“Do You Know What It Means”
April 11th, 2010
I’m in the middle of a fairly chaotic week (that will continue to be pretty chaotic until at least the weekend), and so I only today got a chance to sit down with David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s Treme. As a fan of The Wire, and a fan of good television, I can objectively say that this is a very engaging television program that I look forward to watching for the remainder of the Spring.
As a critic, I don’t know if I quite have time to delve into it with the depth that I might in different circumstances – I’m going to offer a few brief thoughts on a couple of stories, and probably talk a bit about the show’s depiction of New Orleans, but full-detailed thoughts might have to wait until later in the miniseries.
Of course, I’m writing this before I start writing the review in earnest, so you could look beneath the fold and find something as long as you’d normally expect.
What struck me most about “Do You Know What it Means” is how character motivations are largely left to our imaginations. In some cases, Katrina offers a very clear motivating factor: Ladonna’s return to New Orleans is partly about business, but we learn as the episode goes on that she’s in New Orleans mostly to be around should her brother (missing since the storm) return. By comparison, Albert’s return to his flood-ravaged home remains shrouded in mystery: we understand what he wants to do, bringing the bar back to life so that culture can return to the area (like it did with the parade that opened the episode), but it’s not clear why he’s so focused on coming back (although the water-damaged picture he puts up at the bar seems to have something to do with it). For most characters, this mystery helps keep the show from seeming like the story of people cleaning up after Katrina: obviously the flood has displaced many of them, forcing them to take cab rides and separate themselves from their families, but their lives are about more than the flood, and the lack of overt “this is what the flood did to me and what I plan to do about it” is in the show’s favour.
Where this becomes a little bit problematic is with characters whose behaviour is a little bit more extreme but whose motivations remain just as vague. I speak specifically of characters like John Goodman’s Creighton, or Steve Zahn’s Davis, both who are crusading against the man but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Goodman is having enough fun with the role, and has enough of a moral high ground, for his over the top behaviour to seem funny and clever as opposed to seeming like some sort of extremism, but I don’t know what we’re really supposed to think about Davis. I like what Zahn is doing with the role, and if we were to view Davis’ attempts to talk to Elvis Costello or even his record store theft independent of his antagonism of his neighbours or his initial hissy fit at the record store I think I’d actually like the guy. The issue is that he’s a jerk for reasons that we don’t understand – while Creighton’s behaviour is both more fun and for a “good cause,” Davis is being a jerk for reasons that seem selfish and petty.
I don’t think this is necessarily a huge problem: I think the character plays well against Kim Dickens’ Janette, and I think his position as a DJ offers another side of the musical scene in New Orleans that could be useful. I do think, though, that some will react negatively to the character: some have referred to him as an actual antagonist, and I don’t think that’s particularly fair whether he opened that ridiculously expensive bottle of wine or not. His behaviour isn’t that far away from some of McNulty’s worst, for example, but McNulty was hyper-intelligent in ways that mattered to the show’s central function. We haven’t seen enough to demonstrate Davis’ redemptive qualities quite right, and I would be willing to say that he does need some sort of redemptive quality in order to not stick out like a sore thumb in this particular universe.
The other thing I found particularly fascinating about the pilot is that, like The Wire, I have no real sense of New Orleans’ geography. While this show is obviously more intricately related to a particular place than The Wire, the displacement required by the flood trumping the displacement experienced in the fight over corners on the Baltimore-set series, those of us with no knowledge of New Orleans still don’t exactly know where Treme is, or what Treme is, or in some cases the geographical lengths to which people have been forced to travel. There are a lot of returns in this episode, which is important and something I expect we’ll see more of as the season goes along, but the distance (like the characters’ previous lives) is sort of taken for granted and revealed slowly or in subtle ways (like the cost of Antoine’s cab rides). The show is a celebration of, as opposed to an education on, New Orleans and its culture, and so the episode doesn’t bother with exposition beyond the reality of Hurricane Katrina and the ramifications therein.
On that front, the show is very similar (as strange as it sounds) to Simon and Burns’ Generation Kill – while it’s obviously dealing with the ramifications of Katrina, just as Generation Kill was dealing with the ramifications of the ill-advised Iraqi invasion, there is no direct line into the political failings and the organization struggles behind the scenes. The show is about the people who had to live through it, the people waiting on insurance claims and returning to a city and struggling to find the life they left behind. There’s all sorts of interesting ways in which music forms that life, whether as an actual livelihood or as a spiritual connection to the city that was left behind – by the end, you realize that music is the sign of life returning after the storm at the opening of the episode, and that music is the soundtrack of death at the funeral at its end. Music is life, and so focusing on musicians and others trying to find their voice (either as a political activist, a restauranteur, a barkeep, etc.) within the city after such a great catastrophe has a great deal of potential.
So much so, in fact, that as I was writing this HBO announced a second season just two days after the premiere aired – perhaps they are really happy with the ratings from Sunday, or perhaps they just want to make sure that they keep David Simon in the fold considering his vocal displeasure as of late for HBO’s decision to spend $250 Million on The Pacific despite their history of forcing him to economize. Either way, it means that there’s plenty more where this came from, and that would be classified as a “good thing.”
- While I was really happy to see Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters, I think that I was most pleased to see Kim Dickens – she was really enjoyable on Deadwood, a great presence on Friday Night Lights, and the kind of actress that just “fits” into a world like this.
- The show was beautifully shot, regardless of its budget, and they’ve done a fantastic job of recreating post-Katrina New Orleans (although I’m sure that the continued disrepair in the city made their job a little easier) and capturing the beauty within the carnage. The scene with Albert in his Mardi Gras garb walking up the street to convince his neighbour to help him clear out the bar was just stunning to watch, the single street lamp (the only one on the street that works, you’ll note) slowly capturing him as he walks into the light.
- For a more detailed look at the episode, you can check out Alan Sepinwall, Scott Tobias, and Nick at Monsters of TV.
4 responses to “Series Premiere: Treme – “Do You Know What It Means””
“While this show is /obviously/ more intricately related to a particular place than The Wire” [emphasis mine]
I don’t see that this is self-evident; why “obviously”? “The Wire” was very much about Baltimore. “Treme” is very much about New Orleans. “Generation Kill” was very much about Iraq. And the themes are universal to about the same extent. So why “obviously”?
This is what I get for shortening my thoughts, I rush points like this one.
I would argue that The Wire was about the American City more than it was about Baltimore in particular – there seemed to be a conscious effort to suggest that what we saw in Baltimore was indicative of the experience in other cities across the country, and the fictional nature of the political/social climate of the city used Baltimore’s demography for the sake of telling stories which were ultimately national in their scope.
By comparison, Treme is very specifically about New Orleans less as an “American City” and more as a distinct and realistic cultural entity (or at least that’s how I see it).
I agree about Baltimore in particular being used to represent the American City in general. I don’t know what the themes of “Treme” will end up being, but we can’t be sure, a priori, that, though rendered through particulars, they won’t be universal (in the same way as institutional failure resulting from higher-ups not listening to the people on the ground).
Thank you for replying, Myles; I enjoy your writing very much.
I just got done watching it.. pretty solid premiere. Even though I’ve never been there, I thought it did a great job of capturing New Orleans in a post-Katrina world. Was great to see John Goodman, etc.. strong casting as usual. Hopefully they touch on the Saints winning the SB.. though I don’t know what they’d have to go through to get the logos, etc on TV. I just think it was a huge achievement and celebration for the city, which makes for an interesting story point.