Sunday, 3 March 2013

Two Cities, Two Americas

The Wire, for me, was the greatest show on television ever. While I eventually made my way through the Sopranos, I never really joined that particular cult; Mad Men leaves me a little cold; and Breaking Bad is enjoyable, but not yet leaving me panting for more the way each episode of the Wire did.

What particularly appealed to me was how David Simon and Ed Burns were showing us how people in a large, decaying American city live together. The crime stories and the stuff around the drug trade were good, particularly because you got to see the meticulousness required for good police work (by TV standards, at any rate), but it was everything else that made the show sing.

In fact, I generally get some odd looks when I tell other fans that my favorite season was the one based around the docks. It's the one least concerned with the Barksdale gang and the drug trade, but it's also the best example of the Wire's interest in how urban living has changed since the Second World War. The other seasons I liked best were the ones centering on politics and the schools, which are permeated by David Simon's cynicism about institutions' ability to change, no matter how honest or committed individual people are within those institutions.

Naturally, when I finished the Wire, I went looking for more, and discovered the Corner, Simon's second book about Baltimore and the work that most directly gave rise to the Wire. In both the book and the six-part miniseries, Simon attempted to show how life in Baltimore's drug trade was lived; he and Ed Burns spent a year hanging out on a particular corner with the dealers, talking to them and the buyers and everyone else around there. It also gave him a glimpse of a second America, which is just about as foreign a country to the one most middle class, white Americans live in.

Clearly, the existence of this parallel country troubled Simon. He got involved in the lives of his subjects, helping them and their community out in whatever ways he could. A lot of the actual people he wrote about in the Corner appeared in cameos in the Wire, or were referenced there. When real life caught up with them - like Felicia "Snoop" Pearson or DeAndre McCullough - he wrote eloquent and moving testimonies to them. He even hired some of them to work on the production jobs for the Wire or Treme, his latest show.

Treme is a continuation of this idea of two Americas (I haven't seen Generation Kill, so can't comment). Set in New Orleans just after Katrina obliterated the place, he presents a large cast of characters who moved through the city in those days, trying in varying degrees to rebuild or simply survive.

On first glance it isn't as amazing an artistic statement as the Wire was. It's slightly uneven, possibly because of the amount of characters it follows, and at times it can be a little heavy-handed (such as the scene with the Katrina Tours bus in Episode 3), although for all that, it's not at all off-base. My favorite of these parts is in the first episode, where John Goodman's character, a white university professor living in a beautiful house untouched by the storm, shouts down a phone at NPR, "We're dying out here!" Two episodes later he's discovering YouTube and signing his youngest daughter up for piano lessons.

The two Americas theme is most evident when comparing Khandi Alexander's story arc with that of Kim Dickens. Alexander owns a tavern in the worst-hit area of New Orleans; she has no electricity, her brother is missing and repairs on her place are just not happening. Dickens, meanwhile, is operating her restaurant week by week, losing staff every day... but she has electricity and her patrons include Goodman and his wife. They live in the same city, but in different universes, which connect only rarely.

For all his many faults, former North Carolina Senator and Presidential hopeful John Edwards was right to talk about two Americas. Parts of the Ninth Ward still haven't been rebuilt, and those who lived there are either dead or dispersed elsewhere in America; whereas business apparently continues as usual in the parts of the city that tourists see. Baltimore is much the same, to the point that the Economist had to point out that despite portrayals such as the Wire, the city is actually a delightful place to visit.

I'm sure it is. I'd love to go there, see the waterfront, and try the steamed crabs that it's so famous for. But while we enjoy ourselves, do we really have to close our eyes and ears to the fact that such large parts of these major cities are no-go zones where the residents have all the rules of the America I come from stacked against them?

Whatever you think of David Simon or his work, he's the only person in television looking for these stories that the rest of us don't want to pay attention to, and he should be recognized much more widely for it.