When You Assume …

David Simon sometimes seems a little defensive to me when writing or talking about how people consume television, but then I read some things people say about Treme and I sympathize.

I suppose we’re so used to television dramas being crime shows that it’s hard not to see things through lens of heroes/villians as WWOZ’s GM David Freedman does here:

It is refreshing that another arch villain, Sonny, the wanna-be musician who has steadily acted so lowdown and mean, has another, more noble side to him. In several episodes, he is identified as one of those early responders out in boats rescuing folk from the rooftops. Small detail, but one that adds texture, makes Sonny more complex and interesting–and his character a lot more real.

There seems to be a basketful of such one-dimensional villains throughout Treme—Nelson Hidalgo from Dallas looks as if he’s gonna be one.

The piece is written to defend New York City, but I don’t see NYC, Nelson or Sonny portrayed as villainous, and in the case of Sonny and Nelson, I don’t see how they’re one-dimensional. I buy Sonny’s affection for New Orleans music and Nelson’s full-body embrace of the city’s pleasures, and I don’t see either as plotting ill for anybody. Their priorities can be odds with many of us watching, but no one on the show is innocent. Antoine has screwed around on Desiree and this week blew off his own band’s gig so he could go play with Henry Butler. Lambreaux hospitalized a man by beating the hell out of him, and you get the impression that he was hard father to please.

That sort of simplistic reading would certainly make me crazy, but not as crazy as people hanging on to discredited ideas. In a recent blog post at Huffington Post, Karen Dalton-Beninato addresses the complicated relationship between the truth and Treme, and while that remains a ripe topic for discussion, the way she approaches it is less productive. She returns to last season’s obsession (in New Orleans, anyway) with the real life figures that inspired the characters, even though Simon and Eric Overmyer and pretty much everybody involved in the show has pointed out that these characters were often composites, and that they developed their own independent lives and characteristics.

John Goodman’s character is appearing as the ghost of Mardi Gras past, inspiring the character Toni.
Real Ashley Morris, may he rest in peace, inspires the writers at Rising Tide, Back of Town and Treme.

In our April issue, Simon said:

[Creighton Bernette’s dialogue is] influenced by a variety of voices—the work of Chris Rose, Ashley Morris, and some things that were as mainstream as The Times-Picayune editorial stance—which, to other ears, might sound a little radical but was indicative of what people in New Orleans were saying on a routine basis.”

Later in the same interview, he talked about Stevenson Palfi being a part of the conception of Creighton from the start. Last spring, Overmyer told OffBeat that Susan Spicer and other consultants

“were starting points for some of the characters, but we tried to move them away from that as quickly as possible,” Eric Overmyer says. The stories help move the characters away from the starting point, but casting makes a bigger difference. “As soon as you cast an actor, that’s when characters really start to evolve, when you hear a specific voice and see a specific person.”

Having watched the filming of needlessly inauthentic Mardi Gras scenes for a Nicholas Cage movie just as Dalton-Beninato did, I sympathize with her outrage and concern for veracity, but I don’t think hanging on to the muses/models gets us closer to it, particularly in season two. As David Simon wrote in a thread at the Back of Town blog:

The fictional characters have agency. They can think that Joe Strummer is a flawed vehicle when it comes to songwriting, even though someone else, say, David Simon, has every Clash album on vinyl from the year of release and has worn them all down to near nothing. And even though someone else, say, Davis Rogan, burned every Clash album when he was at my house. Fuck Simon. Fuck Rogan. Davis McAlary gets to be Davis McAlary.

He concludes:

Seriously, guys. You’ll do better by yourselves and the work if you stay with the film and the idea that the characters are on their own journey.

–Alex Rawls