Apr 23, 2011

How to watch Treme

Scene: A busload of people come up the New Orleans street and see a circle of men on a corner, singing. The bus driver asks, what's going on here? Please, he's told, leave us alone. Please go away. He is made ashamed of wanting to watch, ashamed of his own curiousity, and leaves.

Scene: A journalist asks a question. It's probably a stupid question, but to be fair, he's asking it because it's been asked and he doesn't know the answer, so it's an honest question, at least. He does want an answer. The local gets spittle-flecked angry, and tries to destroy the journalist's camera.

Scene: Three kids have come from Wisconsin to help after Katrina. They're asked, what do you know about the real New Oreleans. They say, nothing, really, we just wanted to help. Then they're ridiculed.

Surely some number of viewers of David Simon's Treme were from Wisconsin and felt the unnecessary dis of that scene. Same with the people who flocked to the city to do what they could with their time and their money to help after the levees broke and the president did his fly-by. According to the show, your compassion was met with ridicule. Also, if you didn't rush to the aid of the flooded city, you should be ashamed.

And if you've ever gone to visit New Oreleans, this show says you're an imbecile. And if you haven't, you're a cretin.

Every time the viewers are represented on the screen, they're basically bashed. Best I can tell, Treme is the first show in the history of shows that doesn't want to be watched.

I'm a fan of Simon's, though, to be honest, so much of what he does is so good that when I think he messes up or is off or wrong it makes me mad in a way that, say, a lesser work's stupidity never does. Sometimes I'm more like a really devoted detractor. But ... I really want to like Treme, but, damn, it's really hard to watch a show that insults you for watching it or not watching it and won't give you any space in its fictional world from which to view.

It wasn't the multiple story lines or the long arcs or even all the things left unexplained -- I like that stuff -- but that style can be formidable and inhospitable and then (and this was the problem) the episodes seem to have built into them this message: go away, you're not welcome here.

But then if you do, you're still derided and insulted then too.

Just for comparison: In CSI. the forensics experts are constantly explaining forensics to each other. If any crime scene investigator had to have as much explained to him or her as is explained in any given episode, he or she would be demoted that day, or worse, eviscerated and humiliated on the witness stand during a tough cross examination. It's being explained for the viewer, though, not the people in the show. It's exposition.

It's an attempt to give you a place in the story, a space to see the story from. You are able, from that structural space, to try on or try out that world. Granted, CSI and shows like that insistently assume and communicate that the viewers are stupid and never learn, so that gets old, but still, that's a really good example of how, traditionally, viewers are invited into what they're viewing.

This is the stupid version, of course, which Simon is reacting to, I think, but it doesn't have to be so poorly done, and the model itself, of giving the viewer a way to be guided through the strange world, of saying, "stand here, out of the way, and watch," or, "trust this character, he'll explain things," is not stupid. After all, this is no-less than Dante's structure, which has served as the model for almost all crime fiction. The readers follow Dante as he follows Virgil (and then later Beatrice) through a strange landscape where we and he would never make it alone. We follow Watson follow Sherlock Holmes. We follow the narrative-I Phillip Marlowe in Chandler's The Big Sleep as he follows the main-character Phillip Marlowe around mean street Los Angeles. Etc. Etc.

I know Simon knows this, and he's managed to communicate to viewers how they should view the show in the past. In Generation Kill, which, granted, was based on someone else's work, but still, there was the journalist Evan Wright acting as guide. In the first season of Homicide: Life on the Streets, it was the character Tim Bayliss. In The Wire, it's more complicated and subtle, but part of what made it amazing was how there were this built-in explanations that worked to show the viewer how this world worked -- that did the job of exposition -- but didn't feel foreign to the world. E.g., the corner-world as explained through chess.

Or ... almost any scene works like this. Mr. Nugget, Omar in the courtroom, every time Freeman opens his mouth. The whole show is structured so the viewer gets to be the camera and it all unfolds as we ride along.

For example:

I'm sure other Simon fans will disagree, but it doesn't seem to me like Treme does that. I really want to watch this show, and probably will try again with the second season that starts Sunday night, but I'm fighting with the show that doesn't feel like it wants to be watched. I mean, if the show has to be explained to people who live in New Orleans even, then how inhospitable is it?

This show hasn't given me a way into this world. Instead it seems intent on forcing me out.


  1. I agree. I stopped watching the show about three-quarters of the way through the first season. I couldn't exactly explain why...but I think your reasoning here explains it nicely.

    Though, I can contribute it all to that, some of the characters didn't capture my interest as much as I'd hoped. Not only could they be mean to the viewer...but it was hard for me to connect to them.

    I left the show for Six Feet Under, which I really enjoyed a lot. Have you seen it?

  2. No, I haven't. I think I saw one episode randomnly and it seemed sort of ... I don't remember, actually, just I saw one episode out of order and it didn't grab me. What is it like?

  3. It's a show about death, and it follows a family in the funeral home business.

    I liked it for many reasons, the first being that I felt the writing was terrific and the characters some of the most realistic I've seen come from a television show. Another thing, the episodes are pretty self-contained. Alan Ball doesn't use a lot of suspense to keep the viewer watching. I continued because I loved the characters, not because something shocking or dire occurred (as happened at the end of many Wire episodes).

    I might not rank it as highly as The Wire...but it comes damn close.

