Simon Saves Spirit of Journalism Via TV

By Rob Patterson

It comes as no surprise to me that the finest, most real and resonant dramatic television shows produced in recent years are helmed by a former journalist, David Simon. I also find it encouraging for the cause of truth in our culture. And as I write this, four episodes into the first season of Treme, the latest Simon creation for HBO, the New Orleans-based series has already in its own way at the very least matched his masterful urban drama The Wire, arguably the best TV show ever.

I write this amidst what is somewhere between my third and fourth time through The Wire, having just viewed its first two seasons again via HBO On Demand. Simon and his collaborators — notably ex-Baltimore cop Ed Burns on The Wire and other works — fashion television drama (that is not without its comedic pleasures) that’s so novelistic and rich that it not just bears repeated watching but can be savored as each time through as the shows reveal more satisfying nuance and complexities. The weekly City Paper in Baltimore where The Wire is set nailed the show as “broadcast literature.”

And with Treme, Simon is now carving out another landmark that reports on who we are and how we live as well as the issues that confront our lives in ways that even the most trenchant and superior journalism can’t quite get at. Like The Wire, an American city, in this case New Orleans, is its primary overriding character. It’s been widely noted how Simon loves the American city, and obviously in both cases the urban landscape in decline and conflict. Yet also in New Orleans, against all odds, with hope for revival.

That may be the key note that ironically delineates Treme from The Wire, alongside the notes of the music that is as much the central character in the new show as its city and people. Obviously New Orleans is America’s most musical city with the nation’s richest heritage within that art (not to mention food, spirit, mysticism and more in a similar fashion). Just a comparison of the two theme songs — the foreboding Tom Waits song “Way Down in the Hole” that opened The Wire (done by different artists over the seasons) versus the joy that percolates in the new original “Down in the Treme” — shows something different at work here.

For all of Baltimore’s blights, the Crescent City suffered with Hurricane Katrina not just a natural disaster, but as outraged Tulane prof Creighton Burnette (played with gusto by John Goodman) rages in the debut episode, just as much a “a man-made catastrophe, a federal f***-up of epic proportions.” And as skillfully as crime and corruption were woven not just into but formed the spine of The Wire, in New Orleans they are arguably accepted as longtime inherent aspects of local culture (though Treme has already more than once had characters observe how, in its initial months following Katrina, the crime has moved with refugees to other cities like Houston and Atlanta; this feels to me like not just fact but foreshadowing, which is one of the finer facets found in The Wire with repeated viewings). And now with Louisiana’s coast being fouled with Gulf oil while New Orleans is still neglected, Treme feels even more urgent.

Mostly by unconscious attraction, over the last decade or so I’ve become immersed in most of Simon’s oeuvre: First reading his book (with Burns), Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, about a Baltimore police murder unit and a revisit to the 1993-97 TV series it spawned, Homicide: Life on the Street (for which Simon wrote and produced). The Wire also led me to his based-on-books HBO true-story miniseries The Corner (which effectively updates the classic sociology text Tally’s Corner and was first a Simon/Burns book) and Generation Kill (as “you-are-there” in the first days of the Iraq War and its fighters as is possible in any format). All told, the most compelling televised body or work so dramatic it feels real of our age.

Simon calls what he’s done with his fictional shows as “stealing life.” But what he really is doing is using drama to tell it like it is about America today (and our too obvious overall national decline) in way that gets to the very heart of what matters, matching journalistic truth and then trumping it by visual storytelling, characters and contexts that enrich the viewer’s life, because they are life. And at the same time now with Treme illuminating the silver lining of hope within the inevitable change that too many Americans currently fear.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010

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