HBO’s Treme: I’ll Be Your Mirror

Khandi Alexander LaDonna Batiste on HBO's Treme

Photo courtesy of HBO/Paul Schiraldi.

[UPDATED] “New Orleans is still a factory town,” David Simon, co-producer of Treme told the Los Angeles Times. “There are no factories; it creates moments. Musicians, chefs, social aid and pleasure club guys, Mardi Gras Indians—they’re working every day. Their lives are basically skilled labor creating a product that is moments.”

Season one of the HBO series showed the pros and cons of living in such a city. Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary was the Pied Piper of Moments. He tells Kim Dickens’ Janette Desautel, “There are so many beautiful moments here.” It’s easy for McAlary to enjoy moments in post-Katrina New Orleans. His house shows no signs of damage, his income is only semi-relevant because his parents have money, and his relationship with Desautel leaves him barely encumbered. She, on the other hand, struggles with a damaged house and a dying business in a city without customers.

“They’re just moments,” she says. “They’re not a life.”

When McAlary shows up to teach piano to the daughter of John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette, he comes face to face with a possible future. Bernette’s story isn’t about writer’s block but what causes it— what happens when the moments that defined your relationship to the city don’t feel special anymore.

Moments come easily to those who have the luxury of being able to aestheticize life. Khandi Alexander’s LaDonna Batiste-Williams, Clarke Peters’ Albert Lambreaux and Wendell Pierce’s Antoine Batiste are too busy dealing with their day-to-day challenges to enjoy the moments. They come, but they pass with the bare flicker of recognition because LaDonna, Lambreaux and Batiste don’t have time for magic. When LaDonna experiences a moment on her way to put her brother Daymo to rest, it’s the emotional pinnacle to the season.

The finale suggests the importance of moments: They’re all we’ve got in a world where Daymo, in effect, dies for running a red light. His fate, like much about Treme, is uncommon on television. Television favors consequences that are in proportion with characters’ actions, and good, moderate people come to manageable ends. In Treme as in life, no such equilibrium exists.

With Treme, producers Simon, Eric Overmyer and the late David Mills offer a coherent, considered take on life in New Orleans that evokes the texture of life here. In The Atlantic, Matthew Iglesias contrasts The Wire’s depiction of Baltimore with Treme’s presentation of New Orleans:

Treme also feels realistic, but it’s a  different realism. Not the realism of a man who’s lived in a city for years and is here to share with us what it is. But the realism of a man who’s gone to research a city he loves and wants to present it for us. Simon’s New Orleans is the New Orleans of those who inhabit and love the city, a counterpoint to the tourist’s New Orleans but not a deeply personal vision of the city the way The Wire is of Baltimore. It seems clear that if a lifelong resident of New Orleans were to complain to Simon about a lack of realism that he’d be genuinely saddened.

There are moments in the season when there’s something to that. The show’s love of detail seems fetishistic on occasion. But in a pre-debut letter, 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.”

The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin noted that in the letter, “Simon calls his audience ‘readers.’  And what he has created—with The Wire and now with Treme—is a kind of novel in TV form.”

Because of the efforts to bring a literary realism to a televised treatment of New Orleans after Katrina, Treme is worth contemplating in ways that other New Orleans-based entertainments haven’t been. Contrasting Treme’s New Orleans to New Orleans as we live it means more than just scrutinizing a television show. It means examining the city we live in and our places in it.

On July 8, Treme received two Emmy nominations—one for Best Director for Agnieszka Holland for her work on the pilot/first episode, and one for Steve Earle for Best  Song, “This City,” which plays at the end of the final episode. Readers at Nola.com took the news with a mix of shock and paranoia. For example:

Happy for Steve Earle, “This City” is a great song and very deserving. But nothing for Khandi Alexander and Clarke Peters? Or John Goodman? That’s just crazy! We, the people who actually watch Treme, know they deserve nominations more than the two clowns from Lost or some of the others. Just more Hollywood elitist BS. The voters are probably upset because it is shot on location and not on some stupid set in Hollywood.

Fans weren’t the only ones who thought the show might get more Emmy love. Mark Dawidziak at the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “It sure would have been nice to see, at the very least, Treme star Khandi Alexander nominated for lead actress in a drama,” and Tom O’Neil at the Los Angeles Times predicted that Goodman would be nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.

“I wish the show had gotten more nominations,” Steve Earle says by phone. “I think The Wire is a great show and deserved to be nominated more than it was, and I think this was a great show and deserved to be nominated more than it was.”

