: Oh, sure, I know what you’re saying, but you have to use that word! It’s our job to be entertaining. If we’re not entertaining, nobody’s going to watch us. I worry less about Sunday night ratings than I worry about this thing eventually finding an audience on all platforms eventually. If the show can’t do that, then it’s failing.
Salon: I’m thinking about scenes like the one between Harley and Annie about the John Hiatt song, where Harley’s talking about how that song was written 25 years ago and had nothing to do with Katrina, but that’s Annie reads it now, and ironically the reason Annie is able to read it that way now, and kind of project herself onto it, is because the song was a personal but politically nonspecific expression of whatever the songwriter was feeling at that moment. And then you’ve got all the issues surrounding Davis’ band, where Davis wants to be aggressively, stridently, ripped-from-the-headlines political, yet what the audience is really, truly responding to is the power of Calliope as a rapper.
These issues come up when you’re creating art. How do you deal with them in the writers’ room?
Simon: You’re asking what we know about how art and politics mix. Or don’t mix.
Simon: They mix very delicately. When the politics becomes too didactic, the art ceases to be artful. It also ceases to be effective as political propaganda, or as political art. It ends up preaching to the choir. When people are watching “Treme,” what they’re getting are legitimate arguments that we are straining from arguments made by New Orleanians.
That’s different from “The Wire,” where Ed Burns, myself and the other writers — George Pelecanos especially — arguing what they thought about the condition of the city, what was important. We were the editorial board. And we were making our arguments as best we could, utilizing narrative drama.
On “Treme,” as on “Generation Kill,” I feel a greater fealty to people we’ve talked to. On this show, that means the opinions of the New Orleanians on the writing staff who are there. They’re very influential.
But it also means information that we’ve gleaned from reading virtually everything that there is to read, from periodicals and the newspaper in town, to all the books that have been written, to all the essayists who have weighed in, to all the people who have told us about their experiences post-Katrina. We get to have our say here and there. But it’s a much more expansive and much more subtle view.
And even then, you must stay within the context of character! Wendell Pierce’s character Antoine Batiste is never going to carry his trombone down to a city council meeting and and make a statement. That’s not gonna happen to him. He would never do it. He would never waste an afternoon doing such a thing. It’s not who he is.
Salon: No, it’s not.
Simon: He might get up off his ass and go to an anti-crime march if everybody around him was finally fed up. He’ll march for the day, and he’ll take the baby carriage out, he and Desiree. And he’d do it thinking, “Okay, if the weather’s right, and if the kid cooperates, then yeah, I’ll kick in that much.” He’s the average musician. He’s the average guy in New Orleans. We can’t force that sort of thing further than it will go, even if you’re trying to have a political message. If we did, we’d lose a lot of the people who like the show, and they’d be right to leave us.
Salon: I want to talk to you about the structure of the show, the structure of the episodes. As you know, I like the series a lot, and one of the reasons I like it so much is that it’s so much more ambitious than most shows. And for that reason, I’m hard on it at times — maybe too hard on it, by some people’s reckoning. I get some comments that amount to, “This is a great show, ‘The Wire’ was a great show, David Simon and his people know what they’re doing, stop nitpicking it.”
But it seems to me that the virtues of a show like this are tied up with a potential pitfall, which is the danger of being so committed to what I’ve termed a “democratic” style of storytelling that you deny yourself the great advantage of TV series storytelling, which is the privilege of being somewhat elastic, and being able to focus in on one or two characters for a while and let the other characters’ stories not disappear entirely, but recede temporarily. There were times this season where the emphasis felt off to me — where the audience’s attention naturally piques around certain moments and subplots, but you have to cut those short because you have committed to check in with all the other characters.
Simon: Well, the individual stories of the characters do progress over a season, and we have an idea of where they’re going and what we want to say about them. But we don’t feel the need to detail every single moment, or even every significant moment, that happens with any one of the characters.
Take the investigation into the homicide this season [which had two parallel subplots, those of attorney Antoinette 'Toni' Bernette and cop Terry Colson]. Maybe you’ve got a scene where Toni has advanced her part of the story a bit, and now we don’t need that much on the investigation. She’s waiting for some documents to come back, so we think, okay, there’s nothing else to progress in this episode, so let’s just do one scene that says — as part of the whole, if this makes sense — “time is progressing, there are gradations of what she feels, so that when we return to her it will feel as though she’s made a greater leap, it will not feel improbable, it will not feel so perfectly linear in the way that life never is.”
The measure that I care about is not the episodic. I just don’t care about evaluating these things by episodes. It’s like I’m building a house, and you’re telling me, “I really like the stairwell, but I don’t like the balustrade.” Well, great, thanks, y’know? What do you think of the house? When you get to the end [of a season], did it feel like she got where she was supposed to go, and that she really experienced these eight months as an ordinary human being would? That’s the real challenge, because film is a shorthand for everything.
