A series about everyday life in post-Katrina New Orleans could be a hard sell. But The Wire maestro David Simon knows how to build characters full of quirks, flaws and texture. The producer explains why his new HBO drama Tremé (pronounced Truh-MAY) will be the pride of New Orleans
You’re from Baltimore. It’s 2010. You’re depicting New Orleans, starting in December 2005. Why there and why now?
[Show co-creator] Eric Overmyer and I actually started talking about doing a show rooted in New Orleans culture back in the mid-’90s when we were working on Homicide together. But we never planned a proper pitch meeting because we couldn’t imagine selling it to people in L.A. Then, during season four of The Wire, Katrina hit. Suddenly, this show Eric and I had been discussing had instant gravitas. We pitched it right after the storm, finished up other gigs and started shooting last year.
It seems tricky to capture the feel of a city that, in many ways, has been radically altered.
We’re just being very accurate with the history of the city. Three months after the storm, some musical acts were back, some were not. Some bars were open, some Mardi Gras Indian tribes had returned, some second line parades went off, but others didn’t. And of course some people died before they could get back. But it was amazing how resilient people were and are. It’s hard to express, but the allegiance that people feel toward that city is incredible.
Failed systems were a major theme of The Wire. Will Tremé cover similar ground?
I’m really interested in big-city values. How we live together, coming from different cultural reference points, is the question for the 21st Century. But is Tremé going to have the same sprawl as The Wire? Is it going to have drug dealers and lawyers and the mayor? God, I hope not because that would mean that I was telling the same story twice. And that would be a fool’s errand. Even if that would be a recipe for success, and I don’t necessarily think it would, I wouldn’t want to do it. The Wire was nine years of my life, from planning to execution. I have no intention of spending more than nine years. There are other stories to tell, generation kill was a different story. Whatever comes after Treme will not be about the life and death of a city as told through its culture. Different story, different purporse.
What role does New York play in this? I ask because there are all of these references to the city.
Well to new Orleans musicians, New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, for the entire history of jazz, these places have represented the fulfillment of the highest career opportunities. The ability to take your music to the world. You know Louis Armstrong and Louie Prima and Wynton Marsalis and others had to leave in order to have their music seen in the brightest possible light by the nation as a whole. New Orleans throughout its lifetime has bred some of the best musicians nationally and yet it is not a place that is particularly welcoming to musicians. It’s not a place that holds them in particularly high regard institutionally as a city.
Are you worried about satisfying viewers who want more Stringer Bell and Snoop-type action?
I’m not trying to second-guess what I’m making based on what people want. This is a good story. Eric and I have researched it and want to tell it. We hope you come back—if nobody comes back we’re shit out of luck. But we don’t need all of you; just some of you. [Laughs]
Critics rallied around The Wire. They wanted the Emmy committee to validate that show so bad.
We probably got more ink out of that than if we’d won some awards. So on some level I was just glad they were talking about the show because we want more people to watch it. And we did have a lot of people watching it. At the end on dvd, you know listen, the dvd sales are actually increasing. So it’s sort of—it’s almost ridiculous the long tail that the show has demonstrated when, you’re right, in the beginning nobody was watching. [Just] a small cadre of people were watching it but word of mouth sold that thing.
Outside of telling a good story, what else do you want Tremé to accomplish?
Maybe, on a practical level, if we execute the show well and really capture some of the dance, music and cuisine, a few more people will take their kids down to New Orleans for spring break or make a restaurant reservation. I’m serious—it’s a tourism economy. But on a larger level, I want a few more people to think about America’s urban policies. I want people to think [twice] when [politicians] who are on the wrong side of history talk about the “real Americans” living in rural towns when 80 percent of us live in cities. —Akiba Solomon
This Q&A appears in the April/May 2010 issue of VIBE, on stands now.