The Wire is one of the few serial dramas in television history whose viewers thought that watching it earned them a merit badge. HBO’s gripping, dynamic procedural panorama of the cops, drug dealers, stevedores and politicians linked across the grim economy of postindustrial Baltimore has been compared to Shakespeare and Dickens, referenced by Cam’ron, Eminem and Young Jeezy, and theorized by academics as a topic and model of social critique. When Barack Obama called it his favorite television program, he wasn’t just telling the truth, but signaling his cultural literacy and an enlightened stance on various forms of institutional dysfunction. The mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, distilled his enthusiasm into an edict, declaring that he would cooperate only with politicians who had watched all five seasons of The Wire. The good-for-you hyperbole that insulates this singular cultural object from criticism seems unlikely to deflate anytime soon.
The Wire turned some friends of mine into social workers and local activists, others into graduate students, and their lives are the better for it. But did the show cumulatively telegraph anything other than an overwhelming pessimism in the face of relentless capitalist expansion? Omar, the show’s swashbuckling contract killer with a moral code, justified his activities by declaring “It’s all in the game,” and his fatalistic MO jibed with series creator David Simon’s own sense of the intractability of structural racism, structural inequality, structural decline. (Simon’s other programs include The Corner, Generation Kill and Homicide: Life on the Street.) In The Wire’s uncompromising autopsy, the American metropolis is shown to be a failed experiment, where every glimmer of possibility leads down a fast track to disappointment and ruin. Nobody escapes the game, and, sorry, the game is rigged. Deserved or not, Simon—who blogs at a personal website called The Audacity of Despair—has cultivated a reputation as the bitterest pill in American entertainment.
Decades of despair are given a temporary therapeutic respite in Treme, Simon and Eric Overmyer’s unjustly ignored, truly sui generis television series about labor, leisure and music in post-Katrina New Orleans. The duo announced a different set of intentions by naming the show after a specific place, Tremé—the country’s oldest African-American neighborhood—and at a time when only people with a mighty compelling reason to return there from exile (and those who had no place else to go) had made it their home. HBO’s perpetually low-rated drama, which premiered in 2010 and somehow survived long enough to complete a truncated fourth and final season in December, Treme initially seemed like the result of Simon’s quest for an environment ungoverned by market logic. The show retains his fascination with the death and life of great American cities, but Treme isn’t here to deliver the bad news. Densely atmospheric, foregrounding a kind of humanist exuberance that does not seem fleeting, Treme is an existential rebuttal to its formidable predecessor. Simon, a curmudgeonly ex-newspaperman and perpetual gadfly, has unforgettably cataloged all the reasons to quit; now he wants to know why the struggle could be worthwhile.
What makes a city worth inhabiting, let alone fixing? Simon is not an up-with-people kinda guy, but the living theater of New Orleans sends him over the moon, representing “the best we can be as Americans: It’s a triumph of the melting pot, right down to the rhythms of the street! It’s black, it’s white, it’s Cuban, it’s Haitian. It’s our greatest export.” If the show clearly originated as a sentimental valentine, it never feels quite so deliriously naïve as that exclamation. While music can seem like a great equalizer and lubricant for Treme’s racially and ethnically mixed collection of gregarious locals, every episode is subtly attuned to the structural forces that stifle the flourishing of a post-racial bohemia. The show chronicles the disastrously unequal impact of public housing demolitions and post-flood redevelopment projects, and underscores the reality that Mardi Gras krewes are still largely segregated. On television, race representation remains so skewed that, as the comic Wyatt Cenac recently quipped, “There are more TV shows starring vampires than starring minorities.” Treme showcases the most diverse ensemble of black performers on contemporary American screens, and it’s become a rare haven for directors of color like Ernest Dickerson, Anthony Hemingway and Roxann Dawson. (The Wire was eventually syndicated to BET, and the less popular Treme would benefit from a similar fate.)