Season One of HBO’s Treme is the DVD of the Week

March 28, 2011

You know, someday when I get lots of time I’m going to pick up a set of complete The Wire episodes on DVD and work my way through them. See, I caught on to that series late, and watched only the final season. I liked what I saw a lot. The way David Simon presented the world of newspapers was — if not hyperaccurate — emotionally true. And I felt he had a great sense of the city of Baltimore. The Wire might be the greatest TV series ever — lost of smart people say it is and what I’ve seen suggest they’re on to something.

But then I don’t really know much about Baltimore.

I do know New Orleans, however. I’ve seen it in good times and bad, I’ve had great times there and I’ve been afraid for my life there. I often wear a little fleur de lis lapel pin kin mourning for what’s happened there, for the benigh neglect the city’s suffering, for the manmade disaster that followed the natural disaster that left one of our unique cities bleeding out. (Read Dave Eggers Zeitoun if you really want to become angry — that’s a real heartbreaking work of staggering genius.)

Though I’ve never lived there, like a lot of people who’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans, I feel I have a proprietary interest in the city. Judging by our DVD of the Week, I suspect Simon feels this way too.

Treme: The Complete First Season is out on DVD tomorrow, ($79.98 for Blu-ray; $59.98 for standard DVDs). The second season of the show begins in April.

I have a rather complicated relationship with the show, an ensemble drama produced by Simon and Eric Overmyer. I won’t miss an episode but I’m not sure I actually like the show, or buy that’s it’s a particularly accurate portrait of the city. While I admire it, and at times feel sucked into its verisimilitude, there is a shrill, hectoring tone to Treme I do not appreciate.

And while a few of the characters remind me of people I’ve known, most of them have a tendency to now and then spout compulsory-feeling grievances that seem like nothing so much as the editorial voice of a middle-aged white guy incensed by America’s indifference to our poor drowned city.

And while moral indignation at the plight of New Orleans is, in itself, not necessarily a bad thing — I miss the city and wish more was being done to bring it back — it interferes with the dramatic momentum the series ought to be gathering.

Treme often seems less like an Anthony Trollope-esque survey of the manners and mores of an unique cultural construct than a guilt trip populated by a peculiarly insular group of characters suffering from a kind of inferiority complex. In Treme, Simon’s characters seem to despise the world beyond New Orleans (even nearby Baton Rouge is treated with disdain) while at the same time petitioning that larger world not just to help them with their clear and present difficulties, but to recognize their specialness, their particular surfeit of soul.

Time and time again, the spiritual superiority of New Orleans is stressed. In a one pisode, Sonny (Michiel Huisman), an Amsterdam native who emigrated to New Orleans to play music in the streets, excoriates the “Texican” bouncer at a Houston nightclub when he finds out the guy has never been to New Orleans. After all, Sonny came from halfway around the world just to busk in the streets of the city; what excuse could someone from so close have for never having made the “five-hour trip down the I-10” to the great city?

Of course, as with a lot of true believers, you really can’t win with Sonny: He also hates the “tourists” who’ve descended on New Orleans in the wake of the disaster — in between their helping with cleanup and recovery efforts they want him to play lame chestnuts such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which they think is real New Orleans music.

In one way or another, almost all the characters in Treme are obsessed with the authenticity — or inauthenticity — of their own experience. The scuffling trombone player Antoine Batiste (a very fine Wendell Pierce) would prefer not to play the tourist clubs and strip joints on Bourbon Street, for the audiences they attract care nothing about the nuances of his jazz. Like most of the characters, Batiste is a cultural snob.

But at least Batiste is an artist as well, and he’s a good enough musician to command the respect of (and small loans from) New Orleans’ elite musicians. But then there’s Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who we first meet as a kind of music scene wannabe, a failed community radio DJ who worships Professor Longhair — or “’Fess,” as the series (commendably) doesn’t stop to explain — and occasionally writes his own horrible songs. I think he’s meant to be a musical dilettante, a deep fan who, deep down, recognizes his own inability.

