Acclaimed writer is frustrated by biz’s preference for ‘hyperbolic’ storytelling over resonant themes
David Simon isn’t buying the golden-age-of-TV hype.
He doesn’t argue that smallscreen drama at its best can be very good, but that doesn’t mean the medium has turned into a storyteller’s paradise. It’s still a business of selling soap, or a monthly subscription fee in the case of HBO, where Simon has toiled for the past 13 years. The creator of the much-revered “The Wire” is at something of a crossroads as 2013 draws to a close and “Treme,” his elegiac story of life in post-Katrina New Orleans, begins its final five-episode run on Dec. 1.
“This was a hard story to say goodbye to,” Simon admits. “I feel like we were working at such a high level of story and characterization, and delivering a narrative that isn’t hyperbolic,” he says. “A lot of TV deals with the currency of violence and sex and things that are fantastical. That stuff is always viable currency in TV. You try to tell a story on a human scale, and you’re always going to be up against a wall of your own choosing.”
Part of scaling that wall with “Treme,” which Simon co-created with Eric Overmyer, was convincing HBO to give the show a proper sendoff with a batch of final episodes rather than pulling the plug after the third season. The series, which revolves around a cross-section of Big Easy locals — musicians, chefs, raconteurs, bar owners, cops, lawyers and politicians — and the battle to preserve the culture of New Orleans, has never drawn much of a crowd for HBO.
“The Wire” had more traditional TV urgency built in with its focus on Baltimore’s drug trade. Dramatic tales of guns, money, dope and murder were organic to the larger theme of urban decay and its effect on the social compact. But for all the superlatives that have been heaped on “The Wire,” Simon sees “Treme” as deeper and richer storytelling.
“ ‘Treme’ is a better executed, more careful project than ‘The Wire,’ ” Simon says. He’s well aware that this view is not widely shared even among his biggest fans.
“It was very hard following ‘The Wire’ with anything,” he allows, but adds: “I love these (‘Treme’) characters. They’re the most complex human beings I’ve been able to write. To me, they are absolutely recognizable as people you’d see walking down the street in New Orleans.”
Amid all the talk of a smallscreen renaissance, Simon says he’s still frustrated by the unwritten rules that govern television that clash with efforts to tell a novelistic story with scope and meaning for our times.
“I think it’s time to look at the medium and say, ‘What is possible?’ the same way filmmakers in features are asking what’s possible. Can you make a small movie any more on a human scale. Can you say something important about what happens between two people or do you have to put a gun in someone’s hand? … Here we weren’t machine-gunning people down. We weren’t ripping off people’s clothes.”
Simon is quick to add that he’s grateful for the creative leeway he’s received at HBO, and appreciative that the cabler listened when he begged for two more years of “The Wire” and five more hours to do right by “Treme.” But he also has some real reservations about TV that have kept him from diving too deeply into any new smallscreen projects, even though work on “Treme” wrapped some months ago.
“The question is whether anyone is interested in the kind of storytelling I want to do,” Simon says. “I know I could construct something that would sell. But can I sell a story that I want to stay with for four or five years?”
Simon has every confidence that people will ultimately discover “Treme” for what it is — a 35-hour exploration of the soul of a great city under extreme duress. He also is proud of its lasting legacy for the hundreds of locals who worked on the series, particularly the exposure it gave to the town’s lifeblood: musicians.
“We managed to deliver $3.5 million in songwriters and performance fees to the music community,” Simon says. “That means guys getting paid. That means that maybe when they go on tour next, they play a slightly bigger place, or sell a few more CDs. For us to be able to deliver for that community felt very good.”
(Pictured: Actor Wendell Pierce and creator David Simon prepare to bid farewell to HBO’s “Treme.”)