As 'Treme' ends, David Simon takes a hard-eyed look at what's ahead

Baltimore writer-producer says he's feeling like a 'strange fit' for TV these days

  • Lucia Micarelli as violinist Annie Tee, one of the fully realized female characters in "Treme." David Simon says the women in "Treme" include the best female characters he's written.
Lucia Micarelli as violinist Annie Tee, one of the fully realized… (Paul Schiraldi/HBO )
November 30, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

In two decades of covering David Simon’s television career, one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that he was never boring or predictable.

And he came through again last week in an interview that I had imagined as a simple Q&A advancing the five-episode series finale of “Treme,” which starts at 9 Sunday night on HBO.

In my last question, I asked what was next for him. And I was surprised to hear the creator of “The Wire,” which many analysts rightfully consider the greatest series in the history of prime-time television, say he might be leaving the medium.

“I don’t know,” Simon said. “I turned in work on a couple of series and a miniseries to HBO to finish out my development deal, and they’ll either want to make some of it or they won’t. It’s kind of up to them.

“I have to say,” he continued, “I’m sort of at this point wondering if I’m not a strange fit for television. And ‘The Wire’ was sort of fire in the bottle, because nobody watched ‘The Wire’ when it was on the air. And nobody watched ‘Generation Kill.’ And nobody watched ‘Treme.’

“So, on some level, while I have a very good reputation after the fact for writing for television, when the stuff’s actually on the air, it isn’t all that much of an asset for a network. So, I don’t know about HBO. They may be getting hip to the fact that nobody watches my [expletive] when it’s on the air. And that’s not likely to change, I don’t think.”

The more I expressed my surprise at what Simon was saying about possibly walking away from TV, the more he sounded like he sincerely might do it.

“I’ve gone a long way in television and had a lot of fun doing what doesn’t quite work,” he continued. “It may be time to do something else — I don’t know — or not. But I’m curious to know what HBO thinks almost on an academic level. If we don’t make any more television, I’ll still be very grateful, and it will still have a been a wonderful sojourn.”

Simon, 53, is always deep and analytical. And I am certainly not the first interviewer to say he is one of the best minds to ever work in the medium. But he seemed more open to self-analysis than I remember him being.

“Certain things begin to matter more to you when you’re older,” he said in answer to a question about how he might have changed during the making of “Treme.”

“I think the show is still quite political, but the components of the show are ordinary people. They’re not gangsters. They’re not recon Marines at war. They’re not anything that readily acquires the usual currency of television,” he said. “And they’re very interesting to me as people. And I think the writing reflects that. There is a lot greater attention to detail with regard to interpersonal relationships on this show than on anything I ever wrote.”

Simon said he thinks the female characters in “Treme” are written better than those in any of his other shows. I agree. To me, the female characters — led by Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli), Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) and Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) — are easily the most compelling.

“When you’re in your 20s or 30s, even later, it’s a dubious proposition that a lot of male writers even want to know what’s in the heads of women,” Simon said. “I think they’re terrified. But as you get older, you become a little bit more judgmental about your own writing about people and how people relate to each other. And there’s not a better challenge than writing characters who are life-size.”

But, Simon added, the focus on such a characters was first and foremost a function of the story he was trying to tell.

“A lot of this is that’s what the story was about,” he said. “ ‘Treme’ wasn’t trying to be ‘The Wire’ over again. And, certainly, I expected innumerable comparisons to ‘The Wire.’ I don’t think you could do anything after ‘The Wire’ and not get that. I mean, we got that with ‘Generation Kill,’ which I thought was kind of silly.

“But the truth is, ‘Treme’ was a different story and it was about different societal issues. And it required different components to tell the story. So, there’s no point in comparing and saying, ‘This one turned out better than that one.’ I’m not saying ‘Treme’ is best or ‘The Wire’ was best. What I’m saying is this is the best-executed show I was ever involved in.”

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