  4. Anonymous4:27 PM


    Are you familiar with the literary term, "the unreliable narrator." Look it up. Treme wasn't trying to fake a version of New Orleans where New Orleanians were humble, grateful and trusting of other Americans after Katrina because such a place didn't exist. Victims of a greatest engineering failure in the history of the country (the hurricane missed them actually, the poorly built and conceived flood control did not) and treated to a litany of "why rebuild New Orleans" pontificating after the disaster, New Orleanians were mad, alienated, paranoid, depressed. Read something, anything about it. Or talk to anyone who experienced it. Treme wasn't doing your version of how you think New Orleanians should have behaved; they depicted how it actually was, on the ground, in post-Katrina New Orleans. When Creighton Bernette, in his rant, declares San Francisco to be "a cesspool with hills," don't you think that's a clue to his state of mind. Or do you really think the writers of the show believe one of the world's most beautiful cities to be a cesspool with hills.

    Treme is journalistic in that regard. Your comments argue for a warm, fuzzy lie that makes you as a viewer feel comfortable, warm and content -- but would not tell the story of that city's tragedy.

    Congratulations. You want the story to be about you! Not the story. It's no wonder so much of American television is there to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.

  5. So, um, your comment, anon, has nothing to do with unreliable narrators, but, uh, yeah, I'm familiar with the idea you make into an insult and then don't actually talk about.

    Actually, a good unreliable narrator would have *fixed* what I think the problem is with Treme.

    Generally, you seem to misunderstand my point. I don't want the show to be nicer, fuzzier, or warmer, and I am quite happy with mean characters, etc. My problem has to do with structure.

    Journalistic and telling the story of that city's tragedy is great, but telling it to who?

    For contrast, the prof's youtube rants allow for an audience -- they give the audience a position in the story being told -- in a way that the show itself doesn't.

    But it has nothing to do with "humble, grateful and trusting." Nothing to do with unreliable narrators or mean or mad or pissed characters.

    It has everything to do with the fact this show carefully builds an argument that you shouldn't watch this show, and also an argument that it's a moral failing not to.

  6. Anonymous1:59 AM

    It has everything to do with unreliable narrators.

    Creighton Bernette is an angry, depressed, unstable man. The storyline ultimately makes this clear. So when a journalist asks a moderately provocative question, he overreacts. He is an unreliable narrator.

    When the Wisconsin kids encounter Sonny, he is a resentful musician trapped at the margins of a wrecked tourist economy, playing on the street. The script reveals him to have a drug problem and an inferiority complex as a musician. He overreacts. Meanwhile Davis sends them to a great club out of the Quarter and they have a great time.

    Just because a character behaves badly doesn't mean that the writers/director/producers are taking the side of the character. Some characters behave badly toward the world -- outsiders included -- and its clear in many ways that the writers are not SANCTIONING this behavoir. They are DEPICTING it. And doing so with the knowledge that New Orleans in the wake of Katrina had -- and still has -- some very big chips balanced on its wrecked shoulder.

    Instead of evaluating it with subtlety, and realizing that some of these characters indeed serve as unreliable narrators, you have argued that viewers, implying yourself and referencing folks from Wisconsin, felt the "unnecessary dis" of the scene.

    But in truth, those kids weren't dissed. They were nice kids. Annie knew it and thanked them. Sonny was a dick. And when he started to be a dick, and insists that no, they asked for Saints, one of the Wisconsin kids tellingly points out: "Actually, we didn't. You did." That wasn't a throw away line. That was the key to the scene. Smart viewers -- in Wisconsin or elsewhere may have picked up that Sonny is unreliable narrator. That following the scene from his point of view is suspect and that later when the WIsconsinites encounter Davis, they are turned on to something worthy and they go to a seemingly rough ghetto bar and have a great and genuine time. The judgment in the scene wasn't on the outsiders; it was on Sonny. You missed it. And you've missed the technique of the unreliable narrator.

    Same thing with Creighton. He isn't a megaphone for that the writers think. They know San Francisco is a beautiful viable city. But Creighton is angry and depressed and a few months from taking his own life. His conversation and his treatment of certain people -- the journalist included -- reflects who HE is. Not who they are. And not how you think he OUGHT to behave.

    If everybody behaves as they ought, it might be a happier story, sure. But a more honest story about people, and Katrina and its aftermath? Doubtful.

  7. Perhaps I conflated two different things in my post. I don't the characters to behave differently, though. I think you're right, anon, about why they act the way they act, and that they should be shown as acting that way.

    What I want is a structural change that would give me, the viewer, a guide to this world of post-Katrina New Oreleans. Perhaps that's why I liked the sections with Davis and Toni Bernette best. It wasn't that they behaved the way someone OUGHT, but that they acted as guides, even though sometimes they were unreliable.

    cf my comments on The Wire. There's something about the structure of that story that I want to point to as better, not the moral behavior. When, in The Wire, an old guy goes looking for the Poe house, or when a couple of gangbangers on a NY drug run listen to Prarie Home Companion, the (white, middle class, HBO-subscribing) viewer is made fun of, but in a way that advances the understanding of this world, that heightens awareness of one's own position, and, ultimately, is helpful. The viewer is, with those pokes, told where to stand to view this story.

    Which is, I think, also what happens with Virgil in Dante's story.

    Perhaps you're right, it was Sonny who was critiqued in that scene, and I missed it. I'll watch it again. Don't misunderstand me, though. I don't want Sonny to be a good guy. I want to be allowed by the structure of the story to understand and follow him.

  8. Anonymous4:07 AM

    One thing to note about Sonny is the irony of his character. He considers himself more "real" New Orleans than many he encounters, in spite of the fact that he's a transplant, immersed in what he believes is "The Culture", which in reality is a somewhat narrow view. He's in love with the idea of being a New Orleans Musician, yet he misses the fact that the greatness he aspires to came from something more real than the trappings that he chooses to wear.

  9. Anonymous8:40 PM

    Awesome back and forth fellas...I love the show. Im from baton rouge but used to live in N.O. as a child. I think Treme is probably the most realistic depiction of new orleans on television that i have ever seen outside of a documentary. Either way great, conversation on this thread.

    --WHO DAT?!