Davis and Defictionalization: Treme’s Inherited Crisis of Continuity
April 18th, 2010
When I was watching Treme earlier this week, I knew that there was some buzz in early reviews about one of the show’s characters, although I had stayed far enough away from those reviews that I actually didn’t know which character it was going into the premiere. However, there was no doubt after watching the episode that the response was to Steve Zahn’s Davis, a character who is a bit too much of a jerk for some viewers.
I wrote about this a little bit in my review of the premiere, arguing that the character has yet to be given a reason for this sort of behaviour, which keeps the audience from relating to him in any way. However, I’ve since that point read a lot of comments from others (including Ethan Thompson at Antenna) which have started to paint Davis as something more intriguing, something which speaks to both the series’ complicated intertextuality and its unique relationship with historical reality.
So, after the jump, a few thoughts (with probably a few Wire spoilers) on the defictionalization of Simon and Burns’ Baltimore and its influence on the response to Davis’ incongruity within Treme’s New Orleans.
I wrote a brief column for a new Australian entertainment site, Jive TV, regarding Treme’s premiere where I argued that the show would be done a disservice if its hype were defined entirely based on David Simon’s past success. I was largely making this argument as a result of the fact that there are still many who have not watched The Wire, and they shouldn’t feel as if they wouldn’t enjoy this show, but I realized that there are also distinct complications to reading this series in the context of The Wire.
Of course, separating the two is nearly impossible: with both Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce playing prominent characters, the intertextuality is difficult to get past, especially considering that in most situations the comparison should work in Treme’s favour by encouraging viewers to be patient, by assuring them that Simon knows what he’s doing. However, while most generally agree that The Wire was a televisual achievement (paralleled or unparalleled), there were some characters and storylines which are considered problematic by many “fans.” I’m speaking in this instance of characters like Ziggy, or storylines like Season Five’s fake serial killer – they’re both elements of the series which some viewers felt worked against its stark realism.
In some ways, I think the response to Davis is the result of the ways in which The Wire conditioned viewers to expect “realism” in their storylines, to expect that these fictional stories should resist that which is annoying or particularly reckless. I can understand the concern over Season Five, where Simon created a story which pressed against “realism” in order to make a larger point about the media in a way which was much more blatant than earlier seasons, but Ziggy is entirely realistic. Ziggy is the replaced son, abandoned by his father in favour of his cousin, and this informs his willingness to act out and his desire to get his father’s attention in ways that we never quite understand. While I will agree that the character is annoying, he’s realistically annoying, and he fits in with the season’s themes about the people left behind within the fall of the American working class.
I think the problem is that many have, in retrospect, defictionalized The Wire – even if some viewers understand its disconnect from historical reality (see: the use of pagers in the twenty-first century), the show was so thorough in early seasons that it developed its own reality which stopped being fictional once viewers became conditioned by its extreme continuities. Ziggy isn’t unrealistic if you judge The Wire as a reflection of real American society, but he is perhaps the most annoying character in the entire series, and so he becomes incongruous with the show’s reality more than our own. It says something about the power of television that a show like The Wire, or a show like Mad Men, can create concerns over authenticity within, as opposed to with, their interpretations of historical or social reality, and I certainly think that this is part of The Wire’s achievement.
Unfortunately, it’s part of the show’s achievement that places a burden on Treme which isn’t precisely fair – the show has not had the time to develop the same sort of continuity, nor has it established its own relationship with historical reality. Treme is much more inherently placed in a particular time, and while Simon has written a letter to New Orleans residents warning them that this remains a fictionalized account there is still a clear sense that the “real” post-Katrina New Orleans is influencing these stories. And so the show is trapped within two separate expectations: not only is it supposed to be “realistic” as a reflection of this particular point in American history, but it’s also expected to carry-over The Wire’s focus on crafting its own continuities within its fictionalization, something that took The Wire three seasons to develop.
I would argue that the negative response to Davis is that he fits into neither of these expectations: we don’t understand how the character was affected by the hurricane, his dickish behaviour lacking a connection to the post-Katrina environment or even to some sort of pre-Katrina circumstance. He’s a character with a chip on his shoulder, but we don’t understand who put it there, and how he came to this point – while similar characters may have acted like Davis in the past, including Ziggy, they always, seemed to spring from something that was already present in the show’s world. By comparison, Davis seems to have come from nowhere in particular, and the show doesn’t even seem interested in the mystery. In that sense, perhaps he really is (as James Poniewozik observed) like Jar Jar Binks, a character who becomes problematic when he becomes emblematic of an entire culture, one whose incongruity with the rest of the characters is used for the sake of variety as opposed to in order to interesting dynamics.
However, reading that back, Davis is nothing like Jar Jar Binks: he does nothing to mar the series’ engaging and at times haunting depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans, and his position as a local DJ places him at the heart of the convergence of music and culture within the city’s rebirth. The problem is that none of that seems like it connects with his attitude, although the larger problem is that some viewers aren’t seeing the potential connections and are focusing instead on the immediate incongruity. I agree that Davis is perhaps the most problematic part of the Pilot, but the show is not yet able to be judged by the same standards as The Wire when it comes to the cohesiveness of its “universe”: while the realistic setting and Simon’s past work may push us to expect certain things, the fictionalization of New Orleans is not the same as the fictionalization of Baltimore, and Simon and Eric Overmeyer deserve time to sort out just how Davis fits into this world, not the perspective of this world that viewers are somewhat unfairly bringing to the series.
- According to Poniewozik, Davis’ character sort of levels out starting in tonight’s episode, so I think “patience” is the right word to tell those who found his character problematic in the premiere.
- I find it interesting that so few are responding to John Goodman’s character: I’d argue he’s actually far more of a caricature than Davis, and while we have a better sense of the reason for his extreme behaviour it’s pretty thinly drawn (in that we don’t know why he’s so passionate about the corruption/negligence regarding the levees).
- My open question: is Treme sort of handicapped in this sense in that its focus on the free-form lifestyles of jazz musicians lacks the clear goals of police work? The Wire was all about how bureaucracy kept cops from doing their jobs effectively, and while Treme plays on the same idea (with the Jazz Musicians pushed out of work and out of their city by the storm) it doesn’t have the same sort of clear motivation behind their actions. There’s great potential in this, investigating why they play music and what it means to them and their relationship with the city, but it means that many of the things which were concrete at the beginning of The Wire are abstract here.