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Jun. 21 2010 - 5:21 pm | 2,367 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Where ‘Treme’ went astray

Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste

If any TV show deserves not just ratings but love, it’s Treme. The HBO show (which concluded its first season Sunday night; a second has been greenlit) has interesting characters, an epic overarching storyline, a fascinating setting and great music. And the themes it treats – the frayed yet unbroken civic bonds of New Orleans society, and America, in the face of disaster – are very important. Not just because south Louisiana now confronts another catastrophe, but because of our crumbling infrastructure, dirty energy economy, institutional rot, and climate change, there are going to be a lot more of them.

And yet, to me anyway, Treme has not lived up to expectations. (I will pause here to ask my New Orleans friends for forgiveness.) It’s had some great moments, but just as often it’s been erratic and self-indulgent. Compared to the awesome mastery of The Wire, Treme still feels like a minor work in the David Simon oeuvre, yet to find its focus.

Maybe it’s an unfair comparison. The Wire focused on an urban community as exploited and distorted by an indifferent, inexorable system of political bureaucracy – its Big Idea was the corruption of American democracy itself. With Treme, there is a similar and even grander backdrop of social and institutional failure, but the focus has shifted to culture and individual expression, where there’s more potential to defeat the system, or at least win some small victories. The Mardi Gras Indian storyline anchored by the great Clarke Peters (a Wire vet) played on these themes compellingly.

But still. I wonder if Simon and his stable of crack writers have fallen victim to the last thing I thought they would: sentimentality. Treme spent an awful lot of time revisiting this basic idea: “New Orleans is a wonderful and unique place. The people there love it. Tourists and visitors initiated into its mysteries love it. Our characters love it too. They never want to leave, and those who do leave are inevitably pulled back into its embrace. Because (did we tell you?) New Orleans is wonderful.”

This is a perfectly fine point as far as it goes. If you present it with some wry charm, great. If you use it as an entry point for a character’s individual drama, fine. But in a 10-hour season, it too often became the predominant point, and when it did the show slipped from drama into self-congratulation.

This is, interestingly, a feature of New Orleans itself – something the show obviously gets. New Orleans’s outsized self-esteem, given its many problems, is charming but dangerous: the city can be self-absorbed, dissolute, corrupt. And determined to stay that way. Treme characters struggle with their own self-destructive tendencies, and sometimes lose.

But here too Treme also stumbled. Its mixture of comedy, character-driven drama, and social commentary never quite found its ideal balance. Many characters weren’t quite complex or interesting enough to deliver the dramatic or comedic punches they were assigned, at least never in a way approaching the patient, devastating dramatic arcs of The Wire or other great HBO shows like Deadwood or The Sopranos. How many uninteresting fights were there between street musicians Annie and her annoying, less talented boyfriend, Sonny? How many grating, quirky things could gadfly Davis McAlary do in a single episode? How many scenes did we need of chef Janette Desautel pouring a swirl of sauce on freshly-grilled fish? And entertaining as they sometimes were, the multiple cameos by New Orleans musicians and other local celebrities at times gave the show the feeling of a huge in-joke.

This tendency reached an apex in the Mardi Gras episode, in which most of the characters – who inhabit various New Orleans social strata – repeatedly encountered each other during carnival parades and parties. You could almost see the bullet points on the writing room white board: Mardi Gras is a great equalizer; New Orleans is fundamentally a small town; Mardi Gras is when New Orleans most becomes New Orleans. But it reminded me of the sideways-universe in the final season of Lost, where all the passengers from Oceanic 815 also kept improbably bumping into one another in Los Angeles. In that case it was a sign that their lives there were not real, something they had to wake up from. Maybe New Orleans is heaven’s anteroom?

Perhaps the biggest, most unexpected dramatic moment of the series came when John Goodman’s character, Tulane professor Creighton Bernette, commits suicide by jumping off a ferry (n.b.: this was also the way monologist Spalding Gray killed himself). This was distressing, but more because it was Goodman than because it was Bernette. So in season 2 we’ll get less John Goodman, more Steve Zahn? Nooooo!

Dramatically, though, this could have been a moment of climactic insight into the plight of New Orleans and its citizens. The ubiquitous post-traumatic stress of living in post-K New Orleans led many people to become depressed (including some of my own friends and colleagues) and some to kill themselves. It could happen to anybody – another, more perverse “great equalizer.” But was that the only point? Because it’s an awfully statistical one for a high-end drama. It was never clear exactly why we were watching Creighton Bernette go through the textbook stages of depression, as opposed to any other character. Stringer Bell’s death, by contrast, was Shakespearean.

I don’t mean to carp, because I share at least some of Simon’s perspective as a journalist-outsider documenting this great city. I worked for The Times-Picayune and spent many years writing about New Orleans. I love the place. It is, indeed, wonderful. New Orleans is fascinating and complex, and does not fit the stereotypes the rest of America assigns it. It is self-destructive, yet worthy of redemption. But if you make it your purpose to explain to America why that is, or simply that it is, it will only take you so far. The challenge is in taking a step back and (while being true to the city’s character) showing why New Orleans really isn’t all that different from the rest of America. That’s the essence of its predicament. That’s why New Orleans is screwed. And why we all are.


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    Your final point was a good one, but I stand by the show in portraying New Orleans as a unique place. First, Treme has done a superb job of trying to get New Orleans RIGHT. Nobody sounds like Scarlett O’Hara or Pepe La Pue. They speak in a variety of dialects, just as real New Orleanians do. And getting New Orleans RIGHT also means focusing on the things that make New Orleans unique: its relative lack of national franchise businesses, its unique food, dialects, traditions and culture, and so forth. Most importantly — and perhaps by being a tad sentimental — Treme conveys to outsiders some idea of WHY WE STAY. We stay because New Orleans is unique. We love it because it is NOT “Anyplace, USA,” where one might live in a corporate-run apartment building, work for one giant franchise, buy your groceries at another, and eat at several others. We all know “Anyplace.” Its address is adjacent to the intersection of any stretch of Interstate with any state highway. Its address is any sprawling subdivision with strict residential codes keeping the house facades harmonious and “tastefully” bland. We don’t want to live in “Anyplace,” because “Anyplace” has no soul. There’s nothing about it to call “home.” Just mile after mile of Holiday Inn, Outback, Albertson’s, TGIFriday, Best Western, Cinemark, Lowe’s, Hobby Lobby, Walgreen’s and WalMart upon WalMart upon WalMart, surrounded by countless acres of concrete parking lots.

    No thanks. Treme may have leaned toward tourist promotion, but in case you haven’t heard, New Orleans is STILL recovering, and will be, for a long, long time. If Treme tweaks peoples heartstrings and drives some tourists down to fuel our economy, I sure won’t complain.

  2. collapse expand

    Simply put, this review was everything you accuse Treme of being. But I’ll add, “weak.” Not a characteristic I found in the series. Nihilism, in the case of The Wire, is easy. Showing characters’ hearts in a way that gets the viewer to care about them is considerably harder, and more subtle. Treme achieves this. Look, everyone is entitled to their opinion. Yours, in this case, is just wrong.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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