Salon: That makes it difficult to write about on a weekly basis.
Simon: It’s hard to write about any of the modern shows that way. I said this to Alan Sepinwall, your former writing partner [at the Star-Ledger]. I have no sense of disrespect toward Alan. We go back a long way, we were both friends with [writer-producer] David Mills. But I said to him [about weekly recaps], “There’s a flaw here, in terms of what we’re making.” If you watch ‘Treme” — and if you don’t watch it, you don’t watch it, fine — but if you watch “Treme,” four months after it ends, you’re still thinking about those characters, to the point where you’re thinking about what it meant for those people to go through what they went through.
And I want that to be resonant. I don’t care about the thrills you get in every episode. I want it to be resonant at the end, in a cumulative way. Eric feels the same way. We feel we’re writing a singular, elemental thing.
Somebody pointed out to me that you had real concerns about the rape of LaDonna.
Salon: I did, yeah.
Simon: I saw that one of the things you argued for was that you wanted to see her fight back, you wanted to see some resistance, it was so hard to see such a strong character brought low so quickly, and not have it immediately addressed.
Salon: Well, I think that was misunderstood, actually, David, to be fair. And in all honesty, I probably didn’t express myself as clearly as I should have. It happens. I was thinking about the rape within the context of that particular episode. Here we have this incident which is immensely powerful and important — and yes, I understand, you have to make decisions of when to cut away and so forth. But some stories are inherently more interesting than others. When you have material that powerful, and you kind of abbreviate it or jump away from it, whatever philosophical reason you have for doing it, it’s jarring, and it’s not unreasonable to expect some viewers to go, “Whoa, wait a second, what? Go back to that other thing.”
What I’m saying is, I wouldn’t have minded a few more scenes with her character that episode, and maybe less of Sonny or some other character.
Simon: Well, okay. I’m not gonna argue with you about the merits of our choices, because honestly, an episode is never finished. It’s abandoned. We run out of time. We shoot the film we have, we look at it, we make some choices, y’know. Nothing’s perfect.
Simon: But I would make the point in retrospect, that if you go back and read your argument, in a way, having her be so powerless, having her be voiceless, having her stew on it emotionally to the degree that she must — and I don’t think it ends with this year, what she went through was profound, it’ll go on, to the extent that the show will go on — when you get to the last episode, and she sees the guy, and she has him locked up, and when he’s on the ground, the kick that she delivers, and the emotional release that happens then, if you see her fight back in episode three and see her get a lick or two in, you’ve diminished that last scene. You’ve diminished the journey already. You’ve cheated the journey already.
Plus — and this is a secondary point, because you can’t write shows for the wrong people — for the handful of people who look upon raping a woman as a fantasy, seeing a woman fight and lose and then be reduced is part of the allure. It’s a crime of violence, not of sex. I didn’t want anyone watching that scene for the wrong reasons and getting off on it. It’s different than the violence of “The Wire.”
But we had these conversations about violence on “The Wire” as well. You could count on one hand the number of times that we embraced in any way the act of murder.
Simon: Most of what passed for violence on “The Wire” was an abrupt economic transition. It was, “You’re no longer necessary, you are a liability politically or legally or economically, therefore you get a bullet.” In the head, usually. Take it, fall down, be dead. “You were alive a moment ago. Now you’re dead.” Those times that we lingered on violence on “The Wire” was when it was not an economic transition. Like when it was Chris Partlow beating Michael’s stepfather to death.
Simon: …and the audience is getting a sudden realization that Chris had been sexually abused as well.
Salon: When it comes to the depiction of violence, you and your collaborators have been on the side of the angels far more often than the creators of some HBO shows.
Simon: Look, I love Sam Peckinpah as much as the next guy. But there’s a reason why Peckinpah is doing violence as ballet in “The Wild Bunch,” and it’s because the movie really is a celebration of these men of violence and their departure from the world. Thematically, it’s what he’s saying. He can’t help it. It’s appropriate in that film. To the extent that we were making the statements that we were making on “The Wire,” it would have been inappropriate to prolong the violence. We weren’t going to prolong the violence for any other reason than those that had to do with character and plot.
Salon: Can we return to the subject of seriality?
Salon: Writing about a show like this weekly in a really satisfying way is almost impossible for me, which is why I don’t do it. I’ve gotten grief from readers because I will sometimes recap a show like “The Killing” almost every week, but not “Treme.” The reason for that is very simple. With a series like “The Killing,” it’s goal-directed, and there is an easily identifiable thing to write about every week, a logical and orderly narrative progression that one can judge and say “Yes, this is working,” or “No, this is not working at all.”
With “Treme,” on the other hand, I’ve written a lot of columns, but for the most part they’ve been built around certain motifs, themes or ideas, ones that are expressed by the series as a whole over time. I wrote a couple of columns that questioned the narrative approach of the series, and columns about its depiction of art and artists, and another about trauma, mining certain episodes for examples to illustrate whatever I was trying to get at. It seems to me that writing about this show every single week mainly in terms of what happened and where the characters are doesn’t suit the kind of show that it is.
