David Simon, the creator of HBO's new series Treme, is a former newspaper reporter with a reputation as a hard-bitten, old-school news hound. He spent over 10 years covering crime for The Baltimore Sun, an experience that has provided the basis for much of his work in television, including his acclaimed series The Wire.
By now, it's become something of a cliche to call The Wire the best show in television history. One thing is certain: the show wasn't a popular smash like The Sopranos, but critics adored it. I found The Wire to be an utterly entertaining, incredibly detailed examination of how modern, everyday institutions like the school system, police force, and municipal government can crush individuals.
An Old-School News Man Laments the Past
With the respect of critics and peers, Simon has earned a measure of fame, or more precisely, power. And he's taken advantage of his newly-given megaphone to decry the changes being wrought by the Internet on old-school news gathering. In doing so, he's become something of a icon for ink-stained wretches who mourn the mythical glory days of the news business before the Internet upended it.
Last year, testifying before Congress, Simon declared, "High-end journalism is dying in America, and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the Web or anywhere else. The Internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth."
This argument, of course, is similar to the one made against Web giant Google (GOOG) by Rupert Murdoch and other critics of news aggregators and "curation" sites like The Huffington Post and Newser. It may be the only thing the conservative media mogul and the decidedly left-of center Simon have in common -- somehow I doubt they agree on social policy, but they are both old-school newsmen.
"There's This Thing Called Google"
In recent months, Simon has apparently warmed up to the Internet -- and Google in particular. In fact, Simon wants Treme viewers to have Google handy to help them decipher some of the more obscure references on his new show, which is set in the historically black New Orleans neighborhood of Treme (pronounced "treh-MAY") three months after Hurricane Katrina.
"There's this thing called Google," Simon toldNew York Magazine's Emily Nussbaum in an excellent recent article. (In the piece Simon claims he doesn't read online comments; friends disagree. One wonders of the near-universal praise The Wire received online warmed Simon somewhat to the Web.)
Simon made his comments during a hilarious exchange in which he referred to an HBO executive who apparently complained that "not enough happens" plot-wise in Treme, which tracks the lives of people coping with Katrina's aftermath:
"F--- the exposition," he says gleefully as we go back into the bar. "Just be. The exposition can come later." He describes a theory of television narrative. "If I can make you curious enough, there's this thing called Google. If you're curious about the New Orleans Indians, or 'second-line' musicians, you can look it up." The Internet, he suggests, can provide its own creative freedom, releasing writers from having to overexplain, allowing history to light the characters from within.
In an open letter to New Orleanians published in Sunday in The Times-Picayune, Simon took great pains to say that the show is a fictional drama -- not journalism -- aimed a revealing a larger truth. But as his comments about Google suggest, Simon is asking viewers to do a little digging of their own. So, for the record:
A Google search for New Orleans Indians generates the these results. (Wikipedia entry here.) A search for 'second-line' musicians offers this info. (Wikipedia entry here.) The band leading the second line in the opening of the first episode? New Orleans institution Rebirth Brass Band.(Wikipedia, MySpace.) Steve Zahn's character DJ Davis McAlary? Partially based on real-life DJ Davis Rogan. (MySpace.) Finally, John Goodman's character Creighton Burnette is inspired by the late Ashley Morris, a college professor and blogger who passed away in 2008 and was described in his obituary as "a passionate advocate for New Orleans."
Read more about the real New Orleanians who inspired the show's characters. Treme airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on HBO.