The Wire, Treme, and the Sociological Imagination
Am I the only one out there who prefers Treme to The Wire? While reviews for Treme have been mixed, many critics have dubbed The Wire the best television series of all time. Everyone seems to love The Wire’s epic portrayal of the drug trade in West Baltimore. Pundits from across the political spectrum blogged about it. Top legal scholars and sociologists have used it as a teaching tool. President Obama called it his favorite television series. Attorney General, Eric Holder, requested a sixth season (probably to his embarrassment). In 2010, the show’s creator, David Simon, even won a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Grant. By contrast, the critical response to Treme, Simon’s recent series on post-Katrinia New Orleans, has been much more reserved, with viewers complaining about its supposedly slow pace and irritating characters.
The Wire has garnered the kind of praise that escape most other TV shows for a number of reasons. Nothing on television has done a better job of exploring the dynamics of a contemporary American city: its massive economic inequality, gutted unions, impoverished schools, endemic corruption, and senseless drug war. This kind of material would make for nothing but an expansive PBS documentary on urban America, however, if it wasn’t for the show’s memorable characters, quotable dialogue, and suspenseful storytelling. For all of its social realism, watching The Wire never feels like a chore required for responsible citizens. In fact, I’ve met many people with little interests in politics who could watch five or six episodes in a row, just because they needed to know “what would happen next.”
For all of these obvious assets, some elements of The Wire always rubbed me the wrong way. Due to its relentless focus on the drug war, viewers might easily come to the conclusion that urban Baltimore contains no music scene, no culture, and no communal organizations except gangs. Families seem utterly broken. Mothers threaten to disown their sons unless they step-up their hustle in the drug game. The black church plays a very small role on the show, mostly unsympathetically, for its support of the drug war. The Wire’s only treatment of the Nation of Islam involves a bookish assassin who’s supposed to be a devoted reader of the New Republic. Besides an annual inner-city basketball game, a bar attended by dockworkers, and a mourning celebration for fallen police officers, there’s virtually no sense of urban life outside the reality of drugs, corruption, and poverty. Without its occasional forays into black humor, The Wire’s outlook would be almost wholly bleak (for similar criticisms, see this profile of Simon in The Atlantic).
In a recent Onion AV Club forum on “What Makes TV Dated,” Todd VanDerWerff makes the excellent observation that, “the unexamined things we take for granted in whatever era become the things that horrify later generations.” He continues, “put another way, The Wire and The Sopranoes seem like ingenious records of the way we live today right now, but to our great-grandchildren, they’re going to seem as distant and trapped in amber as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which has a similar journalistic sweep) seems to me now.”
While this sounds about right, I would also argue that it’s already apparent that The Wire replicates some of the same problems that mar The Jungle. Sinclair’s uncompromising portrayal of working conditions in turn of the century Chicago’s meat-packing plants has guaranteed its place as a classic work of muckraking fiction, but the novel provides no sense of the rich ethnic and religious organizations that the city’s immigrants had built for themselves. While the book briefly envisions a glorious socialist future for the city’s exploited proletariat, The Jungle’s view of tenement life is relentlessly heartless. Both The Wire and The Jungle tell important parts of their respective stories of urban crisis, but they also seem to neglect something essential.
Simon’s Treme, however, bridges this gap. While the show continues to shine a light on inequality, violence, and corruption, unlike The Wire, it also underlines the everyday resistance of ordinary citizens. In its exploration of post-Katrina New Orleans, the show captures a wide array of characters, which include the intersecting lives of laborers, lawyers, businessmen, academics, cooks, and musicians in many stages of their careers. (Like The Wire, the series also seems to offer one of the few venues on television for examining the lives of African American characters with any kind of nuance.) Treme highlights the resilience of everyone from Mardi Gras Indians, to determined public attorneys, to musicians marching in second lines. Treme never forgets the anger, betrayal, and injustice suffered by the inhabitants of New Orleans, but neither does it ignore their determination to forge ahead.
While, in my view, Treme’s multifaceted and musically rich portrayal of New Orleans makes it superior The Wire, it still isn’t perfect. Unlike some other critics, I actually think the plotting works well and appreciate the character development (you aren’t going to have the same level of suspense in a police procedural as you will in a slice-of-life drama), but the show sometimes does get a little too satisfied with itself. My wife, who cooks for a living, winces every time there’s yet another cameo by a celebrity chef. Some of the dialogue involving cooks and musicians comes across as overly romanticized. One might also fault Treme for wearing its progressive heart a little too obviously on its sleeve.
Still, for all of these minor objections, both The Wire and Treme represent major achievements of what C. Wright Mills famously called the “Sociological Imagination”: “a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities.” That is, the sociological imagination offers a way of interpreting the world, which connects the dots between historical context, institutional structures, and individual lives. With The Wire and Treme, Simon has helped provide his audiences with a much clearer view of the way contemporary American society operates. With Treme, he also reminds viewers that even in the face of nearly unsurmountable odds, hope hasn’t totally vanished from the scene.