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Writing the Lies That Tell the Truth

After a near 20-year career in television that includes three critically acclaimed dramas, a cult-like fanbase and a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, David Simon, co-creator of HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme, is still in denial. “I expect to get thrown out of the industry,” he confesses.

“I expect that there’s an open window right now that’s supposed to slam on my fingers. None of this was planned.”

Simon, who spent 12 years as a crime beat reporter and nonfiction author in his native Baltimore before dipping his toes into television, says his impulse is still to be a journalist.

“My interest is, why is this happening? The first job of doing this kind of writing is picking up the paper every day and absorbing information, then figuring out what you want to say with 10 hours of television,” he says.

It’s that interest, combined with his ability to craft richly textured narratives, that produced the nonfiction novel Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, inspiring the hit NBC procedural Homicide: Life On the Street; the HBO crime-drama-cum-social-critique The Wire, hailed by many critics as the best television drama of all time; and most recently, the highly anticipated second season debut of the post-Katrina drama Treme on April 24.

But Simon, who left The Baltimore Sun in 1995 after becoming disillusioned with the paper, says it wasn’t until he saw HBO’s Oz, from Homicide writer/producer Tom Fontana, that he was sold on TV as a storytelling medium. “That convinced me you could tell a dark, grownup story that didn’t have to stop every 13 minutes for a commercial,” he says.

The nonfiction veteran also found he had a lot to un-learn from journalism when it came to writing for television. But today, having worked with HBO on the Emmy-winning miniseries The Corner as well as The Wire, the six-part Iraq war drama Generation Kill and now Treme, Simon knows that getting a show up and running is actually the easy part.

“Seeing a show through the end, that’s the terrifying high-risk in telling television stories,” he says. “[With a novel], you don’t have to go back to the publisher to get money for each chapter. You have the story from beginning to end. The TV industry doesn’t encourage that. That’s why some series get run into the ground. Or they don’t get to finish.”

“We were sure The Wire was going to be canceled after season four and that Generation Kill would be our consolation prize,” says Simon’s longtime executive producing partner, Nina Noble. “But David had a fifth season in his mind all along. He thinks of his shows like books. He pushed his sales pitch hard to complete the series, because he really cares about his viewers.”

What Simon (still) doesn’t care about is conventional industry success. Though there’s a healthy buzz surrounding season two of Treme—thanks to an Oscar win by star Melissa Leo and writing from chef/ TV personality Anthony Bourdain—Simon has no interest in catering to an Emmys crowd that famously snubbed The Wire. He’s just grateful for HBO.

“If you pitch a show [like Treme] that suggests the American empire is falling apart and that institutions no longer serve their purpose, broadcast is going to laugh you out of the room,” Simon says. “Now I can survive in an economic model without whoring it out or dumbing it down.”

Simon’s tastes as a viewer run counter to his intense series. HBO’s Flight of the Conchords and “Stewie-heavy” episodes of Fox’s Family Guy are favorites. He champions The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as “mental health comedy for moderates and leftists,” though he says he was glad to see MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann go. “He’d become a ranting caricature,” Simon says. “What I really want is a 24-hour news network [with] a strong beat structure where people specialize in understanding the nature of problems and complexity of situations.”

Simon divides his time between the New Orleans Treme set and Baltimore, with his wife, Laura; their 10-month-old daughter, Georgia Rae; and his teenage son, Ethan. Despite his great success, Simon, like any seasoned reporter, will always be a skeptic.

“I want to stay with [television] as long as I can, but I expect that at any moment HBO will come to me and say, ‘It’s been interesting, but we’re giving the money to somebody who might actually be able to write a hit,’” he says.