I hate to say that I also think of HBO’s new series “Treme,” which is mesmerizing in its ways (I intend to keep watching) but leaves you beaten over the head every week about just how vibrantly real New Orleans is. Realer than where you live. Realer, really, than you.
Even if you think you love the place, “Treme” is determined to show you otherwise. The surly street musician (who is just visiting himself, from Amsterdam) tartly informs tourists that it’s tacky to request “When the Saints Go Marching In”—that tune isn’t “real New Orleans,” apparently. In fact if you listen to any music on Bourbon Street, there are those who will tell you you’re not experiencing—again—the real thing. And if you live in the neighborhood the show is named after, Treme, the last thing you have any right to do is ask for quiet even in the wee hours, because, as Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary character says, “This is the Treme, dude!” and the noise is what makes it real.
A main message from this sultry pageant of a show is that New Orleans is an occult matter that you can never truly “get” unless you’re a native or pretty close to it. The perky, hopelessly “white” tourists from Wisconsin with their nasal voices, the ones who get schooled by the street musician, can be taken as stand-ins for the viewer. Which makes the whole enterprise strangely unwelcoming.
Sure, one could ask why it has to be welcoming, but that’s a less effective comeback when we are being told again and again how much we are supposed to love and admire New Orleans. If we have anything to say except that New Orleans is the heart of the United States, then John Goodman will try to hurl us into the Gulf, or at least tell us, as he did in a great but disturbing sequence last Sunday, to perform a certain action upon his gonads.
What’s especially challenging is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t quality: criticize New Orleans, or even don’t pay quite enough attention, and you’re a chump—but praise it and you’re probably doing it wrong.
I’ve come away with a similar feeling after the first several episodes, though I think this commenter to McWhorter’s piece makes a good point:
I’ve been watching closely, and although many of the characters are prickly about authenticity and consumed with anger, I don’t think that Simon is presenting their attitudes uncritically. He’s just presenting them. The city itself is full of warring authenticities–each person’s New Orleans is the only real one, and they’re not all identical. Goodman’s character’s rant about NYC and Chicago was not meant as objective truth.
This criticism from McWhorter resonated with me, too:
…there is a fill-in-the-blanks quality in putting the characters through their paces that almost never felt as self-conscious in The Wire. Which character will be denied flood coverage because his policy was only for hurricanes? Which character will do an angry riff about light-skinned creoles looking down on darker ones? What local term will be tossed off in tonight’s episode that will send bloggers to Wikipedia (second line in the premiere, lagniappe last Sunday)?
There was a lot of talk about how Simon wanted to “get New Orleans right” for this show. Seems to me that those efforts have so far come at the expense of likable, relatable characters. The Wire‘s appeal came in the depth and appeal of its characters. The show was chock full of flawed heroes and sympathetic villains. More importantly, the characters felt organic. They never came off as punch-outs created to represent specific factions or demographics. (Save for the fifth season newsroom.) I think I’ve had a hard time embracing Treme thus far because few of the characters have that same authenticity. They feel perfunctory. (Though Wendell Pierce’s charm and acting chops bring Antoine Batiste to life, in spite of the character’s caricature-ishness).
David Simon doesn’t pander to his viewers. So I’m still optimistic that there will be a payoff in the second half of this season. I’m hoping he flips some of these characters upside down. But so far it feels like he is pandering to his own insecurities about being a white, fanboyish outsider doing a TV series about New Orleans. The Wire was a character-driven drama that when all was said and done was really a story about Baltimore. It took two full seasons for the series to begin to pan back and reveal itself as such. Treme feels self-consciously about the city . . . first, early, and often. That’s fine if you’re making a documentary. But so far, it’s made for unconvincing drama. Of course, it’s still one of the better shows on TV. Simon created and maintained the greatest show in the history of television. It’ll probably be his burden that everything he does going forward will come with the expectation that he do it again.