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Why the Creator of 'The Wire' Turned the Camera to New Orleans

Police, drugs, and prisons figure into the storylines of David Simon's show "Treme," but the show narrows on New Orleans' musicians, and what they mean for the city.
 
 
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David Simon is piloting his road-worn Volkswagen Passat through the streets of New Orleans, his mind on the city. As we roll from one filming location to another of his HBO show Treme, he points out landmarks: the Industrial Canal that burst its banks during Hurricane Katrina; the Lower Ninth Ward that was drowned as a result; the former site of a studio where some of the city's most important musicians cut their first records.

"We want the show to be about New Orleans," he says. "It's about what New Orleans means, about why it matters."

Simon is best known as the creator of The Wire , HBO's sprawling but intricately intertwined saga of crime, justice, politics, and the press in a terminally decaying Baltimore. In person, he's garrulous and aggressively intelligent, sociable without exactly being friendly. He has rounded features and an ursine frame clad in sneakers, jeans, a Kangol cap, and a hoodie that seems barely adequate protection from the damp, biting wind on this December day.

At each set, he slaps backs and checks in with the actors, writers, and crew, making sure that what is being filmed is as close to real as he can make it. For a scene set in an office of the Road Home federal aid program for Katrina victims, he wants to make sure the building they're using really is a Road Home office. At a murder scene, he looks to see whether there are bullet casings on the ground. And at a shot including a trumpet solo by legendary local jazzman Kermit Ruffins, Simon swaps a quick man-hug with the actor he's hired for the part: Kermit Ruffins.

After thirteen years as a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun, Simon abandoned the sinking ship of newspaper journalism in the mid-1990s to write for Homicide, the NBC series based on his nonfiction book about Baltimore cops. In 2000, he adapted another book he authored into The Corner, an HBO miniseries focusing on the dealers, addicts, and civilians enmeshed in the drug market of a West Baltimore street. That netted Simon three Emmy awards, and was the seed from which The Wire 's five-season run grew. Though The Wire never drew a huge audience, critics drooled over its multifaceted structure and nuanced portrayal of the lives of those cast off, forgotten, and fucked over by the post-industrial American economy, from petty drug dealers to inner city schoolteachers to laid-off dock workers.

Treme, the second season of which premieres April 24, is in some ways a similar meditation on post-Katrina New Orleans. But Treme is not another cop show. Even though police, drugs, and prisons figure into Treme's several braided and branching storylines, the show's central concern is a unique segment of New Orleans's working class: musicians, and what they mean for the city. Over the course of a working afternoon and a gumbo and po' boy dinner, Simon explains why.

Q:You've said Treme is not The Wire set in New Orleans. But it is a similar kind of animal. It's a many-sided, many-charactered, novelistic examination of a badly damaged American city. Is there a common theme between them?

David Simon: Well, in terms of governance or institutions, the New Orleans of Treme may be as problematic as the Baltimore of The Wire . Even more so, because 80 percent of it went under water a short time before. So, it's clearly the same backdrop. But it's saying something different using that backdrop.

This show, if we do it right, is an argument for the city. For the idea of American urbanity, for the melting pot, for the idea that our future can't be separated from the fact that we are all going to be increasingly compacted into urban areas, though we're different in race and culture and religion. And what we make of that will determine the American future.

 
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