Portlandia, The Wire and Treme: The City on TV

Back when David Simon, creator of The Wire, announced that his second urban HBO show would be called Treme and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, I joked that, in order for him to complete a trilogy documenting post-industrial urban America, he’d have to set his third program in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where trust fund hipsters face off against Hasidic Jews over bikelanes.

The Wire and Treme are two of the most sophisticated television shows dealing with urban issues ever. Honestly, the qualifier “urban issues” is hardly needed. They are two of the most sophisticated televisions shows period. Sociology, Law, and Urban Studies departments around the country teach the shows. Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson wrote:

Though scholars know that deindustrialization, crime and prison, and the education system are deeply intertwined, they must often give focused attention to just one subject in relative isolation, at the expense of others. With the freedom of artistic expression, The Wire can be more creative. It can weave together the range of forces that shape the lives of the urban poor.”

Beyond a cross-disciplinary approach, what The Wire does right is to show that low-income blacks, working-class ethnic whites, the police (cough*right-wing paramilitary organizations*cough), suburban white educators, politicians, and journalists are all, in Chaddha and Williams words, deeply intertwined.

Yet, despite a short storyline regarding harborfront development, The Wire largely ignored one of the major trends of urban America through the 90s and 00s: young, hipster, often white (and often seen as gentrifiers) moving into the city. (In Baltimore, this trend was partially encouraged through the problematically named “urban homesteader” program.) Though not the province of traditional urban studies, this group is having a profound effect on both the lived experience of American urbanism and on media depictions of the city.

With Treme, Simon introduced a few characters who could be said to belong to this group: Steve Zahn’s trust-fund musician Davis McAlary, Michiel Huisman’s drug addled Sonny, and Lucia Micarelli’s adorable busker Annie. At the same time, these three characters (with the exception of Annie) are often played for either laughs or as less-than-sympathetic characters. Davis, especially, is persistently shown as an outsider to the culture that he tries so hard to fit into. In one episode he gets punched for trying a little too hard to fit in with the black culture he moves through.

At the same time, these portrayals of this group are hardly surprising. Between the irony and the privilege, showing a sympathetic, dramatic hipster character in a city ravaged by natural and man-made disaster would be a challenge, to say the least. With that in mind, it makes sense that Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s Portlandia plays them for laughs instead.

Portlandia, I would argue, is one of the three best portrayals of urban America on TV today (along with Treme and the new, Chicago-based political series The Boss). Despite the sketch comedy, it is also a highly engaged, thoughtful portrait of a place. The following is a short excerpt from an interview between Carrie Brownstein and Marc Maron on the WTF podcast:

MM- How would you characterize it? I mean, obviously the show Portlandia skews it all pretty well. The full range of the types of people that are there, but it is a weird combination, no?

CB- Yeah, no it’s a combination of sort of hypersensitivity, a little over analytical, um, privileged for the most part…

MM- White?

CB- It’s pretty white, yeah, and I don’t… I’m careful now to note that I love living there, but I’m definitely… it’s a self-conscious city, it just doesn’t have a sense of self yet the way that Seattle or San Francisco does. You go to Portland and there’s a part of it that just seems too ephemeral, which I can see that that would be alienating.”

Throughout, Carrie speaks about the importance of finding “what’s local about this place?” At the same time, Portlandia speaks not only to the local, but also to a national (and international) subculture; in essence positioning Portland as a hipster Mecca, over the similar claims of Brooklyn, Seattle or Minneapolis (or New Orleans).

So, in ten years, will there be courses at Harvard exploring Portlandia in the way that there are for The Wire? Probably not. But, if we’re seeking to understand contemporary urbanism, there should be.