Simon: I don’t envy anyone who’s trying to write about “Treme” in a critical way on a weekly basis. I don’t know how you can do it accurately and substantively. You have to write with such caution that the exercise becomes problematic.
And I’ve sat on the other side of this and said, “Tell yourself the truth, Simon. You’re happy when people discuss the show. You need the show to be in the zeitgeist. You need viewers to hear about it. You don’t want people not to hear about it. But accept that you’re writing the show for people who have a complete season DVD set in front of them, or who are watching the show via HBO On Demand, or who can otherwise absorb it all as a piece, and watch [the episodes] all in a row.”
Salon: Is it frustrating for you in some ways that “Treme” is truly a long-form story — it’s ten, eleven, twelve hours, a novel really — and you’re doling it out in chapters? The architecture is subtle. People can’t always see the architecture. Sometimes it’s impossible for them to see the architecture. And so there are times when a viewer may say, to return to your house-building metaphor, “Hey, that’s unsatisfying, why did they spend so much time on that banister as opposed to that stoop of the house that they’re building?” God knows I don’t want to discourage people from tuning into “Treme” each week as it airs new episode, but do you see what I’m saying?
Simon: Believe me, by the time I get done with one episode, I never want to see it again!
Simon: But I have been told that — that if you can watch two episodes a night, or a bunch of them in a week, it’s more satisfying, and things that maybe might have been problematic or unsatisfying become less so, because you can see the whole thing laid out. I’ve been told that. But I am writing it as if I care about the totality of it.
Let’s take Sonny. After the first season, a lot of the people said, “What’s the point of Sonny?” Well, then you might want to ask, “What’s the point of Bubbles on ‘The Wire’?” Bubbles was a drug addict who we eventually let get clean over the course of five seasons on “The Wire.” But Bubbles was an extraordinary drug addict.
Salon: He was.
Simon: A selfless drug addict. Of which there are very few.
Salon: And as a character, Sonny doesn’t give you as much as a viewer as Bubbles did. He just doesn’t.
Simon: Nor did we want him to. Sonny is more of an accurate depiction of somebody who has a drug habit and ergo behaves selfishly and insecurely, and whose inner addict is dominating his behavior. Bubbles was an addict, but his inner addict wasn’t dominating his behavior. Bubbles was epic. And of all the people I’ve ever met who had drug problems dating back to the days of “The Corner,” Garry McCullough [the real-life inspiration for Bubbles] was a unique creature. Not to disrespect the character, because we loved writing the character, he was a great character, and there was a lot of Gary McCullough in Bubbles. But we understood that we were cheating a little bit, that we were giving you the best possible drug addict. We were not giving him many of the attributes that make addicts behave the way they do. If you’ve had an addict in your family, you know what I’m talking about.
Sonny is a guy to whom we’ve given the honest attributes of addiction. For me, his journey back requires more time, and it’s more of a journey. I know that when he slaps Annie that viewers are going to hate him. I don’t care. I’m more interested in characters who don’t gratify people in that way that television so often rushes to gratify people.
Remember Henry David Thoreau’s line about how the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation? He wasn’t talking about the 21st century. In the 21st century, the mass of men lead lives of quiet masturbation. Television is the optimum tool for that.
What I am really interested in are characters who are flawed. I really love what Wendell Pierce did in this final episode of season two, where, in the midst of taking this kid out on his first paying gig, he leers at the mother!
Salon: I love that.
Simon: It’s who he is! He’s not gonna learn, in the TV sense of “eventually he’ll be the person you want him to be, because it’s television,”
Simon: Right. It doesn’t necessarily make him evil.
Salon: It’s who he is as a character.
Simon: And I couldn’t exactly rush out and say to every single person who has a problem with Sonny or doesn’t find him interesting, “Look, I promise you, this guy has a journey ahead of him that’s worthwhile, and that’s why we’re keeping him around. I’m already thinking about next year. I got a renewal for next year. They gave us eleven episodes. Trust me!” I can’t say that!
Salon: No, you can’t.
Simon: There’s no reason for viewers to trust anybody! It’s television!
Salon: I admit I did find myself coming around just a little bit on Sonny in this final episode, in those reflective, contemplative images of him on the new fishing boat.
Simon: I really hope you did. And if you didn’t, well, it means we didn’t execute them well enough.
All I’m saying is, it’s so hard to look at these shows on an episode-by-episode basis and say, “I don’t like that they did this, I don’t understand why they did this.” It may be that you get to the end of a season and find that the reasons that we had for doing whatever we did don’t justify anything. But if you care about the whole, there is no way we can do anything but write the whole. Wherever the pieces lay in the individual chapters, that’s where they lay.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)