I Saw God and/or Treme*

April 18, 2010
By | 4 Comments

This past Sunday marked the latest installment in what has become a semiannual event in my household. About every 12 or 18 months, the desirability of the HBO original programming lineup teams up with my frustration over lousy DSL download speeds and my lingering conscience about copyright infringement to convince me it’s worth $15 a month to subscribe. This warm feeling usually lasts three or four months, till I become miffed with the indeterminate period between seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and admit there’s nothing so culturally relevant about True Blood that I can’t wait for the DVD release.

The blessed event was initiated this year by the premiere of David Simon’s new series, Treme. I was tipped off by a colleague’s Facebook post, and more importantly, my eagerness to subscribe was surely motivated by a desire to make up for my embarrassingly belated immersion in The Wire. I belong among those who were too busy watching Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, Deadwood, and, yes, The Sopranos (not to mention already depressed by consecutive George W. Bush “administrations”) to dedicate TV time to The Wire’s narrative-ly complex social realism.

But, no more! For I have drunk the David Simon Kool-Aid. Said beverage must have been the “electric” kind Tom Wolfe wrote about, because it has inspired hallucinogenic dreams of impossible spinoffs—a sitcom with Omar and Brother Muozone managing a vegetarian diner a la Alice or Cheers, or a re-vamped X-Files starring Bubbles and Kima as paranormal investigators.

And so, last Sunday, I eagerly plied my wife and honored guests with a big bottle of (cheap!) Pinot Grigio in anticipation of impending David Simon greatness. Who better to wield quality television as a bludgeon against government incompetence and malevolent neglect, not to mention the continued lack of public will to rebuild the great American city of New Orleans?

Indeed, Treme delivered on all the expected markers of quality TV circa 2010, an era in which The Wire, not Sex and the City or The Sopranos reigns as model of HBO’s “not TV.” Here are a few key elements:

  1. Intertextual pleasures, i.e. former Wire cast members in prominent roles. “There’s the guy that played Lester Freamon, and isn’t the actress that played his girlfriend in season one now his daughter?!”
  2. Film actors whose careers have veered dangerously off-course, seeking to re-establish cred while pretending to be happy working on HBO because “It’s Not TV.” John Goodman and Steve Zahn, I’m talking to you.
  3. A self-important attitude that reassures us of our own distinction through the lack of sensational content. For example, Treme’s timeframe is comfortably post-Katrina, thereby keeping truly horrific images of Katrina’s devastation off-screen, because we care, but we don’t really want to see that. And we already know that we care, so what’s the point?
  4. Arty title sequence: The moldy, spotted walls of flooded houses as backdrop for credits, self-consciously implicate us in our desire to see material evidence of human suffering as abstract backdrop. Or, maybe they just look cool.
  5. Flagrant disregard for traditional TV runtimes. Just when you think the Treme pilot is going to go all 55+ minutes like The Wire, it keeps going! And going. Till a properly poignant, but no too poignant, moment.

Perhaps my preoccupation with improbable spinoffs of The Wire is evidence David Simon’s work leaves me, at least subconsciously, cold. How about cutting loose a little? Why such a realist route, however artfully created, to quality TV/cultural critique?

The aforementioned colleague’s Facebook post linked to a newspaper column in the form of a letter from David Simon to the people of New Orleans. The letter somewhat smugly addressed “fact-grounded literalists” who Simon anticipates will complain about the historical inaccuracies and anachronisms bound to populate his fictionalization of post-Katrina New Orleans. Borrowing a line from Picasso, Simon says art is the lie that shows us the truth. As for Treme,

“It is not journalism. It is not documentary. It is a fictional representation set in a real time and place, replete with moments of inside humor, local celebrity and galloping, unrestrained meta. At moments, if we do our jobs correctly, it may feel real.”

Is feeling “real” the most we can hope for from a TV auteur with so much skill and creative control? For all the pleasures of Treme’s graceful, respectful representation of post-Katrina New Orleans, I couldn’t help itching for a bit more crazy. Say, just a little of the crazy deftly at work in Werner Herzog’s post-Katrina Bad Lieutenant. Or the crazy of the American West re-imagined and represented by Deadwood. Or the crazy of Tony Soprano watching a bear wander around his backyard pool. I’m not talking Lost-style, narrative enigma-crazy.

Just television that embraces the representational power of fiction, rather than feeling the need to justify or excuse it.

*Apologies to Lester Bangs, who is long-dead anyway.


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4 Responses to “ I Saw God and/or Treme* ”

  1. […] him in any way. However, I’ve since that point read a lot of comments from others (including Ethan Thompson at Antenna) which have started to paint Davis as something more intriguing, something which speaks to both the […]

  2. Jeffrey Jones on April 19, 2010 at 7:52 AM

    I hear you, Ethan, but respectfully disagree. As a Southerner, “crazy” is the last damn thing we need more of in television and filmic representations. Honesty and realism seem a nice change of pace. Sorry, but I’ve sat through one too many “crazy,” from Forrest Gump, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Cookie’s Fortune to Designing Women (and the 27 others from the last three decades that I can’t remember on only one cup of coffee). One of the reasons I have always recommended Ashley Judd’s first film, Ruby in Paradise, is not because the plot or acting is all that great, but that it really captures the Florida Panhandle nicely and honestly.

    From an interview I saw with Simon on the Tavis Smiley Show, I think “more crazy” is on the way (Ray Nagin, anyone?). But 3 months out, I am fine with just having an M.G. Indian Chieftan walking down the street at night in full regalia with no electricity and running water as crazy enough. Perhaps it is also a bit more socially responsible NOT to go with crazy right off the bat, given the politics of the situation, not to mention issues of race and representation.

    In the meantime, then, it is great to see Simon representing the irrepressible spirit and culture of the people of N.O. For me, he has captured it nicely, and what a nice change of pace that turns out to be.

    • Ethan Thompson on April 19, 2010 at 3:08 PM

      “Crazy” was a poor word choice–and I definitely don’t mean crazy in the sense of character a la those you mention. Just using it as a shorthand complaint about the predictability and color-by-numbers feel. Episode 2, sadly, felt even more plodding and heavy-handed…the Wisconsin church do-gooders, for example. Indeed, it feels painfully socially responsible to me and more than a little condescending. Except for when the aforementioned Chief takes it out on the guy who stole his tools! Still, I hear you on resisting the pull of some sort of magic-realism, voodoo cliche…bottom line: I’m bored.

      • Jeffrey Jones on April 21, 2010 at 9:46 AM

        I need to watch the second episode (tonight perhaps), but I do think the larger point about narrative strategies is an interesting one. The first few episodes of a show and the first 20-30 pages of a book are very significant, as we know. After your response, I guess I’ve been trying to mull the differences between the two. With such a sensitive topic as this (or maybe I should say given the history here), does fictional TV have a greater social responsibility in the narratives it tells than does a fictional book? Certainly Simon’s journalist background shows here (I do think he is trying to be accurate in his depiction of month 3). Maybe the question is his audience: by your reading, is he driven too much by the desire to craft a narrative acceptable to N.O. residents, at the expense of telling stories that might prove more riviting to wider audiences interested in entertainment?