Down on the Treme

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Via Andrew Sullivan, John McWhorter finds David Simon’s new show challenging to watch:

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.

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13 Responses to “Down on the Treme

  1. #1 |  Rob | 

    I don’t know… I watched the first ep of Treme and wasn’t motivated to watch any others. Seems to me when you become concerned with ‘authenticity’ you lose it. When you try to tell a good story, with a point, authenticity follows. Treme just seemed so really heavy-handed, and like you say – self conscious – when compared to The Wire.

    It seems, to me, that in almost any medium that ‘authenticity’ – ‘being real’ – is generally the first indicator you’ve lost the thread. IMHO.

  2. #2 |  Greg N. |,17426/

  3. #3 |  premature ejac | 

    Would that all the knuckleheads wait for a single season before pontificating on Simon’s initial choices. Already, in episode five, the character who abused his neighbors for their lack of authenticity was punched in the mouth for being racially inauthetic by HIS neighbors, then turned around and came to a realization about his own arrogance.

    Wonder what happens by the end of episode ten?

    You cats are like readers finishing the third chapter of Moby Dick and bitching because the whale hadn’t shown up.

  4. #4 |  Chuchundra | 

    That’s a pretty douchey article from McWhorter. If you’re taking a show that personally, it’s probably just better that you don’t watch it.

    Plus he gets some things just wrong. Nobody on the show says that “Saints” isn’t authentic Orleans, just that it’s extra. In fact, this is exactly right. If you go to NOLA and want to hear “Saints Go Marchin’ In”, you have to pay extra.

    And while the Amsterdam guy gives the somewhat clueless, white bread, midwesterners some shit, Steve Zahn’s character seems excited to point them towards an authentic NO music spot off the beaten path where the proceed to have a great time.

  5. #5 |  tim | 

    Couldn’t agree more with #3. I can’t understand how anyone can come to any conclusion on a show based on the first episode (#1) or even half season.

  6. #6 |  The Johnny Appleseed Of Crack | 

    Couldn’t agree more with #3. I can’t understand how anyone can come to any conclusion on a show based on the first episode (#1) or even half season.

    Watch 1/2 an episode of undercover boss. That’s enough, I promise.

    It usually takes me a while to determine that something (visual art, music, tv shows) is good. But if it I don’t like it, I know right away.

  7. #7 |  Jesse Walker | 

    I’ll reserve judgement on the other stuff, but I will say this: There’s much more handholding in this show than there was in The Wire, via both visual cues and expository dialogue. I’m surprised to see Simon yielding ground to popular accessibility in that way, though it might just be a byproduct of the fact that he himself doesn’t know New Orleans as intimately as he knows Baltimore.

  8. #8 |  joev | 

    Just as coffee is for closers, so to Lundi Gras is for locals.


  9. #9 |  Lenny Zimmermann | 

    I’ll admit that the first episode seemed a tad short on characterization, even if it was chock full of local goodness, but most shows don’t really get their feet under them for a few episodes. Especially so for one with as many characters as they are trying to sort through in Treme where it will take some time to get it all rolling with them all. That being said I think the last few episodes have really started to grab me more, and there certainly are plenty of touches for those of us from the area. And while I have plenty of little quibbles I find a lot to like about the show so far. I won’t disagree that in some ways the characters can make it hard to be likable, or to even be a little turned off by New Orleans while also being shown some of her charms. To be honest, that really is how this city is. SO many folks come down to visit, fall in love with the place and then, maybe 10 years later, leave in disgust. (And to be honest Davis strikes me as exactly that kind of person, even though he’s supposedly from here.)

    I’m not sure it would be right to make New Orleans more likable and still be really true to what this place is like with all of its disparate, and yet blended, cultures. With all of the things that give it that old world charm, but also give it that somewhat careless attitude and resistance to change that has always been part of the core of this place and been a bone of contention for Americans ever since this city became an integral part of our heritage as a country. New Orleans is both an easy and enjoyable place to taste, but also exceptionally hard to swallow. In that sense I think Treme is getting close to really giving us a true look here at many of the reasons locals (and visitors) love being here, but sometimes hate it as well.

    There is no REAL New Orleans, but all too often everyone here thinks they know what it is, and sometimes you need an outsider to tell that tale to ever get close to how things are. Tennessee Williams once said something to the effect that as much as he loved the city, he could never write about her during any of the times he lived there. A sentiment that rings true to locals who have spent time away.

