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Someone is Wrong on the Internet (and in Print): Newsweek’s Joshua Alston

April 18, 2010

Ed. Note: In this column, we put aside our deep reservations against becoming argumentative blowhards and answer the moral obligation to call shenanigans when some other blowhard is spouting substantial amounts of BS.

First, a preface, lest I be accused of overstatement: I fully recognize that myriad statements are made in the political arena every week that are much dumber (and certainly more harmful) than the statement to which I’m about to object. In the grand scheme, this is, of course, a minor concern.

That said, this is pretty damn dumb right here:

Authenticity has become the linchpin of [David] Simon’s work. His first miniseries, The Corner, offered a lived-in portrayal of a Baltimore family torn apart by drugs, but it employed a raw, vérité style that ushered the audience into the family’s world. But by the time Simon turned to the cops-and-corner-boys world of The Wire, the authenticity manifested as inaccessibility. The Wire was known for dropping viewers into an unfamiliar world and expecting them to do the work of figuring out what was going on. It was an exercise in patience, and the reason fans of the show are so evangelical is the same reason men with six-pack abs walk around shirtless—getting there was hard work, making the fruit of their labor that much sweeter.

The above quotation is taken from cultural critic Joshua Alston’s recent Newsweek review/analysis of HBO’s new series Treme. For the sake of the show getting a fair shake on its own merits, I wish Treme had emerged from an unknown source, rather than from David Simon, the titan who created The Wire and has therefore already earned enshrinement into the Hall of Badass.

On the one hand, there are going to be many Wire devotees (myself included) who, try as they may not to do so, will scrutinize Treme with close attention to detail, always measuring the new series’ weight with The Wire on the other end of the balance. Whether Wire fans end up loving the new series or being disappointed by it, the decision will be influenced to no small degree by how the new series compares to what’s seen as its “predecessor,” even though it’s not fair to Treme to view it through this “predecessor-successor” lens.

And then there will be people poised to think less of Treme (or disinclined to watch it) because they believe that watching a David Simon series requires “hard work.” From this point of view, The Wire, and by extension Treme, are like broccoli—you know it’s probably good for you, but it’s yucky. Among other things wrong with the above quote from Alston’s article, he does unacquainted viewers a disservice by fueling that mindset, which I would primarily characterize as mistaken. I don’t know anyone who, after deciding to give Season 1 of The Wire a shot, wasn’t sucked completely into the series within the first two or three episodes. The love that I’ve seen for the show isn’t because it’s “an exercise in patience.” In fact, quite the opposite—it was instantly gripping, and it only got better and more rewarding as the narrative unfolded. Alston’s words ring completely false to me.

But the question of whether David Simon’s creations actually require “hard work” is ultimately a matter of opinion, of course, and it’s really secondary to my other problem with Alston’s piece. Since when is it a bad thing to “[drop] viewers into an unfamiliar world and [expect] them to do the work of figuring out what was going on”? Isn’t that what all storytellers who successfully manage to depict a particular place do to their readers/viewers?

Put another way, what’s the alternative to what Alston labels “inaccessibility”? The only way that I can see to avoid asking even this much of viewers is to pander to them by deadening the complexities of your narrative to such a degree that no effort is required at all. In portraying your setting, you don’t do so truthfully with respect to the place’s dignity and inherent value. You instead fall back on stereotypes. In other words, you become less like The Wire or Treme and more like Justified. Give me The Wire‘s so-called “inaccessibility” over Justified‘s crass pandering any day.

I haven’t started watching Treme yet, but I will, because I trust David Simon to tell a good story and portray his setting well. If that makes me an “evangelical,” so be it. But Joshua Alston’s got “the reason” why many people love Simon’s work all wrong. More important, what he calls a problem of “inaccessibility” is actually a fundamental element of good storytelling.

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