Televising New Orleans in 2010…or Why Sonny isn’t Watching The Real World: New Orleans
In an early episode of Treme, street buskers Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman) are asked by a group of bright-eyed tourists to play a tune. They are in New Orleans, they explain, to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward with their church group. Sonny, whose role as elitist hipster is signified by his man-scarf and skinny jeans, sneers at the tourist-volunteers, who are from Wisconsin of all places, and asks them if they had ever heard of “Lower Ninth” before Hurricane Katrina destroyed it. He then asks, in a mocking tone, if they’d like to hear “When the Saints Come Marching In.” The tourists are pleased with Sonny’s suggestion, even though “Saints is extra,” and seem unaware of Sonny’s disdain.
Though his behavior is rude, Sonny’s frustration with the tourists’ pitying gaze is understandable. In the months following Katrina the complexities of the spiraling disaster were overly simplified. As David Simon puts it, the Lower Ninth Ward became “symbolic of the whole city.” Nevertheless, Sonny makes his living primarily by capitalizing on the sentiments of tourists who are looking to hear something “authentic.” Sonny resents the tourists’ simplified view of his city but he caters to it as well.
I cite this scene because the cast members of the latest edition of The Real World, also set in New Orleans, is a lot like that group of Wisconsin tourist-volunteers: naive outsiders with seemingly good intentions. According to The Real World executive producer Jon Murray, the group will be tasked with rebuilding homes during their stay in the Big Easy because “we’re hoping our cast members and the series can play a small role in the city’s rebirth.” Helping others is noble but make no mistake: these kids are in New Orleans to help themselves. More specifically, they are there for the “journey”—a term Real World cast members have historically used to refer to the combined experiences of getting drunk, learning not make racial/ethnic/sexist/homophobic slurs (at least not while on camera), and breaking up with the significant others they left at home. Thus far New Orleans appears in the series as the colorful backdrop for the casts’ bacchanal undertakings.
MTV’s vision of contemporary New Orleans is best exemplified by the décor of the Real World mansion, which is filled kitschy signifiers of its home city: seafood, feathers, brass instruments, and lots and lots of Mardi Gras beads. And when a cast member accidentally (or not so accidentally) reveals a breast or rear end to the camera, the forbidden body part is blocked out with a tiny purple and green Mardi Gras mask. This final touch would probably induce Sonny to commit seppuku.
But me? I’m not so bothered by all of this touristy-ness. In fact, Treme’s “authentic” vision of the city and the Real World’s seemingly inauthentic one serve as useful counterpoints on the contemporary televisual image of New Orleans. David Simon’s series is mournful and nostalgic, a scarred landscape of restaurants that can’t stay afloat, potholes that don’t get fixed, and bodies that don’t get buried. By contrast, MTV is showcasing a New Orleans that is tentatively getting back on its feet, a city ripe for tourists who want drunken nights on Bourbon Street, live music, and women who will bare their breasts for trinkets. Sonny might not approve of MTV’s version of New Orleans, but beloved New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins clearly does—he pops up several times during the season premiere.
Furthermore, since filming of the series wrapped in April, just before the devastating Gulf oil spill, this season of The Real World depicts a New Orleans frozen in time, wholly unaware of the disaster about to be unleashed on its shores. After watching a sobering series like Treme this winter, followed by the devastating coverage of the oil spill throughout the spring, it’s comforting to spend the summer with this tourist’s vision of New Orleans: where the beignets are hot, the Mardi Gras beads are flying, and everyone is dancing, happily, to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”