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:
- 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?!”
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.