David Simon brings anger and hope to America
The current media age forces those of us working as journalists and commentators to react and respond immediately to the news events and creative content – televised and/or streaming – without seeking the sometimes necessary degree of separation to allow for studied reflection. We have to be the first and the loudest voice making a pronouncement or else all is lost. To say that the cycle of discourse is brief understates the situation, in this day and age of time line feeds, streaming updates from our friends or those trusted sources that we follow – allowing us to use “discrimination” to seal ourselves off in digital echo chambers that confirm only what we already hold to be true.
But, in effort to return to an earlier meditative age, I have held off on posting comments on the final season of the HBO series Treme and the arrival of the series set on Blu-ray a month ago (January 28, 2014). I wanted to let those final episodes shift and settle in my mind and heart. And it is the heart that has required the most time, because the show had become a good and trusted companion I shared a regular appointment with, a weekly retreat from the daily, familiar grind. It was the best kind of relationship, in that it afforded me the opportunity to actively listen and engage with someone else. This wasn’t one of those typical exchanges where I sit and wait for the other person to finish, so that I could initiate the next phase of my ongoing monologue on the state of the state.
Treme spoke to me, in the voices of an astonishing collection of people – musicians, writers, chefs, police, politicians, and regular folks – living in the aftermath of a natural and man-made disaster. But, altogether, that chorus became one living breathing entity. It became the conscience and consciousness of the city of New Orleans.
This is the second time creator David Simon (with his conceptual partner Eric Overmyer) has created life out of a place and it should be noted that he does so within the framework of exploring cities in crisis. The Wire – and yes, I am one of those self-important types who sees the show as the best thing that ever happened to television – gave us Baltimore as an organic creation, so much more than the sum of its cultural and sociological elements dissected under the microscope over the course of five seasons. Simon diagnosed the symptoms ailing this city, this recognizable character. Those of us living in struggling cities knew Baltimore. Baltimore was that friend or lover we were enabling, that same friend or lover we were dependent upon, that we needed to see get their act together because we were inextricably joined with them.
I spoke with Simon during the days of The Wire, back before the start of Season 4 (in 2006), and I shared with him, this notion of how his Baltimore was akin to my Cincinnati. We were a mere five years removed from the riots that transformed Over-the-Rhine and what little appreciation Cincinnatians had for an urban sensibility. We had retreated from the core and the people there who were in need. But I held onto the belief, the hope that we could overcome this. I just needed an example, a role model, and there was Simon’s Baltimore and then his explanation spilling out of my speakerphone.
“We are using the model of the television serial to examine the fundamental problems of urban America. We are trying to be honest about where the pathology is and why we can’t seem to rid ourselves of it or even improve upon the situation. And having said that, we’re also trying to entertain people. It’s a very tricky thing because we don’t want the show to become didactic or a political treatise where characters would speak the way I’m speaking now. That would suck.”
The show didn’t suck. Simon and his team of writers – journalists and novelists (not a single regular television writer among them, although many of them have embraced the form now, while still keeping a foot in their genres of choice) – along with a talented cast gave voice to a huddled and conflicted mass that coalesced into the character of Baltimore.
And while Baltimore came to life under their direction, you could argue, from a conceptual standpoint, that the puppet master’s hands and the strings were always visible. Each season, a new social construct appeared. The show went from a procedural drama about the police and drug dealers to an exposé on the decline of organized labor and the impact of human trafficking to an experimental treatise on failed drug policies to a smack down of No Child Left Behind to the charting of the decline of the media. That each and every transition occurred smoothly and not with enough herky-jerky motion to induce nausea is a testament to the skill of Simon’s assembled personnel.
When The Wire finally shut down and Simon cooked up the premise of Treme, following not just Hurricane Katrina, but also the HBO mini-series Generation Kill, his brief foray into the modern theater of war, we could have been forgiven for expecting similar critical highs and the potential for strong-armed instruction. If that had been the case, there still would have been cause and call for celebration.
But Treme defied all expectations, offering signs of the complexities of life Simon had always shown, while refusing to restrict the narrative with artificial borders and boundaries. Truth be told, there was a messy improvisational bent on display throughout, befitting a show devoted to jazz musicians, mercurial chefs, and a community of schemers and dreamers.
This quality is what I will miss most about Treme, the show and my friend. I loved its way with its stories. Treme was quite a character.