Is the Auteur All Wet? On David Simon’s Adventures in Authenticity in Post-Katrina New Orleans

April 23, 2010
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Approaching David Simon’s Treme, my biggest concern was that, in a series in which ‘place’ as manifested in ambiance and setting has the potential to overpower narrative and characterization, the imprint of Simon’s auteur-image may be too visible beneath the style and action. This seemed apparent in relation to the casting, which sees Simon depart from his practice of engaging relative unknowns in favor of a mix prominent TV actors and veterans of The Wire, with the odd guest star/icon thrown into the mix. Watching these players attempt to blend into Simon’s reconstructed post-Katrina Treme storyworld, this viewer began to wonder whether the producer’s post-Wire renown has undermined his ability to engineer the sense of perceived authenticity that defines his brand. Does the presence of recognizable stars like Steve Zahn, John Goodman and Khandi Alexander (who also played on The Corner) and guest icons like Elvis Costello and Allan Toussaint impinge upon the viewer’s ability to become immersed in Simon’s New Orleans?  What about Wire carryovers Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters, who bring many of the same mannerisms to their new characters? Watching the pilot, these elements often prompted this viewer to reflect upon the program’s strenuous efforts to construct an engaging New Orleans storyworld when I might have been exploring an apparently authentic fictional space.

These concerns were allayed in part by the program’s second episode.  “Meet De Boys on De Battlefront” sees Treme find its feet by making authenticity its primary focus. Although some have accused the episode of being heavy-handed, I think that this approach is justified as it takes the series’ sense of place and explores the characters’ connection to it. With an emphasis on work and tourism, Simon and company work their way out of the authenticity cul-de-sac by interrogating the nature of geo-cultural belonging in a place that boasts myriad interconnected classes, cultures, and communities. The storylines concerning the Wisconsin tourists,  Zahn’s struggling musician/DJ Davis McAlary, and Pierce’s trombone player Antoine Batiste examine what it means to be ‘of’ New Orleans – to know it, to inhabit it, and to be provided for by it.

We see McAlary lose his DJ job as a result of a traditional New Orleans voodoo ceremony performed to authenticate his relocated radio station. After attempting to borrow money from his wealthy parents, he takes a job as a concierge at a Bourbon Street hotel, where his discomfort with his own relationship with his environment manifests itself in a conspicuous distaste for ostensibly phony tourists and an excessive eagerness to demonstrate his local knowledge to those he deems worthy. We see that McAlary is the ultimate tourist in his own town; sharing his local knowledge is the only way for him to establish a claim that he belongs, just as the hotel job is necessary for this would-be musician to survive. Yet this strenuous performance of belonging ultimately costs McAlary his post when he instructs a New Orleans church group to visit a bar in the Treme for a taste of the authentic New Orleans.  Even this does not deter him; encountering them in the street, McAlary cannot resist proffering one last bit of knowledge. He deprives himself of his own breakfast experience in his haste to direct the Wisconsin group to a great local spot.

McAlary contrasts with the character of Antoine Batiste here. Just about broke on the outskirts of town, the trombone player’s partner exhorts him to get a real job, but he refuses. He is a musician, and is resolute that his city will provide that money if he only plays for it. He also ends up on Bourbon Street – accompanying the dancers at a strip club – but he will not admit to it. He is delivered when he pops up at Bullet’s in the Treme, scarfing down a plate of pork with the Wisconsonites before jumping on stage to play with Kermit Ruffins. Batiste is barely making it, but he is making it through music; the implication is that he can do nothing else because he is who he is where he is. He is going to ‘play for that money’ and let the cards fall where they may.

Treme paints in broad strokes here and in the ancillary storylines concerning its characters. This could have been highly problematic if not for the explicit focus on authenticity and belonging. I recoiled when I saw Elvis Costello and Allan Toussaint materialize in a local recording studio, but the scene is redeemed when the African-American players invite Costello to check out Galactic after the session. Costello, who had been so enthusiastic about Ruffins in the pilot, expresses skepticism about the jazz-funk ensemble on the basis of their whiteness to which the trombone player replies that Galactic are legitimate and authentic players. Later, we see the players from the session jump on stage in a performance of racial integration that provides a dollop of nuance to the McAlary-Batiste comparison. Lest we want to think that this is all about race, the program invites us to consider the myriad other factors that make up our identities and position us within our places and communities.

