DAVID SIMON BIDS FAREWELL TO HBO SERIES “TREME” AND SHARES MEMORIES
- Q: You open Season 4 on Election Day 2008, which was a momentous day for America. Why did you choose to begin the final season on that day?
DAVID SIMON: Obviously Obama being elected was a transforming moment for the country and a moment that was accompanied by a great deal of optimism about change, particularly in New Orleans, which is a very blue city in a very red state and had felt particularly alienated under the previous administration.But if you saw the teaser, it ends with a certain amount of ambiguity, which is to say, neither a reflection for or against Obama. American problems – and maybe problems in the west generally – are no longer susceptible to the great man theory of history; it’s not about electing the right guy anymore. They’re more systemic than that, and the problems depicted in the show are more systemic than that, so we were basically showing the political system offering some level of hope to people who feel like they’ve been on their own for a long time, but, at a certain point, I think we all know that there’s limitations to what any given elected official can do at this point.
- Q: Is it difficult sometimes when writing with the benefit of hindsight, to truly recapture that feeling of, genuine hope and optimism when you know what happened in Obama’s first term?
DS: I’m not sure I had it when he was elected. Obviously I’m to the left of the Democratic party, and he was going to have my vote over McCain or over any Republican nominee I could imagine – and he would again; it’s four more years of things not getting worse at the same rate – but I do feel like that what ails my country is systemic. My country’s broken, and it’s not about electing the right guy to oversee a broken machine, it’s about the broken machine itself. And the part of the American government that is actually completely dysfunctional is the legislative branch, which has become almost slapstick. I supported him fully but I had no sense that wholesale change was possible, particularly after it was a divided government after the first two years. Again, it’s not really a critique of Obama one way or the other in the piece, it’s more our saying that nothing is going to reach these streets except the people themselves. They’re on their own. That’s kind of what the teaser is saying.
And you just have to look at the health care mayhem to realize that. What ails the healthcare system is late stage capitalism and we don’t want to let everybody in the tent. It’s just basically an economic story of people saying: If I’ve got my health insurance then I want to cry socialism if you try to give it to anybody else. What could be more socialistic than group health care insurance?
The UK did it. And everyone said the same things about Bevan when he introduced the idea of the NHS; that he was going to wreck everything. But your life expectancy did not take a hit, in fact, it went up, and your level of health care went up, and it went up for all of you. And health care costs are less a drain on your budget than ours.
Our healthcare system doesn’t work. And the first effort to try to resolve that which actually made it through congress made it through in an emaciated form and ultimately is now, has washed up on the rocks of an IT problem. This is a can’t do society. It’s not a can do society. It’s a can’t do. This is America, and this is the best we can do? That’s what we’re arguing over now – the scraps. So you look at that and you say: If this is how they deal with national healthcare, can you imagine how useless they are on something like global warming, or geopolitics? It’s astonishing.
- Q: How do you feel about saying goodbye to Treme?
DS: Oh, it’s hard. I think we knew we were saying goodbye to it relatively soon anyway. Eric and I realized somewhere around season two that we’d be able to accomplish the themes and get the characters where we need to get them in four seasons. So doing it in three and a half was kind of a struggle, and some things had to be left on the ground, which is always hard.
- Q: Is it harder to get people interested when you’re writing about the real world?
DS: Oh yeah.
- Q: And do you find that frustrating?
DS: In a sense, but you have to know it’s the case going in. You can’t complain about it because you know when you make certain choices or you decide to operate without the usual currencies that work in television – sex and violence – you know what you’re consigning yourself to. And yet, there’s no other story I wanted to tell about post-Katrina New Orleans, or about the city, and what we’re capable of culturally, and in terms of American peoplehood. This is the story I wanted to tell. So if you admit that to yourself, and that’s your purpose, rather than sustaining a television franchise, then you gotta do what you gotta do and just hope… But we got about 35 hours of it.
- Q: There’s much made these days of people constantly saying that film is not a medium in which you can tell a human story these days, that it is all it’s blockbusters, Marvel comic adaptations…Transformers. Do you think the same problem affects TV but we just don’t see it in quite the same way?
DS: Yeah, I think there was a very distinct mass market template for network TV, and you couldn’t tell a dark story or a disturbing story, because advertising was the deity involved, and advertising wouldn’t tolerate that. And again, the triumvirate was sex, violence and laughs – comedy. I think we got away from the template with cable. Cable managed to get to the point where you could tell a dark story, you could have antiheroes, you could have bad reckonings, and so the drama got a little bit more mature in that way.
But I’m not sure that the triumvirate has been in any way licked. It wasn’t under network television and it isn’t now. Those things are still the currency. There’s been some maturation in terms of the medium and storytelling, but there’s still a long way to go, and I don’t know that it can entirely get there in the way that novels and publishing can because of economies of scale.
- Q: Do you think what Netflix and Amazon are doing with television is helping shift things at all?
