Click here to read Troy Patterson’s review of Treme.
All the television series set in my hometown have been of the let’s-eat-gumbo-on-my-fan-boat variety, depicting New Orleans less as a real city than a swampy theme park full of alligators and Mardi Gras beads. Consider 2007’s K-Ville, a Fox cops-and-robbers show that purported to offer a gritty, realistic take on the post-Katrina city. In the pilot episode, the lead character stops and shouts, “I need some gumbo. Gumbo, man—it’s what I do when I need to think!”
Hard as it may be to believe, I’m writing this article without the aid of gumbo, étouffée, or any other Big Easy-based gustatory mind enhancers. The New Orleanians who populate David Simon’s Treme likewise don’t need gumbo to think. Having watched the first three episodes of the new HBO series, I can say that no TV show or movie has portrayed the city as richly. Treme has a handle on the metaphysical stuff—what New Orleanians thought and felt three months after Hurricane Katrina—as well as the tiny, concrete details. There’s so much New Orleans minutiae on the show, in fact, that the New Orleans Times-Picayune saw fit to publish an episode guide for out-of-towners unfamiliar with Austin Leslie, Brocato’s, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux.
Despite this undeniable attention to detail, Simon appears worried that locals will brand his show the work of an ignorant outsider. In an open letter published in the Times-Pic, the creator of Treme and The Wire explains that a minor inconsistency involving a piece of fried pie—the Hubig’s bakery, you see, did not reopen until a few months after the time period depicted on the show—should not suggest that “those who have perpetrated this fiction are indifferent to facts, chronologies, historical possibilities.” Factual discrepancies, Simon explains, should be seen as attempts to get at a higher truth. “[Y]ou are the ultimate arbiters—the only ones we really care about—on the question of whether our storytelling alchemy has managed to make anything precious or worthy from the baser elements of fact,” he writes to his New Orleanian viewers.
This arbiter can only speak for himself, but it seems to me that Simon shouldn’t fret about displeasing the natives. Considering all the crummy shows that have used New Orleans as a prop, it’s exciting and flattering that someone so talented has committed to crafting a portrait of the city. Simon should be more concerned about offending those who don’t live in the 504 area code. In Treme’s opening episodes, the series’ New Orleans residents are realistic, complex, and sympathetic. The show’s outsiders, by contrast, are cartoonish, mere foils for the musicians and activists we’re supposed to commiserate with.
In the first few minutes of the show’s pilot, Tulane professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) chews out a British interviewer who questions the city’s viability. Though I was on Bernette’s side, I still came away thinking that Treme unnecessarily stacked the deck against his interlocutor. While it’s true that there were those—including then Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Slate’s Jack Shafer—who questioned the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans, the Brit’s declarations about the local music (it has “rather seen its day”) and food (“a provincial cuisine which many would say is typically American, too fat, too rich”) instantly brand him as a posturing ignoramus. By making the guy such a jerk, Simon lets his audience off too easy. Instead of being forced to grapple with some unpopular ideas, we’re given a pass to dismiss the don’t-rebuild-New-Orleans crowd without having to engage with it.
This trend continues in the second and third episodes. (Warning: Don’t read beyond this point if you want to avoid Treme spoilers.) In the closing moments of Episode 3, a “Katrina tour” gapes at some Mardi Gras Indians memorializing a fallen friend. As the driver pokes and prods with insensitive questions (“Is that your house?”), the shutterbugs inside the bus take photos of the scene. We see the aggrieved looks on the New Orleanians’ faces, but the tour group is an undifferentiated mob—faceless vultures who just want snapshots of colorful locals parading through rubble. Sure, Katrina tours can be tacky. But it’s also true that a lot of people felt compelled to see the wreckage after the levees broke. Treme would’ve been better served to treat this as a human urge rather than a monstrous one.
Most egregious is the depiction of a trio of Midwesterners who’ve come to the city with their church group. These Wisconsinites felt compelled to aid in the rebuilding efforts—or, as they describe it, “to, you know, gut houses and stuff.” These rubes are depicted with all the subtlety of preppy villains in a 1980s movie—they pronounce New Orleans incorrectly (calling it “New Or-leenz“) and have only the most superficial understanding of local culture. When asked by a pair of street musicians what song they want to hear, one of the young women asks sheepishly for “something authentic.”
To be sure, the street musicians don’t come off so well in this scene, either. Sonny, the scruffy keyboard player, responds to the Wisconsites’ ignorant request by sneering that a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”—which he identifies as “real New Or-leenz music”—will cost them 20 bucks, because “every cheesehead from Chowderland wants to hear ‘Saints.’ ” Given the hints dropped in this first handful of episodes, it wouldn’t surprise me if Sonny—who is forever bragging about all the people he saved during the hurricane—is eventually revealed to be a bloviating, lying carpetbagger. But that’s precisely the point: The players on Team Big Easy—Sonny, trombone player Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters)—contain multitudes. Team Never Played a Brass Instrument is populated by over-the-top caricatures.
If Simon is aiming to persuade his audience that New Orleans is unique and worth preserving, he’s going about it in a strange way. I’m assuming that the average Treme viewer is someone who isn’t from New Orleans, was transfixed by Katrina and its immediate aftermath, and is curious about what’s happened to the city since. In Treme’s universe, the closest analogues to people of that ilk are the house-gutters from Wisconsin—folks who care about New Orleans even if they’ve never heard of a second line. When these characters get mocked, Simon is essentially mocking his audience.
What’s most bothersome about the show’s New Orleans vs. the world approach is that it creates a simplistic moral hierarchy for a complicated time and place. Treme’s trombone players, human-rights lawyers, and plucky restaurant owners embody goodness. Those who don’t feel the city’s pull are mocked, raged against, or discounted. When Lambreaux’s daughter urges her dad to stay out of New Orleans until the city shows more signs of life, we’re clearly supposed to find her viewpoint unsympathetic. He can’t live anywhere else, and she just doesn’t understand.
After just three episodes, it’s foolish to argue that Treme has traveled inexorably down a certain path. One promising sign is the depiction of Lambreaux’s son Delmond, a trumpet player who’s earned more renown in New York than New Orleans. When he suggests that other places “actually respect musicians,” Delmond is not supposed to sound like an idiot—this, finally, is a criticism of New Orleans that’s not easily laughed off.
Simon’s passion for New Orleans is obvious, just as his devotion to Baltimore came through in The Wire. So far, the difference between the two series is that Treme is weighed down by its creator’s reverence. It’s fine if Simon wants to see the city through fleur-de-lis glasses—indeed, the show wouldn’t exist if he didn’t feel compelled to make the case for New Orleans. But Treme, perhaps because it wears its advocacy so openly, is occasionally lacking in subtlety. For all his love for the place, it would be a shame if Simon’s veneration of New Orleans was the undoing of what could be a great television series.