Best of the Beat Heartbeat Award: HBO’s Treme

HBO Treme Producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer

Producers David Simon (L) and Eric Overmyer (R). Photo by Aaron Lafont.

In our Letters to the Editor page this month, a reader writes, “I recently returned to New Orleans and spent three glorious weeks. Your city is a national treasure…I believe that the magic one feels when inhabiting this city, is due to the accessibility and quality of the music performed.”

Such letters are common, and they’re often dotted with words like “magic,” but the problem in living in a magical, national treasure is that it’s hard to communicate what it’s like. Writings extolling the city’s virtues sound like hype on the page or screen, and the overheated testimonials sound like the product of one Hand Grenade too many. As the Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez—best known for the genre known as “magical realism”—said in his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, “Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”

Treme has helped to fill that void for New Orleans. Until HBO aired the show last April, New Orleans made due with the little-seen Frank’s Place and 1986’s The Big Easy as the closest approximations of life here, though Dennis Quaid’s “cher” became a civic joke. His bayou accent bore little resemblance to any in the city, but producers David Simon, Eric Overmyer and David Mills made accuracy an obsession. It was first and foremost a storytelling device. In a letter to the city, David Simon wrote, “By referencing what is real, or historical, a fictional narrative can speak in a powerful, full- throated way to the problems and issues of our time. And a wholly imagined tale, set amid the intricate and accurate details of a real place and time, can resonate with readers in profound ways.”

But the aspirations toward authenticity were also a nod to New Orleans itself. “One thing I’m certain of is that we’re going to be authentic,” actor Wendell Pierce (Antoine Batiste) says. “I know that’s very important to New Orleanians. We’re very protective of our culture and its depiction because we’ve seen so many bad Mardi Gras movies over the years. Treme approaches it like anthropologists.”

That respect for the city and desire to do right by it is new to a place used to being taken for granted or spoken of in essentialist terms that fail to address the complexity of life here. That respect also led Treme’s producers and writers to think seriously about the fundamental nature of the city. As David Simon said in numerous places, New Orleans is a factory town that produces moments—a provocative thought that acknowledges the city’s working class wages and the ephemeral nature of its charms. The moments that he spoke of are the things that our letter writers respond to: seeing the right band in the right room on the right night. When readers ask us to cover certain bands, we can read between the lines and see that the band was the one that they first had a great moment with.

But Treme is about more than just moments. The drama focuses on New Orleans’ creative class, demonstrating the role that the arts played in the city’s restoration. At its simplest level, that has meant putting New Orleans’ musicians on screen and presenting them to a national audience. That alone has helped to create a market for them when they’re on the road, and because most of their performances on the show are recorded live, that means people are hearing the Soul Rebels and John Mooney as they’d sound in Le Bon Temps, or Kermit Ruffins as he sounds in Vaughan’s. The country’s hearing our music as it’s made to be heard— intimately, in neighborhood bars, or on the streets and in parades, where the sound comes up the street to you and eventually walks away unless you join the second line.

When Treme first aired, people in Gentilly, Lakeview and Uptown complained that they were affected by Katrina but they weren’t included in the show, but they were being too literal. Treme’s focus on the city’s creative class is as exactly right as its take on moments because creativity is at the core of New Orleans, as Mardi Gras demonstrates every year. We don’t just celebrate it; we join it. This is a city where, as a friend said, “Costume is a verb.” Treme’s denizens aren’t only musicians. They include bar owners, restaurateurs, chefs, lawyers and hangers-on, each of which is creative in his or her own way.

Critics of Treme have charged that it’s too reverential toward New Orleans and perhaps that’s true, though it’s unlikely to last if it is. As hard as that first Fall after Katrina was, it was also a time when those who were here shared a sense of purpose. Some critics found Creighton Bernette preachy, but we were preachy, and many of us still are. Still, the way Treme lingers over the details of our lives and the impulses that animate them helps make the inexplicable understandable and the magic, real. It provides hope that maybe people will one day get us.