Earle was cutting the song at Piety Street Recording with producer T Bone Burnett the night that episode seven aired. A friend of his walked in the studio and reported that he’d watched the show in a  Bywater bar and was amazed that it was packed. “It was like the Saints were on TV,” Earle says.

“Most of the people I know in New Orleans that I talk to seem to think that we’ve gotten something right,” he says. Not just the details such as real musicians, real bars and recreations of real events, but the way people are. LaDonna’s vengeful joy at seeing her roofing contractor served is a hollow one, but we all recognize the disproportionate pleasure of seeing someone held accountable, even if it’s only the closest stand-in for a government that systematically dismantled its ability to respond to disaster, then outsourced the recovery.

“We were all moved and gratified at how intensely positive most of the reaction of New Orleans was,” co-producer Eric Overmyer says. “It’s what we hoped for, but it surprised me how close to the surface everybody’s feelings still are about that time. I’ve never worked on a show were the response has been so intensely personal.”

After Treme’s debut, some Uptowners, residents in Lakeview and Gentilly took exception to being left out of the show (despite its name). They wanted their stories told and their experiences validated by television. Others suggested stories for Treme to deal with, if not to Overmyer then to friends. During a panel at this year’s Jazz Fest, many at the Music Heritage Stage suggested that the show should depict the first Jazz Fest after Katrina when Bruce Springsteen performed.

“Everyone’s got a million stories about that time, and everyone wants to tell those stories,” Overmyer says. “We hear some of that, but more, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe you told that. That’s just like something that happened to me.’”

That identification has made Treme a social phenomenon— not just something that people gathered to watch and talk about, but something they connect over. It has inspired a lot of perceptive writing at the “Back of Town,” “Watching Treme” and “Sound of Treme” blogs, and NPR’s “All Jazz Considered” and Dave Walker at The Times-Picayune have done a great job of telling the stories behind the stories.

In the process of engaging the show, they explore the nature of the city. Valid Records’ Benjamin Lyons wrote that Treme should drop its attachment to realism and embrace the city’s true nature—surrealism. Certainly many of the moments Simon speaks of have a surreal quality to them. Steve Earle talks of an upcoming book, The Lampshade by Bywater writer Mark Jacobson.  “He obtained half-ownership of a lampshade in the aftermath of the storm, and that lampshade had been floating around town for years and purported to be a lampshade made of human skin that had come from Germany,” he says. “He did the DNA work and it is a lampshade made of human skin that was made in Germany in the ‘30s. It was absolutely authentic.”

He also recalls running into a guy in a trad jazz band on Royal Street that Earle first met when the guy was busking outside Santa Maria de Trastevere in Rome. Would further indulging surrealism make those stories and countless sublime experiences we encounter truer or weirder? And would it make it any easier to convey a sense of place to those outside of New Orleans?

Curiously, it wasn’t the details of life that posed problems for non-New Orleans audiences, but two characters. Critics early on took exception to Sonny’s snide treatment of the fresh-faced Wisconsin volunteers, when he goaded them to request “When the Saints Go Marching In” then demanded that they tip extra “because every cheesehead from Chowderland wants to hear ‘Saints.’”

After that, Josh Levin at Slate. com wrote, “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…. When these characters get mocked, Simon is essentially mocking his audience.”

Levin presumes to know the show’s intent—a common thread in criticism from inside and outside New Orleans—but he misses that the sequence says far more about the angry Sonny than the volunteers, who end up loving the adventure they have at McAlary’s urging, visiting a Treme bar.

Similarly, Maureen Ryan at the Chicago Tribune took exception to Creighton Bernette’s rants. “Bernette’s didactic, condescending character was not one of Treme’s successes,” she wrote. “Nobody likes being lectured.” Again, the scenes of Creighton recording his blog posts provide insight into him— someone who found a creative voice responding to the disaster and the eminent death that he feared for the city he loved, a voice he otherwise couldn’t access. And if he’s didactic, he’s didactic. Such people exist in New Orleans and elsewhere.

“I had several conversations with people who said, ‘That rhetoric is so overheated,’” Overmyer says. “I said, ‘It’s not rhetoric. It’s a fact. It’s how everybody in New Orleans feels, certainly, and it’s the character’s point of view.’ I happen to agree with it, but it’s not about what me and Dave think. It’s the character’s point of view.”