This second episode still exhibits significant problems –the wholly unconvincing buskers who recalled Lost’s Nikki and Paulo, the curious beatdown by Chief Lambreaux, the lethargic primary plotline concerning LaDonna’s missing brother – but its meditation on authenticity and belonging provides viewers with something tangible and substantive to consider. Now, we need only hope that Treme’s plotlines become more engaging so that we might come to care about those who inhabit Simon’s post-Katrina New Orleans storyworld.


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11 Responses to “ Is the Auteur All Wet? On David Simon’s Adventures in Authenticity in Post-Katrina New Orleans ”

  1. Myles McNutt on April 23, 2010 at 12:48 PM

    Really enjoying the Treme coverage here at Antenna, and this piece is another great extension of that – Kudos, Chris.

    Two things, though. First, I wrote last week [“Davis and Defictionalization: Treme’s Inherited Crisis of Continuity”] about subjects similar to this one, arguing that the quest for “Authenticity” not only has to deal with the glow of recognizable actors but also the residual experience of living within Simon’s Baltimore storyworld (great term, by the way). Viewers who got used to The Wire’s own brand of authenticity began to accept the show’s Baltimore is something beyond fiction, even when it actually bore less actual resemblance to a particular period within Baltimore’s history compared with Treme’s New Orleans. Those viewers, as a result, respond more negatively to elements of the series (like Davis’ antics in the premiere) which seem “out of place,” forgetting that it took The Wire three seasons to build that sort of authenticity. I won’t go into the whole argument, but figured I’d drop a link since it offers an expansion on one of the issues you raise here.

    Second, though, I’m curious about what you label as “significant problems”, in particular “the wholly unconvincing buskers who recalled Lost’s Nikki and Paulo [and] the curious beatdown by Chief Lambreaux.” I think that both are certainly elements of the series that haven’t yet been unpacked, but are they really problems? I won’t get into my extended rant defending the Nikki and Paulo experiment, but I think that the buskers are meant to seem a little bit unconvincing (just as Nikki and Paolo went meant to seem a little out of place), and we’re supposed to be curious about why Lambreaux would go to those lengths to defend his pride (or his territory, or his city). I guess I’m just reluctant to consider these elements as “problems” so early in the show’s run (although I’ll agree that the “plot” provided by the missing brother is missing something to keep me engaged).

  2. Christopher Cwynar on April 24, 2010 at 12:11 PM

    Thank you sharing these thoughts, Myles. I very much enjoyed your post, particularly the ways in which you contextualize Treme in terms of the expectations produced by The Wire.

    I do have to disagree with your assertion that The Wire gradually developed its sense of authenticity over the course of its five seasons. My experience with the program was that it immediately felt authentic – it was as though Simon had transcended the strictures of his medium to somehow get closer to Baltimore. Where with Homicide: Life on the Street, the sense of authenticity developed gradually out of the character development and storyline, here it seemed as though the camera was able to reveal the grain of the place in a way that few other series – perhaps no other series – have managed to do. Of course, like credibility, authenticity is perceived – it resides in the heart and mind of the beholder. While I knew on some level that the abilities of the camera were in large part a function of his creative abilities as a writer/show runner, I also found myself to be immersed in this seemingly authentic storyworld in a way that gave me the sense that I was getting to know something about a Baltimore that was not far from reality (however problematic that was).

    For me, I can’t help but judge Treme in terms of my previous experiences with Simon’s long-form work. It may not be fair, but that’s what happens. Watching the pilot, I was struck by the way that Goodman’s star-text overwhelmed his character, the way that Zahn’s Davis evoked the comically inept Glenn from Out of Sight, and the awkwardness of Kermit Ruffins playing himself as a character who wishes, above all else, to enjoy his local status without courting renown on the larger stage provided by the visiting Elvis Costello. As noted above, I felt that the second episode addressed some of these issues through the Davis-Batiste comparison and the return to Costello. Nevertheless, I remain concerned about the preponderance of false notes in Treme. My characterization of various elements of the program as ‘problems’ alludes to this. They seem that way initially to me because they draw me out of the storyworld; it remains to be seen whether Simon and his team will be able to re-configure these elements to serve as part of a larger meditation on identity and belonging. If so, Treme might develop into engaging and thought-provoking television. If not, this may come to be regarded as Simon’s Waterloo, or the point at which the auteur jumped the shark. Either way, it seems clear to me that Treme cannot offer the sort of immersion into an apparently authentic storyworld that made the The Wire such a rewarding experience.

