Several of the Bureau Chiefs are now heavily into the new HBO series Treme, as most of us were big fans of creator David Simon’s earlier HBO project, The Wire. Doctor K, Ken Lowery, Benjamin Birdie, Eugene Ahn and Matt Wilson sat down around the virtual table and have a discussion of their impressions of the series so far, especially as they weigh it against their experience with the earlier show.
I’m really feeling that this show defies coherent assessment right now. I’ve just got a bag of impressions without anything really holding them together.
After two episodes, it seems clear that the individual episodes won’t be tied together by some overarching plot the way seasons of The Wire were. That may make the show more challenging for an audience that wants some kind of coherence, but at the same time, the mixture of different plots has its own appeal. The show builds a kind of trust in the audience here that gets reciprocated–I’m willing to go along for the ride on this show and trust that the destination will be well worth my time. I was surprised when it looked like the plot with Khandi Alexander’s brother was going to get resolved in the second episode, so I’m glad it wasn’t. It’s this plot where we’re really seeing the incompetence and corruption of the New Orleans recovery operations.
Clarke Peters’ (like with early episodes of The Wire, I have not gotten a grasp on character names yet) plot is the most oblique, but the strange and violent turn it took in this episode continues to build a mystery about what his powerful role was with the Indians before Katrina. Also, this episode lets you know that this character is not Lester Freamon, the kind, effective, and quiet detective that he played on The Wire. This is the plot that I feel I have to invest the most trust–viewers unfamiliar with this particular aspect of New Orleans culture are so far only getting little chunks of information about what it was like.
From a personal standpoint, I love that the show is addressing the affect of Katrina on Tulane University. The cuts to programs seem totally ridiculous, yet entirely in keeping with the way a university bureaucracy works. I like in general how Creighton, John Goodman’s character, is depicted here. He has a practical approach to academia, seeing its need to produce useful citizens, and I’m curious to see where his character goes with his novel about the earlier flood.
I actually spent a bit of time in New Orleans the summer after Katrina. My family vacationed there yearly when I was young, and despite not being much better than the tourists many of the show’s characters deride, I have genuine fondness for the place. So much of the pilot struck me as resoundingly authentic: the people talking about what happened to their homes and where they were living now, the milky-dirty cars that had spent time under water, the mass relocation to Baton Rouge, the grossly understaffed restaurants. It was jarring to see all that on the screen.
Comparisons to The Wire are inevitable, I know, and sometimes fair. But I think those comparisons are also limiting. The shows share DNA more in their abstract than in their particulars; both are shows attempting to paint a portrait of a whole city… its people, its psychology, its movement not only as a survey of interconnected people but also a witness to a city as a whole recovering from great trauma.
And while The Wire is a portrait of social structures failing people left and right, Treme‘s only glance in that direction is the locals’ grumbling over the many failures of both the federal government and the compassion of the rest of the United States. The complaints are more than valid, and the John Goodman character seems to be the mouthpiece for the show; here is David Simon and company finally responding to all the horrible shit people said about New Orleans and the Katrina refugees in the wake of that great tragedy. But for being so obvious, he’s the one character I’m having the hardest time warming to.
I am glad the show isn’t–so far–adhering closely to any obvious season arcs. I’m also glad it’s hard to summarize. The best I can usually do is say it’s “about the city and the people and the music and the food,” and that rambling list of traits fits the tone just fine.
I just want to first rap David Simon’s knuckles’ for laying out a hoodwink solely to trip up fans of The Wire. Every single person whose ever seen that show, when LaDonna’s “brother” walks into the visitor’s room, recognizes him as Slim Charles immediately, and naturally figures they’re being introduced to a new main character. Finding out he’s the wrong guy is not just thus a legitimate shock, but really quite heartbreaking when you see how done up their mom got for the occasion.
In general, I wasn’t as blown away by the second episode as I was the pilot. To me, the pilot was pretty much a perfect 80 minutes. Here, it’s simply settled into being a great television show. One of the things I appreciated about Six Feet Under, before it careened off the rails so strikingly in later seasons, was that it built its drama out of just regular day-to-day stuff. It wasn’t a procedural, or a serial really, it was just peoples’ lives. That’s what I like the most about this show. You can tell it’s that kind of good when the “Next On”s have trouble piecing together a hook for their twenty seconds. It’s just, you know, stuff happening. That kind of a show is quite refreshing, even if it isn’t necessarily primed for mass success.