Still, Davis is determined to be “realer” than anyone else. Despite family money, he has taken a dilapidated house in the poor, overwhelmingly black neighborhood of the title, and he tortures his gay neighbors with his blaring music, not because they’re gay, but because he resents their gentrification of the ’hood. Even though the couple have deep roots in New Orleans — they’re from Uptown — they aren’t New Orleans enough for the Treme.

And Davis is suspect in the eyes of Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a furloughed Tulane English professor whom we first meet on the banks of a levee, lecturing a weaselly British TV journalist (a very convenient straw character) on the real causes of post-Katrina flooding. Later in the series, Creighton spews an ugly You-Tube attack on other American cities — New York, Atlanta, San Francisco — in which he manifests what seems to be the show’s central theme: New Orleans is the Great American City, and all the rest of the country is ignorant, jealous and devoid of culture.

Of course, Creighton becomes a local hero when the video’s popularity spreads. And eventually he is the first season’s signal tragedy.

Still there is enough truth in Simon’s series to keep me watching. Simon is a smart man, and he must understand how shrill these jeremiads will become; I wonder if perhaps his real subject isn’t the bureaucratic and government miscarriages that occurred in the wake of Katrina, but the sort of identity politics that afflict people living in insulated cultures.

He has presented us with a cast of prickly characters, living more or less desperately, which is more or less the way New Orleanians have always lived.

In some significant ways, New Orleans has developed as a kind of fortress city, insulated from the rest of America.

The locals realized this long ago. Even the Louisiana Civil Code recognizes this. In effect, there is one set of laws for the Parish of Orleans and another for the rest of the state. In New Orleans, the rules are suspended; what matters in other places matters not at all here. It is a city of carnal excesses and tropical torpor where the natives speak a patois that seems made up of equal parts Deep South black and Brooklyn Italian.

The city has resisted homogenization even as it picked up the spice of miscegenation and the salt of passing-through sailors. It exists as a gumbo of French, Spanish, African, Caribbean and Indian influences more or less indifferent to the mainland’s passing fashions. New Orleans’ culture is uniquely its own, and that’s one reason visitors find the city so interesting. New Orleans music is especially intriguing — an immediately identifiable blend of jazz and blues spiced with zydeco and Caribbean rhythms.

Because New Orleans is so determinedly exotic, it has never exerted as much influence on the rest of American culture as our other music cities — Memphis and Austin, Chicago and Nashville, New York and Los Angeles.

Everyone knows about Fats Domino and Al Hirt and Dixieland jazz and maybe even how the rumba influenced secondline rhythms. Professor Longhair, Eddie Bo (nee Bocage), Harry Connick Jr. (the son of a district attorney of the Parish of Orleans), Sugar Boy Crawford, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Irma Thomas — the reverberations of New Orleans music are felt, though the source isn’t always recognized.

Despite the successes and the lip service, New Orleans has never been a place where people might go to make it in the music business, in part because the “business” of music has never been what New Orleans has been about. Louis Armstrong felt he had to leave the city to make it. New Orleans has never been known for producing overachievers.

Randy Newman, who lived in the city as a child, once sang of it: “People have fun there/ They think that they should/ But nobody from there/Ever came to no good.”

Maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s just profiling.

1 Comment

  • Comment by Dennis — Apr 6,2011 at 6:01 am

    It is perhaps one of the best HBO fliks ever! I lived in the French Quarter from ’90 to ’94, yes ‘way back in the 1900s. It was probably the best four years of my life.

    Treme’s first season captured the essence of the town like no other media. I, like many, who had lived in the community, agonized over the Hurricane Katrina personal and socio-historical overflow that enthralled a public for years after. The HBO series hits us in the gut and drags old tears down our cheeks as it restores the fondness, love, heartache and indescribable joy that is the essence felt by all who have embraced the love for and eternal nostalgia and history of this great town.

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