June 29, 2011

David Simon and Muckraking TV

by J. Max Robins

Treme, David Simon’s melancholy ode to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, will wrap up its second season on HBO on Sunday, July 3. Like Simon’s other creations for HBO -- The Wire, Operation Kill, and The Corner -- Treme shines an Upton Sinclair-like spotlight on myriad societal ills that thrive in the shadows of national neglect.  And its unflinching exploration of soul-wrenching violence -- particularly in the most recent episodes -- is just the latest indication that Simon, a former bare-knuckled reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is clearly channeling his passion for truth into the art of narrative fiction.

Treme is a purposely uneasy look at the Big Easy. Like The Wire was to Baltimore, Treme is both a love letter to the rich musical and culinary culture of New Orleans and a lamentation on its civic decline -- and if you haven’t watched it yet, FAIR WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.  After Season One wrapped with the suicide of Creighton Bernette, the English professor, novelist, and outraged blogger played by John Goodman, this season has dealt similarly tragic hands to two beloved characters.  LaDonna Batiste-Williams, the strong-willed, street-savvy saloon keeper played by Khandi Alexander, ends up beaten and raped in an unspeakably vicious moment.  Then, Harley Watt, a guardian angel street musician played by alt-country rocker Steve Earle, is shot dead in a street robbery gone wrong. 

If Simon ever had misgivings about subjecting his finely drawn characters to such cruel fates, you wouldn’t know it. He has been criticized in the past for his apparent lack of sentimentality for his creations—Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz was particularly upset by the rape episode.  Writers who’ve toiled for Simon bristle at his willingness to kill off characters they’ve invested so much in. Just before the fourth season of The Wire premiered, I moderated a discussion between Simon and the novelist Richard Price, who wrote for the series and harbored some serious resentment toward his boss’s nihilism. (In an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Earle joked that Simon blames novelist George Pelecanos, another Wire veteran and Treme scribe, for being the “Dr. Death” behind many of the offending episodes.)

As a viewer who’s invested emotionally in Simon’s characters, I share that outrage over their fictional fates. But I also believe that outrage is something Simon himself feels and wants to inspire in others. At heart, he is still a crusading journalist who’s outraged by injustice and knows that it’s the rare story that ends up happily ever after.  And as someone who has publicly lamented the decline of the newspaper industry and criticized the Fourth Estate for putting fiscal priorities ahead of civic responsibility, he knows that crusading reporters who strive to take down corrupt politicians and criminal conspiracies are an endangered species.

So instead of practicing watchdog journalism, Simon is in the business of watchdog fiction. In that sense, he’s on the other side of the coin from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who use humor and satire to fill the void left by actual news outlets. It’s an unstinting brand of agitprop TV, though, that demands a lot of viewers. Kudos to HBO for supporting it -- at least for a third season.

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