When I asked why he doesn’t make documentaries, given his passion for authenticity, he frowns. “Because I’m not a documentary-maker.”
In a gold sedan outside the set, I sit down with Peters, the marvelously calm actor who played detective Lester Freamon on The Wire. Peters has known Simon since 2000’s The Corner, the HBO production based on Simon’s nonfiction book about Baltimore addicts. I ask whether Simon had changed with success.
Peters glances at my tape recorder. “Hey, I just had lunch with Simon,” I say. “I know he can be irascible.”
“Well, when I first met David, his social skills left a lot to be desired,” Peters says in his deep voice, smiling. “For whatever reason: Some people are nervous, regardless of their genius. I felt I could do nothing to please this cat.” Peters was closer to Simon’s nurturing co-producer, Robert Colesberry. But since Colesberry’s death, of heart disease, in 2004, Simon has dropped his guard—and Peters has come to respect him as a creative force. “He puts his head above the parapet to be shot down, and I stand with him. He makes me feel like an actor on a mission.”
Tom Fontana puts it another way. “Before I hired him on Homicide, when he was a reporter defending truth, justice, and the Baltimore homicide unit, anything he thought I did wrong on that subject was an insult,” he says. “He would be in my office and in my face and very prickly. But over time I came to love him for it. And when he got downsized, he came to me and he said—he said, ‘I want to make TV.’ And then he was my bitch. You just have to wait long enough.”
As Simon and I walk to the set, I ask him what he watches on television—has he seen Dexter, Showtime’s series about a serial killer who kills serial killers? There was a satirical reference to it on The Wire.
He’s only watched a half-hour of it. “It offends me, I have to say,” he says slowly, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t like pissing on anybody else’s work. I think it’s very well done; it may even have something to say about the culture of violence. But I think it’s a bit—cathartic, in a way that I don’t think anything dealing with that subject matter has a right to be. Does that make sense?”
“We were very purposely mocking the American obsession with the psychosexual nature of violence,” Simon says about season five of The Wire, which featured a fake serial killer. “Seventy-five percent of the victims in my city are people of color, and they’re killed for economic reasons. A lot of them are killed by the same people over and over again who are never caught. That’s the definition of a serial killer. And you can’t get anybody to devote resources to that. But if somebody makes one white girl disappear in Aruba … ” He flashes back to the critical response to season five: “Another thing the media didn’t get!”
Cop shows were both The Wire’s engine and its nemesis. They gave the show something to react against—the same way The Sopranos parasitically reinvented the mob drama or Deadwood the Western. Treme, which doesn’t have such structures to cling to, is a stranger creature. Overmyer and Simon each compare the series to Northern Exposure—the CBS early-nineties series about eccentrics in Alaska—but their hearts don’t seem in it, and it doesn’t really ring true. If Simon is pushing against anything, it’s his reputation as a scourge: This time, he will be making the case that urban centers are sources of joy as well as pain. And where his subject was for a long time the lives of cops, now he’s trying to access the inner world of musicians, who create pleasure even in the midst of destruction.
New Orleans, of course, is a risky place for such imaginative leaps. Long before Katrina, New Orleanians were wary of portrayals from the outside—even the most loving documentaries, locals told me, hadn’t captured the city’s essence.
But there are New Orleanians who see opportunity in Treme as well as danger. Rogan, for one, is delighted to have his life turned into an HBO story. He’d auditioned to play himself (“I’m not TV-shaped,” he gripes). But when Simon wanted to rename the character—telling him, “Davis, we’ll change your name, but the cognoscenti will know”—Rogan begged him not to. “I said, David, I can’t fill a nightclub with the cognoscenti! It’s a selling point for me.” They compromised, changing only the last name.
I spoke with Laura Lippman, Simon’s wife and a best-selling crime novelist, just after she’d attended Mardi Gras. The holiday had been “happy but chaotic,” she said—the Treme crew and Spike Lee’s HBO documentary crew were simultaneously filming the Zulu parade, and the result was a strange cinematic game of chicken, with Lee’s cameras filming the filming of Treme as the Treme crew tried to avoid filming them back.