The truly innovative television writer David Mills died two days before a luncheon given by HBO to celebrate his forthcoming drama series, Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans. So the network event was in need of a wild Louisiana-style second line, dancing and singing “Didn’t He Ramble?” as an elegantly attired band of marching musicians stirred up a mess of sentiment and sentimentality, with all the notes thumbing their noses at death itself.
That’s the way they handle the butcher of time down there in the Big Easy. They drop tears wherever they must land, sob out their mourning for all to see, put their foot firmly in the Grim Reaper’s ass, and keep on stepping, shuffling, and dancing. Life goes on as an unpredictable version of vital prayer, if not an act of revenge in the name of the dearly departed.
David Mills benefited from all that television could do and helped out point out the high road demanded of serious writers willing to take it.
The luncheon was looked forward to with the kind of excitement that always attended anything involving the 48-year-old Mills, who had shocked serious or casual viewers with joy at what he did, beginning with Homicide and NYPD Blue. Both shows were a good example of the animus Mills felt toward writing that leaned on coy or grotesquely delivered stereotypes. But he had garnered the bulk of his reputation for what he had done with the freedom he got from HBO. It was there that he and what today’s lames would call his “posse” brought off what could be called his masterpieces, The Corner and The Wire.
Masterpiece is an odd word to use for almost anything done on television, but there is perhaps no better way to describe what Mills had done on cable. The Corner, set in the impoverished world of Baltimore drug addicts was claustrophobic, but The Wire, played out in the same locale, was epic. The Corner was closely observed and heartbreaking, but The Wire was much more comprehensive because its social arena was as complex as that of any big city. The scale allowed Mills and the other writers to serve a dose of the shit, grit, and mother wit that provides our nation with so much vitality in what often amounts to a cistern of corruption as difficult to handle as carrying water by the literal handful. That difficulty and the fluid range of changing shapes, classes, sexes, ethnic groups, occupations, and ambitions were what gave the show such three-dimensional qualities. The fullness of life arrived through characters so well-conceived they were startling. The drug criminals could be as stupid as bricks or approach organizational brilliance worthy of those ruthless corporate heads never losing a wink over the ways that their products pollute and destroy. The corrupt or middling cops were contrasted with honest ones who had the foibles familiar to flesh and blood. All, from the absolute bottom to the absolute top, maintained endless levels of conflict within their own bailiwicks and maintained an often pointless dance with politicians usually more interested in being reelected than serving their constituencies.
This was not the usual thing seen on television. The medium specializes in driving the bus of our culture into the deep slush of the radioactively superficial and trivial. For all of its dedication to the counterfeit glamour and insubstantial posturing of animate life, on or off the red carpet, the wonder of television is that it has probably done more for race relations and beaten to a pulp more stereotypes than anything other than the civil-rights movement itself. Television has repudiated the obnoxiously insipid nature of American comedy, where stereotypes and insults stood in easily in place of the pathos that was always just below the aesthetic top skin of Chaplin, Fields, and Pryor, our inarguable geniuses. Television also helped bring about a reconsideration of the national nonsense about race, and even reduced the adolescent conception of sex that makes films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes now seem beyond the pale of actual fun, because the viewer has to accept the dominance of sexual minstrelsy, with women existing only for jokes and the ongoing possibility of allowing the boys to wet their wicks.
David Mills benefited from all that television could do and helped out point out the high road demanded of serious writers willing to take it. As David Simon, his writing partner and friend since college said at the luncheon on Friday, Mills did not accept any segregated idea of who could write about any group. He did not accept the cowardice that passes for “respect” of ethnic groups or any others. Mills could get loud and hot if advised that any writer of talent had best leave certain material, people, and situations alone. In that sense, Mills was part of the domestic avant-garde of writers who realize that human types appear in all groups and have common characteristics that are only affected in tone by ethnic, religious, and class particulars. Such thinking is ahead of the pack only because so few writers and cable networks understand that the truest realization of democratic art is the open sky of human feeling and mystery. Mills knew that no group was given any help through a denial of its humanity, something most who think they speak for special interest groups never quite get clear in aesthetic terms.
One of Mills and his writing partners’ legacies was the introduction of many performers whose gifts would have remained largely untapped, given Hollywood’s reliance on various forms of political correctness. Extremely fine black actors, male and female, were given roles with the meat of life in them: They were never completely beasts or angels but somewhere in between, as human beings usually are. As the loon brigades proved as they berated Precious, our humanity is the enemy of ideologues. The spiritual gruel of the truth is always off limits because it might not act right once consumed.
When the luncheon was over and we had seen a clip of Treme, it became immediately clear that something quite difficult and equally ambitious is being attempted. True to its art, the show, which premieres April 11, steps over and through all lines of division, excluding no one and showing no one special treatment. As its first few episodes show, the series will develop more power if it excises some silly characters and takes on the Byzantine politics and corruption of New Orleans, a force so apparently independent of everything else that is swallows all colors and attempts to ground them up with its spotless, stained, or rotted teeth. That this corruption does not entirely succeed is one of the wonders of New Orleans, a wonder shared by the deeper and much more complicated identity of the United States itself. If Treme succeeds, it will be a worthy last work highly influenced by the gifts of David Mills, one of our most talented.
Correction: The premiere date was originally written as April 10; it is April 11.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006, his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year, the first volume of his biography of Charlie Parker will appear.