'Treme' co-creator David Simon on the series' end and his career's future
HBO just aired the series finale of "Tremé" — you can read my review of the finale here — and as I often do when that show ends a season (or "The Wire" before it), I got on the phone with co-creator David Simon to talk about it.
But though we talked about a few specifics of the final season — for instance, what decisions he and Eric Overmyer had to make about how to work within a reduced budget that allowed them to make 5 episodes rather than the 10 or 11 of previous seasons — the conversation mostly veered into a discussion of where Simon finds himself at this stage of a critically-revered but commercially-unsuccessful career. As he notes at one point, he's now been a TV producer longer than he was a newspaper reporter, but he still isn't sure he quite belongs in the business — "I don't think I have demonstrated that I'm a particularly good fit for television" — and wonders if might leave HBO for another creative "insurgency," or leave the medium altogether.
So lots of that, and about the reactions to the series over the years, all coming up just as soon as I kill the rest of the day making myself pretty...
In an ideal world where the show had done well enough for HBO to give you a full fourth season, and maybe held out the possibility of a fifth, what would you and Eric have been able to do differently? Or was this the story you had always planned for the fourth season, just compressed into five episodes?
David Simon: I'm not sure. I think somewhere around season 2, I think we realized we probably couldn't stretch to 5, we were covering all of our themes. So a fifth season would be kind of a tall order. I felt we could deliver the characters to where they needed to be in four. But with five episodes, there were things we couldn't do. We were not able to address in more detail some of Sonny's resolution. There was more we could have done with (Toni) Bernette and some of the dynamics of the case work we had to look to doing what we could do, not to all of the things we might have done. We had to make Annie go a little faster than we otherwise might have. I think every character suffered a little bit. But mostly, we just came in later. We sort of treated it like half a season. Certain things happened off screen between seasons 3 and 4 that we might otherwise have chronicled: the dissolution of LaDonna's marriage, or Janette getting out of the one restaurant and resolving to start from scratch in another. We had to basically imply a journey and arrive a little bit further down the road.
You have always structured the show with each season taking place about a year later so you can cover the next Mardi Gras. Knowing this was going to be the last season, and knowing that the Super Bowl and the BP oil spill took place two years after season 3 ended, was there any thought given to skipping a year to get there?
David Simon: No. No thought given to that. I don't put the Super Bowl in the same category as some people do. I was here in New Orleans when they won, and I'm a Ravens fan, but I certainly don't root against the Saints. You can't help but love the way this town embraces its football team. But it's a football game, and while it was a night of great camaraderie and very warm resolve on the part of people who had returned to New Orleans, the symbolism always go so far in the municipal dynamic. We just won the Super Bowl in Baltimore, and Baltimore's still Baltimore, for better or worse. There was a little bit of feeling that would be fun to do, but that didn't seem like an existential reason to continue the show when we had done as much as we could with the themes we were interested in, which was basically culture and the city, and what culture means, and what culture can and can't do. I'm not sure that the Super Bowl, or even the BP oil spill, argued for any better resolve than we already had. At a certain point, we started to feel as if we were saying what we wanted to say with the characters and with the theme. I think we'd abandoned the idea of five seasons a while back. It was a matter of trying to keep the quotidian feel of the show, that these are ordinary people living human-scale lives, and time moves as time moves. Trying to keep that with a five episode season was tricky.
Albert dies in episode four. How did the two of you come to decide that A)the cancer would come back and he would die, and B)that he would die on camera, as opposed to it being something waiting out there for him sometime after we stopped following his story?
David Simon: I don't know that we ever thought about it not happening on camera. The important thing for us was to get to the transmission of culture, to see the Indian gang go on, to see them come out without him, to see his son's role in it, as well as the surrogate parental role he plays in the tribe for the other guys who are not his offspring but nonetheless his brood as well. From the very beginning, we had the idea of the son being brought back to the Indian culture. In season 3, we wanted to see him go out with the son, Delmond, and they marched together one time, and we knew that the next time, Delmond would march alone. Originally, that would have been season 4 and 5 if we hadn't felt we were spending story and character at a faster rate. We had a good healthy debate about whether he should become the chief, and we decided he hadn't been there all those years, and he would acknowledge that. So that was sort of a discussion, but we always knew those were the last two Mardi Gras. We were building backwards. At some point, tellingly, probably during season 2, I thought, 'We couldn't have them wait another year. The father's really pressing on him to recommit to the culture, and he's feeling it himself. I don't know if we can sustain this for five seasons.' You have to try to be attentive to what's happening organically between your characters.