All of that returns us to the question the city asked when Treme began: Will the country get us? I wondered from the start if it was possible to depict the madness of that time—the emotional instability, the manic sense of purpose, the amount of drinking, and the exhilaration at every sign of recovery, no matter how minor. Judging by the response to Goodman’s Creighton, the character who most obviously embodies that experience, the answer may be no, but it might be something the show’s not dealing with. We can similarly wonder if McAlary’s appetite for the good times is natural or amped-up by the unreal situation, and whether Batiste is a screw-up, a victim of the dearth of gigs after Katrina, or someone who’s become self-destructive in the wake of the storm.

Because of the scope of Hurricane Katrina and its effects, everyone has expectations and hopes for Treme, some of which are at crosspurposes. In The Nation, Melissa Lacewell-Harris wrote, “I worry that, for all its authenticity, Treme is ultimately reductive. It is still a fiction whose characters only gesture toward the far more complicated reality they portray.” She contends that any use of Katrina—as drama or worse, as a metaphor (“Is BP Obama’s Katrina?”)—diminishes its significance. “These metaphors reduce catastrophe to an object lesson, implying that the effects of the disaster have been resolved, that the plot has been resolved and that the continued suffering of our fellow citizens is little more than a literary device,” she writes.

Maybe people would like to metaphorically put the past behind us. The mixed-income neighborhood built where the Magnolia Project was has recently become Harmony Oaks, a name that is 100 percent poverty-free and as at home in Main Street U.S.A. as River Gardens, formerly the St. Thomas Project. Or, maybe people want to hang on to the past so desperately that Betty Fox isn’t allowed to retire from the Mother-in-Law Lounge, whether she wants to run a bar or not. The battle over noise ordinances and street musicians in the French Quarter is part of an ongoing battle over the nature of the Quarter, with history trotted out selectively and conveniently to bolster the notion of it as a fundamentally genteel place.

We live in a constant dialogue with New Orleans’ past, and the murk that has crept in keeps things complicated. For the crew on Treme, that manifested itself when dealing with Mardi Gras Indians. “Right at the end of the season, we had a complete disagreement between some of our Indians as to whether Lambreaux was a downtown Indian or an uptown Indian,” Overmyer recalls. “We were showing footage from the last episode to every Mardi Gras Indian that came in, and we got conflicting opinions, so we never did figure it out.”

Treme presents a vision of one of the defining events in the life of New Orleans. As Andrei Codrescu said in these pages, we’ll define our lives in terms of pre- and post- Katrina, and hard to imagine that any New Orleanian watches it without considering his or her relationship to the world and events depicted. Lacewell-Harris is right; it is a simplified version of our reality, but it’s simplified by reducing the number of principal players by a couple of hundred thousand and focusing the show on telling certain stories. But it serves as an accurate enough mirror that it has brought back painful memories for many and created an occasion to reflect on the shared formative experience for a few generations of New Orleanians. It’s hard to be certain what Treme means to non-New Orleanians, but the personal nature of the response to it here says that it has become part of the way we process Katrina and its aftermath.

Updated Aug. 18, 9:22 a.m.

This piece misrepresents Slate.com’s Josh Levin. First, he’s from New Orleans, and in retrospect,my characterization of his take on Treme is a little off. I stand by the larger point, but Levin was an ill-chosen example. I’m sorry for the error.

  • http://twitter.com/watchingtreme Treme

    We live in a constant dialogue with New Orleans’ past, and the murk that has crept in keeps things complicated. –What an observation. These are the big questions for any society–are we forward looking? Are we past-oriented? What do we lose, and how, and what is already lost? What can be gained? At what cost? That's what Simon takes on, and why I don't think Treme is reductive. You've got to have a cast of characters to grab you by the elbow and guide you along, but if those big questions are there, it's not your weeknight network TV. Thanks for the mention, and stay cool!

  • Pltrhd

    It’s important to have empathy for the characters in Treme, even if they’re fictional, because the representations of what they encountered in their journey through these waters have an emotional and psychological weight all their own. The story line will be picked apart for many years to come. Who knows what ironic twists fate yet has to play on this tale, whether the writers know it yet or not? Nobody watching is more important than the least likable character portrayed in the story. What I find compelling about the story line is that the writers are letting the vectors of history guide them as they work. There may be contrived moments, and sometimes there are obvious hobbyhorses being ridden by individual contributors, but those pass quickly and are consumed by the tidal strength of the narrative. Treme is compelling because it’s real. It gives you far more than the reflection in the looking glass. We will be watching it for a long time, and I hope it gets at least five years to work its way through this complex tale of Americans fighting for their way of life in a manner that no one in Glenn Beck’s universe will ever understand.