    • Kristina Busse on April 24, 2010 at 5:43 PM

      Of course, like credibility, authenticity is perceived – it resides in the heart and mind of the beholder. I find this one of the most important aspects of your criticism. As someone who’s lived in New Orleans, was affected by Katrina–however minimally compared to others, and has not watched all the seasons of The Wire, my sense of what is or isn’t authentic, what are or are not false notes, may indeed be quite different to yours. I’m not sure that makes either of our viewing experiencing more or less real, more or less important. I do agree, however, that while much of Treme‘s initial anticipation was based on Wire-fame, it may be exactly that fame, those expectations, comparisons, and intertextual elements for the Wire connoisseurs, that may ultimately disappoint some viewers.

      • Jeffrey Jones on April 27, 2010 at 9:15 PM

        And I find the quote one of the most problematic. Yes, I get the point. But there is ALSO a level of “truth” involved (can we even use that word anymore?). Case in point–the final scene of episode 3 (though there are plenty of other ones). That little pow-wow of Mardis Gras Indians to send Jesse off (before the tourist bus arrives)–for the life of me, those are REAL folks. Yes, it is shot in front of a camera for a major conglomerate called Time Warner. But those brothers are for real, and I don’t need to read the credits to know that. THAT is authenticity, realism, or whatever the fuck we want to call it. And Simon splices enough of those, with the polemical history, and a myriad other things into the narrative, characterizations, etc., to make this more than what I feel in my heart, but know as truth. Disagree as you must.

    • Myles McNutt on April 25, 2010 at 5:01 PM

      As Kristina points out, I think that your point about authenticity is spot-on. I’ll admit that I didn’t really think much about Baltimore when I started watching The Wire; perhaps it was because I was watching it in the context of its status as one of television’s best dramas rather than a new series set in urban Baltimore, meaning that I was focused on serialization and character rather than the “authenticity” of the show’s depiction of the city. In some ways, authenticity became wrapped up with complexity, and so it was only when the show started paying off its long-term character development and delving into the political and education systems that it seemed like it was truly tapping into the potential of its storyworld; authenticity had less to do with reality, and more to do with the show’s reputation.

      Treme, in some ways, has to deal with both: not only does it have to deal with expectations from The Wire, but it is very clearly capturing a distinct period in New Orleans history, and so “authenticity” becomes a nebulous concept which is threatened at nearly every turn, and threatened differently for each viewer. It’s an interesting tightrope, and I’m curious to see how the show continues to walk it this evening.

  3. Christopher Cwynar on April 26, 2010 at 12:55 AM

    Thanks, Kristina. I appreciate your perspective as someone who has extensive experience with New Orleans. I completely agree with your point about the subjective nature of authenticity; that’s what I was trying to get at with my notion of there being no necessary correspondence between the actual Baltimore or New Orleans and what might be deemed by various viewers to be authentic depictions of it. This is where the work of cultural intermediaries comes into play -the critical role they have in passing judgement on texts and mediating viewers’ experiences of them – but that is another post.

    Myles, I agree with you with respect to the quality of The Wire’s plot and characterization. It was (and is) arresting television. In a sense, I think that might be my biggest issue with Treme; in making the place the explicit focus of the program, and bringing in various recognizable performers to play in this place, Simon and his staff may have foreclosed the possibility of evoking a sense of the ‘authentic’ New Orleans for some viewers. The Wire didn’t seem to be trying to give us a window in the authentic Baltimore; that just happened as a byproduct of an intricate and intense drama with compelling characters (played largely by unknown performers) that seemed realistic to most (or, at least, more realistic than the show on the next channel or its competitors in the genre).

    I guess that I would say that if Treme cannot find a compelling storyline that might structure its depiction of place, it may have a difficult time constructing the sort of immersive storyworld that I (and presumably others) desire. If the program can find its narrative feet, the elements I described as ‘problems’ may be washed away. If not, Treme may become a super-niche program, which would leave it well positioned to be redeemed by critics and/or scholars somewhere down the line.

