The Wire aired from 2002 until 2008. It never got the ratings, but HBO stuck by it, and the gamble paid off: The show’s reputation has only deepened since the finale. Narratively, the series was a collaboration among writers including Simon’s college-journalism friend David Mills (who died of an aneurysm last Tuesday at age 48), ex-cop Ed Burns, and novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price. But ideologically, The Wire was pure Simon. It was the most pointed version yet of an argument he’d been making his whole adult life.
Like any person publicizing an artistic product, Simon had his pitch, which he made most succinctly to Nick Hornby in The Believer: “The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces.” In its structure, it was a response to cop shows: It made it impossible to watch Law & Order without knowing better. But at a deeper level, it built a case, dramatizing how each city system—the schools, the police, the mayor’s office—crushed individual attempts at change. Despite the show’s humanism (the way it lit up the lowliest kid dealers), The Wire was a very grim portrait of the city Simon loves—a pitiless exposure of “some shameful shit right there.”
Simon is rankled by censorious responses to his personality, which he sees as a way of reducing his politics to a grudge. But if one criticism got to him over the course of The Wire’s run, it was the notion that the show was so bleak as to be nihilistic, that it painted Baltimore, and by extension the poor black community, government, and urban neighborhoods themselves, as unfixable, endlessly corrupt.
Ask Simon about his new show, Treme, and you get a different pitch, one in which the city is heroic instead of tragic. “New Orleans manufactures moments,” he tells me, twice. Though the infrastructure has been mangled, “it’s a tourist economy with something organic underneath, the best we can be as Americans: It’s a triumph of the melting pot, right down to the rhythms of the street! It’s black, it’s white, it’s Cuban, it’s Haitian. It’s our greatest export.”
The first inklings of Treme came years before The Wire, in the late nineties, when Simon and Eric Overmyer were writing for Homicide. They dreamed of a show that “wouldn’t be about cops or lawyers or doctors.” Both men were music freaks; they made regular journeys to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, and Overmyer lived there part time. Years later, when Katrina happened, Simon’s first thought was that local junkies must be desperate. His second was the show. “I thought immediately, If we don’t sell this now … That sounds a little ghoulish. But, you know, it was an easier meeting.”
Treme (pronounced “treh-may”), named after one of New Orleans’s poorest neighborhoods, begins three months after Katrina. In the premiere, there is no crime. (Accurately: In those early months, crime dropped locally, rising in Houston and Baton Rouge.) The focus is on a cross-section of New Orleans residents (a professor, a cook, a bar owner, a lawyer, a Mardi Gras Indian) who, as in Simon’s previous productions, are mostly inspired by real people—a process Simon variously describes as “accessing the real,” “rooted in the real,” and “putting one over on the real.” There are characters based directly on locals, like Davis McAlary, whose adventures are those of local D.J. Davis Rogan. There are part-real-part-fictional characters, like Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), whose speeches include excerpts from local blogger Ashley Morris, who died in 2008. Jazz musician Kermit Ruffins plays himself, as do many other musicians. And then there are more purely imaginary figures, like two street musicians in the French Quarter.
In the wake of the storm, this group struggles to remake their lives. But despite the devastation, the wrecked homes and livelihoods, there is barbecue, and sex, and a caper involving a Tower Records store. With its scenes of musicians jamming, it’s far less bleak than The Wire—there’s a stoned, sunny feeling, almost light, at times.
Overmyer says that when they had their first conference call with HBO, after the first cut, they got a note, “not a bad note.” But Simon “went ballistic” and started lecturing the executives: “ ‘Don’t you network me! That could’ve been a note from CBS!’ He just went for fifteen minutes—and I thought, Oh, we’re dead.” Instead, HBO apologized to Simon—and ordered the pilot. “I think maybe David needed to pick that fight, to get himself going. I described the phone call to Tom Fontana, and we just laughed. It’s a strategy.”
I ask Simon what the note was. “What the HBO cat was saying was this: ‘We’re worried that not enough happens,’ ” he says. “The guy didn’t see the usual tropes of television on which to hang his hat. And that’s a fight that I had to have.” He smiles at the memory. “I went hyperbolic. I said, ‘Well, okay, we’ll put a murder in there!’ I was hoping he wouldn’t take me up on it, and in fact, the guy’s a mensch, and he went, ‘Oh, oh, that’s not what we want.’ ”