    I will say this, though. I’ve been very pleased particularly about the way the writers have handled the way most of the characters in the show have dealt with the aftermath of the storm. Particularly I’m thinking of Chief Lambreau and the like, here. They didn’t show someone coming into the city and lamenting how terrible their house was and how bad their lot in life is and how they deserve everyone else’s sympathy, as has sometimes been portrayed. Instead they showed the way the vast majority of New Orleanians responded when we were finally let back in (and believe me, many of us desperately wanted to get back in). He surveyed the situation, sighed… and then he just got to work. Even dealing with the insurance companies wasn’t a bunch of whining about his lot in life, but it was a struggle to be worked through.

    My biggest beef is that the “suburbs”, like Metairie get short shrift, but even that is a rather honest assessment as I have many friends who love to bitch about the suburbs as if we were a foreign nation infesting the borders of the city. We are an integral part of the city, and always have been, but there is still a strong insularity even between neighborhoods within the city itself that I think Treme is starting to bring out. It may seem more blunt or “in your face” about it than The Wire, but that may well be a function of the way New Orleans itself is compared to Baltimore. This city is it’s own character that very much makes itself known just being here in a way that many other cities I have been to do not. It stands out right away, slapping folks in the face with hospitality, charm, culinary delight, dirtiness, heat, corruption, insularity and all. Good, bad and ugly rolled into a gumbo that is practically tangible in ways that many other places don’t quite seem to be (at least IMHO). So even that aspect of handling the host city for Treme over The Wire seems fairly true to the material to me. Maybe I’m too close to it to be anywhere near objective about it, of course, so feel free to take all of that with a grain of Tony C’s… (Tony Chachere’s is a locally popular brand of spicy seasoned salt. ;))

  10. #10 |  Joe | 

    Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary character says, “This is the Treme, dude!” and the noise is what makes it real.

    Premature noted it above.

    McAlary in an earlier episode annoyed some gentrifying gay guys across the back yard by putting his stereo speakers facing out of his windows.

    Later McAlary gets punched in the face at a local bar by a black patron after thinking he could do a Quintin Taratino/Pulp Fiction with the N-word because he lives in the Treme. Shocked at that reaction (as well as being drunk and dazed), McAlary staggers out. McAlary finds himself the next morning on in the home of those gay guys who do a good samaritan act for him by taking him in and parking him on the couch when they find him passed out and beaten outside. When he asks why they helped him, the one of the gay guys says, “Because you are our neighbor.” McAlary goes home and turns the speakers he stuck out the window around.

    The characters in Treme have some complexity to them. It is a complicated story line, but I would give this show a chance to develop that.

  11. #11 |  Black 27 | 

    Okay, as far as The Wire goes I myself can honestly claim to have watched every episode on the date of its original airing all the way back to Season 1 Episode 1. By episode 4 I was enthralled. By the second season I myself was throwing out the line “best show ever.”

    With Treme there have been, what, five episodes? Six? And I find myself less impressed by this series with each new one.

    The feeling I get with Treme is exactly the feeling I used to get in college when I would go into the record store to buy a Bon Jovi tape from a store clerk regarding me with withering contempt from behind his Elvis Costello glasses. See, this guy was just SO MUCH cooler than me on account of his inflated tastes and sensibilities. But really, what this guy had on me was a better ability to display his affectations.

    With The Wire, Simon and Ed Burns were white guys writing for people they themselves weren’t. But at the same time, the WORLD inhabited by these characters was one of which Simon and Burns were intimately a part. So in my mind they certainly could pull that off.

    Simon is not from New Orleans nor of it. So the tone he takes in looking down on the “not with it” audience just makes him a great stand-in for the 19 year-old douchebag in the glasses with the better taste in music than the 19 year-old me.

    Although I must give some props for the dude in the bar punching Ziggy -ERRRR, Davis in the face. Seeing that guy get whacked makes every second I spend watching this show worthwhile. And if we can see a beat down administered to the loser Dutch guy I may even come around a little more on this series – which I will in any event continue to watch. Flawed as it is it still beats the shit out of network TV.

  12. #12 |  Prof Steve | 

    Spot on commentary (and I entirely agree with #11 as well). David Simon has earned me giving this a full season, but I have to admit I’m forcing myself to watch it rather than looking forward to it.

  13. #13 |  Tricia Piatt | 

    I am sorry that some people are not enjoying the show. I never saw The Wire, but I try to not compare different series to each other. I have only been to New Orleans one time but I loved the city. And I am really enjoying Treme. I can’t wait for the next episode to air. I know I would always be an outsider, but the show makes me wish I was from New Orleans, that I had even a small amount of musical talent, and that I could eat great New Orleans food on a regular basis!