    • Kristina Busse on April 26, 2010 at 7:17 AM

      It’s interesting how many different theoretical issues/debates are caught up in this discussion and our reception of Treme. You address the cultural intermediaries (and I hope you’ll post on that at length at some point!) and I keep on going back to my own complicated relationship with authentic representation and the Bilderverbot of true tragedies as well as the ethics of aesthetics. Because that is what Simon ultimately was facing, a point made most clearly in his preemptive apology to New Orleanians.

      I think my question to Wire fans would be how compelling they found the storyline in the first two episodes. My impression was that, like myself, not a few people came to the show after the fact, i.e., rather than watching it slowly develop, I watched the first season in all but one sitting. I’d be curious to hear whether the first couple of eps really appeared fundamentally that much more compelling or whether we’ve retroactively constructed a sense of the show based on reviews and re-views.

      But even if that is the case, I think you’re totally right that the very setting of Treme may indeed remain overshadowed by Katrina–to the point where it paralyzes all other protagonists and story lines.

  4. Megan Biddinger on April 27, 2010 at 2:10 PM

    Great post and discussion everyone! I’m really intrigued by the way you all are talking about place and the specific cities in these series. Just as Simon now has a much more visible auteur-image after “The Wire,” he’s working with a setting, New Orleans, that has a much more visible image of its own than Baltimore does (or did). I think his ability to craft a representation of an “authentic” Baltimore came not only from his diligent research and use of/deference to local knowledge and people, but also from the fact that it’s Baltimore. Not only does Baltimore not connote many of the same things that New Orleans does (pre- or post-Katrina), I would venture to argue that for most people outside of Baltimore and the area, Baltimore doesn’t really connote very much of anything in particular. Thus, I wonder if there’s something about authenticity that has to do with obscurity. Simon can produce present a Baltimore that many audience members feel is “authentic” in part because there aren’t competing narratives about Baltimore and because it wasn’t really thought of as a cultural or political center. It’s not that there was no there there, but rather that in terms of pre-existing narratives, Baltimore functioned as something of a blank canvas.

    I’m not sure that’s quite right or if it adds much new to the discussion, but all this talk did remind me of my own experiences in Baltimore in my youth (shockingly enough they were very unlike the stories told in The Wire :)) and got me ruminating on it’s specificity (or seeming lack thereof) and how that might enable particular narratives.

    Either way, I agree with you all that “Treme” and its audiences have to contend both with Simon’s auteur-image as well as New Orlean’s own kind of star text.

  5. Christopher Cwynar on April 27, 2010 at 9:56 PM

    Interesting thoughts above. Thank you all. I really like the way that the conversation is evolving. Kristina and Megan raise excellent points that I had not previously considered. I am wondering whether my experience with The Wire’s Baltimore is coloured by the fact that I watched the program over the course of two weeks and how this might relate to the manner in which Treme is being doled out in weekly installments. It is certainly conceivable that the condensed viewing schedule facilitated a level of immersion that allowed me to feel close to both the characters and the location. At the same time, the notion that Baltimore is a less familiar city than New Orleans, and that this makes it easier to produce an apparently authentic representation of this place, is also quite compelling. These comments have me wondering how much these factors have affected my thought process regarding these two programs up to this point.

  6. V Mayer on May 5, 2010 at 12:51 AM

    Authentic is a standpoint and it doesn’t matter where you are from, its all relative to your power and who you are talking to. I love Treme because I see my neighbors in the actual narratives and my neighborhood is one of the primary sets (who all can say that?). But authentic to my reality is certainly not to the people who are not privileged to be featured on Treme — the service workers, the homeless, the teachers and their students, those who seem more like the folks you see in every postindutrial city than ‘characters’ who live in my boho universe.

  7. […] There is a certain familiarity within Treme that has seemed a little bit foreign in the early stages of the series – community is obviously a key theme for the series, but it seems like everyone knows everyone else, or at least seem to know everyone who they need to know in order to allow Simon and Overmeyer to make the arguments they want to make. It just so happens that Lambreaux knows a city councilor, and it turns out that Ladonna’s brother worked at Janette’s restaurant, and it seems Toni Bernette represents just about everyone in this city. There’s a point where we start to wonder just how all of these connections could be possible, moments that pull us out of the sense of “realism” and authenticity the show seems to be trying to capture (and which Christopher Cwynar wrote about here). […]