George Pelecanos’ new crime novel “The Double,” his 19th, is due out in October. If the pattern from previous years holds, that’s around when we might be seeing the abbreviated fourth and final season of “Treme,” the critically beloved New Orleans-set HBO drama on which he’s served as an executive producer and writer. The D.C.-born and based author is one of “The Wire” creator David Simon’s regular and trusted collaborators, having joined the crew of Simon’s landmark HBO series in its first season in 2002, scripting several episodes, including, with Simon, the Emmy-winning third season installment “Middle Ground.” While “Treme” is coming to an end, he and Simon already have a new project in the works, and Indiewire caught up with the prolific novelist and TV writer over email just as he’d finished writing the script to discuss the legacy of “The Wire,” authenticity and D.C. as a setting.
Are you able to share anything about the pilot you’re working on?
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David Simon and I are currently writing a pilot for HBO set in the Times Square of the ’70s. As you can imagine, the subject matter is in our wheelhouse.
“The Wire” only grows in estimation every year as more people discover it or revisit it. I know David has expressed a touch of exasperation that these audiences weren’t around during the initial airings, as great as the current growing following has been. What are your feelings about the show’s ongoing, epic second life on home video and streaming?
It’s all good to me. Among other things, including the ability to make a living, a writer aims for posterity. Internationally, the audience for the show is still growing. My association with “The Wire” has helped raised the awareness of my novels, so there’s that as well. I’m proud of what we did and I continue to be.
Your novels are known for being grounded in your hometown of D.C. “The Wire” and “Treme” are also fundamentally about the cities and the communities in which they’re set — what’s your approach been to fleshing out the regional details and inflections of Baltimore and New Orleans and maintaining a sense of authenticity?
Despite the fact that D.C. and Baltimore are only 40 miles apart, the cultures are very different. The music, the style of dress, the language… everything. Fortunately, in Baltimore we always had full access, both to the police and the underworld. I basically did what I do when I’m preparing to write a novel. I listened. I’m not a particularly gregarious person, so for me it’s more about listening than asking questions. I was on set (meaning, on location, rather than on stages) and our crew worked in places where many Baltimoreans have never been. So I learned the city fairly quickly, but really, it comes down to finding the characters and the voices.
New Orleans was different. Almost from the moment I got there, I felt comfortable. Most people don’t realize that D.C. is a Southern city. Also, despite the recent changes in racial makeup, it will always be a black city to me. New Orleans has a similar vibe, with the added bonus of great music, food, culture, and warmth. I fell in love with it right away. My affection for New Orleans heightened my desire to get out there and find out what was going on. It was an opportunity and a privilege.
“Treme” is coming to an end with an abbreviated season — will you be involved in these last episodes? I’m gutted to see it go — was the series at all thought of with any particular end point in mind? More than any other show I can think of, it feels as much like a place to be visited as a story to be followed.
Yes, I was an Executive Producer and writer on what we are calling Season 3.5 of “Treme.” We wrapped the day before Mardi Gras and everything is completed. In a way, the five-episode season allowed us to tell our story more efficiently. I really like what we did and I think our viewers will, too.
Do you watch much TV? What are the shows you’re currently liking?
“Game of Thrones” is gripping and always surprising. The costumes, the hair and makeup, the location work… it’s all outstanding. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have done a phenomenal job of adapting those books. Recently I liked “The Americans.” “The Good Wife” is a very solid show, and the quality control is remarkable. Remember, they’re shooting 20-some episodes as opposed to ten or twelve on the cable networks.
“Terriers” and “Men of a Certain Age” were two shows that I liked very much, until they were abruptly canceled. For laughs, I go to “Eastbound and Down” and “Archer.” When I’m on a shoot, I don’t watch any TV at all, so I often miss good work entirely. I’m just now getting to “Breaking Bad,” and, no surprise, it’s terrific.
Have you found that, in writing for the screen alongside continuing to write novels and short fiction, one medium has influenced or changed your approach to the other at all?
Being around good writers everyday has been great for me. For example, just talking about the process is something I never really did before. I didn’t attend an advanced writing program, so the writers’ room became my graduate school.
Is adapting your fiction to screen something you’re interest in? I saw “Shoedog” is listed as in pre-production — is that project happening? And how much involvement would you want to have in a screen adaptation of one of your books?
We are still raising the money for “Shoedog.” I have done adaptations for my books but the development process for movies can be maddening, and I don’t have the years anymore to pursue films that probably won’t get made. With television, you get an order to make a pilot and, if it goes to series, you shoot it. Also, in television, as opposed to movies, the writer/producers are the filmmakers. I like working with the crew and department heads, building something together with people who I consider to be artists. That’s what turns me on.
Crime stories, particularly on television where the procedural makes up such a large portion of scripted fare, can provided a means to explore social issues, ones of race and economics — watching that new drama on FX, “The Bridge,” I felt the serial killer case was almost eclipsed by the wealth of details about Juarez and El Paso and the border. Do you see the genre as evolving, thanks in particular to “The Wire”? Can crime stories be a way of approaching, through a basic narrative structure audiences are familiar with, themes that taken head on can chase people away or be labeled didactic?
Crime stories are a narrative engine. You grab the viewer with a mystery to be solved but that’s not why the viewer stays with you. With “The Wire,” it was the “girls in the can” at the beginning of Season 2, or the bodies in the houses in Season 3. By the end of those seasons, I don’t think anyone really cared about the mystery aspects of those setups or their resolutions. Anything potentially didactic was shot down in the writers’ room. “Hamsterdam” is a good example. Many of us wanted drug legalization to be an answer to the disaster of the drug war. But we couldn’t portray it that way, because the reality is so much more complex.
There are a fair amount of shows set in the D.C. area right now, from “Homeland” to “The Americans” to “Scandal” to “House of Cards,” but they’re all directly or indirectly dealing with government agencies, structures and employees. Can you see a series set in the region that actually deals with life in the city outside of those realms, and does it seems likely that one could happen?
Don’t forget “Veep.” None of those shows are shot in D.C. outside of second-unit pickups. If I sell a series of D.C.-based novels to television, I would probably have to write it as an unnamed city. It’s very expensive to shoot in Washington and there are no tax incentives available. Contractually, financiers will not allow you to shoot here, for good reason.
New Orleans, in the past few years, has added almost 50,000 new residents who went there to work in the film and television industry, which is thriving due to Louisiana tax credits for filmmakers. It has lifted their local economy. By not addressing the economic needs of the film industry, D.C. is leaving millions of dollars on the table.