For example, in this episode, if you follow Janette’s thread, it’s such a subtle kind of setup. She messes up her omelette, which shows us the state she’s in. She asks her parents for money, and gets some, but not all that she needs. She’s juggling stuff at the restaurant to make ends meet, but it’s not some guy knocking on her door ready to shut the place down. It’s just a much more naturalistic kind of storytelling.
As a former partner in a restaurant, I can say with some authority that the Janette stuff is nerve-wracking to watch and very, very familiar. You better believe we ended up washing our own tablecloths.
This show, much like The Wire, is about the dedication or commitment to an idea. In The Wire, it was justice, being right (even when wrong). But it wasn’t real, it was this ephemeral, at times impossible idea that became a moving target that characters consistently tried to hit, in every way possible and through whatever means they could cobble together.
The difference with Treme is that the idea is something that’s both somewhat abstract, the concept of a city, a community, a heritage self-contained within a larger nationalistic culture, but also very real. We get the benefit of having seen New Orleans build itself back up, and with this show going back to three months after the hurricane hit, the idea that everyone in NO abides by is very real and realizable to us. It’s aided by the constant reminders of music, another concept that’s just as malleable; real and concrete to each of us personally, harder to contemplate in a broader, more universal stroke.
I wonder if Simon will use the somewhat opposite starting points (The Wire starting with a sort of optimism, at least in being able to solve the case and Treme in its from-the-ground-up sort of contained desperation) to bring the show to a darker place by the end of the season, or if it will swell like a crescendo of a great song. I’m anxious to see if that happens.
The message I got from The Wire, which I’m also starting to see in Treme, is that bureaucratic systems only function at all due to the heroic actions of a few individuals who understand how to work the systems for the greater good. Otherwise, bureaucracies are made up mostly of individuals trying to game the system for their own benefit, whether it’s financial profit or minimized effort. In Treme, the Melissa Leo/Khandi Alexander plot is where this is most evident, but we’re also starting to see it in John Goodman’s reaction to Tulane cancelling certain majors.
One of the big questions I had about the show after its terrific premiere was how it would deal with outsiders coming into the city. The pilot made it fairly clear that some would be portrayed as buffoons, like the English reporter who asks a professor in A NEW ORLEANS SAINTS T-SHIRT if maybe the world would be better off without the city.
I had read in some advance reviews that the second episode treated the Wisconsin church group there to help rebuild similarly, but I thought they got off fairly easily, all things considered. Yeah, the street musicians charged them an extra $20 to play “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but Steve Zahn gave them a real NO experience and Wendell Pierce was as nice as he could be to them. Essentially they came off as slightly ignorant but also gamely in search of authenticity. I am sure, however, that we will see more of the thread of “Why didn’t you care about this city before it was underwater?” as things progress, though.
I liked this second episode a whole lot, especially the restaurant plot and the surprising turn with Clarke Peters’ character, but I did notice a couple kinks that Simon and crew will hopefully work out. First, the approach to musical guest stars. The pilot did a great job of just kind of letting Elvis Costello be there without making it too awkward, but this episode had at least two “Hey! It’s (guest star)!” moments–with Trombone Shorty and Galactic–that seemed kind of forced.
Second, I wonder when we’ll get to see some chinks in these (mostly) very noble characters’ armor. We almost got there with Clarke Peters this week, but his outburst was of the righteous anger category so I’m not sure. The thread of Wendell Pierce and his multiple kids is maybe promising, too. Simon has made no secret of his desire to make Treme as authentic as he could, even showing it to New Orleanians to get their approval. But at this point he’s perhaps being a little too reverent. On The Wire, he had a lifetime’s experience to pull from to create a real living, breathing Baltimore, seedy underbelly and all. The characters were the most rounded in all of television. I hope he’ll get there with this show, too. Not to say these characters aren’t more fleshed-out than just about any others on TV, but the guy’s set a standard for himself.
And on an unrelated note: I had no idea that they played live music in strip clubs on Bourbon Street. It really is the Paris of the South!
Simon has said that depicting a strip club with live music was one of the few creative liberties he took with the show, so don’t buy your plane ticket just yet!
The idea that Clarke Peters’ character was exercising a kind of justice is an interesting notion, and one I’ve seen echoed here and elsewhere. But I don’t see what he did as righteous anger. I see it as frustration finally unchained. It was a dark and revealing turn for the character, but I don’t see it as a righteous act, no matter how justified.
I got the feeling from Clarke Peters’s outburst that this kind of violence may be more in keeping with his character in a way that will play out later. That is, his position in the Indians gives him a certain level of privilege and power in the city that this kid abused by stealing his tools. Whatever the case, this is the plot that has me the most intrigued.