DS: Maybe, I have hope for what Netflix is trying to do. I have admiration for it, and yet…I haven’t seen the whole show so I shouldn’t say, but the Netflix version of politics in House of Cards…it may be a very good show, but it’s not politics that I recognize as actual. So, again, the need to be hyperbolic is still with us. On the other hand, Treme got made for three and a half seasons. HBO has been like the Medicis to me. They’ve continued to support work that others would not. Nobody looked at Generation Kill and said: ‘Can you make it more like Band of Brothers?’, or Saving Private Ryan or whatever. They’ve been very honorable with me and I don’t mean to sound disappointed in them, but I do see where the walls are, and where the ceiling is.
- Q: The Wire famously had only a small following when it actually aired, but developed a huge one later…
DS: The numbers fell every year. The numbers went down from season 2 to 3 to 4 to 5.
Yeah. The numbers for 5 were the weakest of all. And then, on download, and on the DVD sales overseas, it worked its way back. And Treme has done the same thing, and Generation Kill the same thing. I’m not implying that Treme is going to have the same tail as The Wire – I don’t think so. But I think it will have a tail. And for me, I’m just trying to put completed work on the shelf, and I think people will then find it. And if I’m wrong about that, I’m wrong about that, but it was word of mouth that won people over to The Wire and it wouldn’t have happened if the completed work didn’t exist. And that’s the only thing I can say to the carriers like HBO or Showtime or anybody is, first you gotta do the work and it’s gotta be good, and it’s gotta be able to sustain itself to the point where people talk about it being resonant, and worth watching. And then you see what happens, but if you don’t finish the work…
- Q: Is it ever frustrating to have written some of what is widely thought of as the best television ever, but to not have won awards, to have not been given recognition at the time?
DS: I don’t care about awards, I honestly, don’t care about awards. They probably matter more to HBO, and if I had that currency I could probably get stuff sustained a little easier. But if at the end of the year you look at what you made – I felt this way in journalism too – if at the end of the year you look at what you made that year, and you say, I had a few good articles and people then send you up for this prize or that prize, that’s honest. But if, in January, you decide what you’re going to report with an eye towards the awards you’re going to win, then you’re part of the problem.
I don’t give a shit about awards. But it’s frustrating in that obviously if I had a readymade audience that would commit from jump, I would never have to worry about sustaining myself just to finish the story. I never care about sustaining a franchise.
There’s always other stories to tell, in this medium, and other mediums. No one’s starving; no one’s going to have the bread taken off their table. So I’m long past the point of caring about sustaining a franchise for its own sake. But I just want to be able to start a story and finish it -that’s important. And yeah, if you had an audience tailor-made, no matter what, then you’re fine.
- Q: Many people would say that you have more of a tailor-made audience out there than almost any other writer…
DS: Well, yeah, but I mean, whatever it is, it’s borderline, and it always has been borderline, that was the case with The Wire, too. We had to beg our way into the last two seasons of The Wire at HBO. But having said all that…the work got done. And so, you know, it was just a little harder. But what’s my alternative? I could construct something that will bring in and sustain more viewers from jump, but I just don’t want to. I mean, then I’d have to write that. And continue writing it. Potentially for five years of my life. It would be like: This is what I did? I know I made a lot of money, but…
- Q: Do you think coming from a non-TV-writing background helps you in that sense, that you have a different approach to it rather than this network-led, audience chasing?
DS: I never wanted to work in TV, and I wouldn’t have if newspapers had not started to go south. I’m happy that what happened and I’ve had a lot of satisfaction from working in this medium, but I don’t measure myself by franchises or by residual checks or any of that stuff. I just want the stories to stand as stories. I want them to have the gravitas that this was a story worth telling. And worth spending a year on or two years on or three years or fives years – or whatever it’s worth. And not to have to say oh man, I wasted that. I always felt that way – the first couple years in journalism were all like 300 bylines, and being totally reactive, but at a certain point you wanted to look back at the end of the year and think that you’d done better work than the year before, and that the stories were stronger and you were saying more about the world and you understood your beat better. And so that’s the same. I think that probably helps me.
- Q: Do you have plans of what you’ll be working on next?
DS: I turned in a bunch of stuff to HBO, but I don’t know…we’ll see if I get a green light and what they want, on what terms. I’ve turned in material for two miniseries. One is set in Washington, and is the Lincoln assassination as a period piece, I think that’s on the backburner at this point – I don’t think HBO wants to expense the project. And the other one is set in Yonkers, north of Westchester County. It’s about a housing fight that went on for about 25 years. It began in the early 80s and the fallout is still happening now. It was about where to put 200 units, only 200 units, of scattered site low income housing in white neighborhoods. It tore the town apart, in that way of race becoming a pathology as it only can in America. Well not only in America, but we’re pretty good at it. I also wrote a stage musical using The Pogues’ music for the Druid Theater in Galway. I’m a huge Pogues fan.