“Right Place, Wrong Time”
April 25th, 2010
One of the challenges of watching television while engaged with (but not wholly part of) the critical community is that you can’t help but have certain expectations from others critics having already seen future episodes of a series. The end of “Right Place, Wrong Time” is something I’ve known about for a few weeks now, so I spent the episode expecting it, knowing that things would eventually get to the point when the tourists would happen upon the funeral service in the 9th Ward and in the process turn ritual into spectacle. In the end, of course, the (problematic, which I’ll get to) scene isn’t ruined by this expectation, but some of the intended effect is lost in the process.
What I think the well-made and compelling Treme is struggling with right now is that we have certain expectations: history has already written its own story of what happened in the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and to some degree Treme is in the process of checking off a list of things that they “have to” cover rather than revealing new stories that head in unexpected directions. With the weight of this expectation, the show feels like certain stories are moving towards inevitability, designed to get to a particular point about post-Katrina New Orleans rather than unfolding in a way which speaks to that particular concern.
It’s as if the show is always in the right place at the right time, a situation which makes “Right Place, Wrong Time” struggle to feel quite as organic as we may want the show to feel at this stage of its development. The drama remains extremely compelling, and many of the individual scenes within these stories are as evocative and worthwhile as we expect from Simon, but there is something about the way things are unfolding which fails to embrace, even while capturing, the uncertainty of reality.
I don’t think that these problems I have are going to stick around together: it’s something that the show has already worked through with a couple of its stories, in particular Janette and Davis. While I still think Davis is a bit broad at times (the story of his arrest made me very glad that we didn’t actually see his arrest), their relationship was given enough context tonight that it doesn’t just feel like a connecting thread to hold together the show’s various narratives. It’s too early for characters to feel fully realized, but their relationships need to feel like they’re realistic rather than convenient, and I thought Davis turning over his week’s pay to make up for his earlier wine opening and Janette taking him to the cleaners was a sweet little story. When Janette was very clearly struggling to deal with lying about her financial insecurity, Davis instinctively pours her the rest of the wine, a small moment which speaks volumes about their relationship and which “sells” their connection in a way that earlier episodes didn’t.
In some ways, Davis captures the struggles of expectation: if the character had come out in that first episode and been a mouthpiece against gentrification, we would have written off the character as a conduit for Simon and Overmeyer’s views on the subject, but because his motivation was left entirely unclear in early episode many wrote off the character as a douchebag and moved on. The show needs to walk a delicate tight rope with these kinds of things, as these characters are not necessarily in positions to be able to logically comment on things as directly as the show might be interested in. John Goodman’s Creighton was quite literally reduced to a mouthpiece in the series premiere, and to some degree it keeps the character from being read normally as he questions Davis’ piano classes or marvels over his daughter’s internet overshare – as characters weave in and out of the “message” of Treme, the show’s sense of character sort of oscillates back and forth between real people and “real people.”
For some I think these questions about their identities are intentional: I think we’re supposed to question a character like Sonny, who complains about the ignorance of tourists while taking advantage of that ignorance by turning the tragedy into his own personal crusade in order to draw either sympathy or goodwill. And I think we’re supposed to observe that his identity is trapped by the storm, that in some way he is now defining himself in context with Katrina rather than the other way around. Part of the episode’s argument is the idea of separating life and Katrina: Lambreaux’s discovery of his friend’s body beneath a boat is a result of the storm, but their spiritual service at episode’s end is meant to rescue his identity from the darkness of his fate, to take back his life from the narrative of Katrina’s destruction. What bugged me about the tourist bus was that it seemed too coincidental: I get the point that it’s impossible to step out from under the umbrella of the post-Katrina hysteria, but the bus seemed like a really broad way of making that theme explicit when the rest of the episode was getting at it in a more subtle fashion.
The show is at its best when it’s telling stories about characters, like Wendell Pierce’s Antoine Batiste. The storm has threatened his livelihood and turned his life upside down, and his baby mama (girlfriend seems inaccurate considering the events of this week’s episode) makes that clear: were it not for the storm, he would be living the life of a bachelor in his apartment and she would be raising his daughter at her mother’s house. The show is always going to be playing with this almost Flash Sideways-esque mentality, wondering what people’s lives would be like if the storm had never hit, and I think that Batiste is the character who in his affable nature best captures that idea. When he gets viciously beaten (without cause) by the police, it feels like something more than a glimpse into police brutality: it becomes a referendum on how we view his philandering ways, and whether we think he deserves to be beaten for carrying on outside of his relationship by rockin’ the FEMA trailer to open the episode. The character is at the heart of the show’s issues, put out of work and displaced by the storm, but what we’re seeing is a human struggle within the context of that environment, speaking to issues rather than speaking at the audience regarding those issues.
By comparison, I don’t yet think that Melissa Leo’s Toni is anything close to a character: I don’t necessarily think that we need a comprehensive back story, but she keeps popping up as the show’s multi-purpose lawyer in a way which makes the world feel tremendously small, and her battle through the red tape surrounding Ladonna’s brother is very clearly just an excuse to portray the red tape which confounded such efforts after the storm. While Khandi Alexander’s character is quite enjoyable, the actual struggle to find her brother just has no connection with character motivations, and as great an actress as Melissa Leo is I’m left wondering why she was cast if all the character is going to do is try and fail to jump through various hoops. I’m hoping that the case, and the character, will pick up once they go to court, but right now it seems like it’s being done independent of character, and that it’s just going through the motions of fulfilling our expectations that Simon will be interested in the bureaucratic roadblocks created by the storm.
When the show goes into its free-form Jazz scenes, there’s a looseness about it, and there are times when that looseness overcomes the contrivance of thinks like Batiste stumbling upon Annie and Sonny performing on the street and joins them in a serenade. For the most part, these times represent the majority of Treme’s first three episodes, as I’m starting to become more comfortable in this environment and more caught up in their plight. However, there are times when the show falls into the trap of our expectations, abandoning subtlety to make explicit arguments that the show is already making itself. At times this juxtaposition works effectively, but in others it makes the show seem less organic than it might otherwise, and draws me back into the rest of the show’s storylines in search of similar problems. There is nothing in “Right Place, Wrong Time” which indicates that the show won’t be able to evolve into something which overcomes these concerns, but there are some small moments which show that Simon and Overmeyer are simultaneously rushing and dragging out certain stories in a way which is keeping me at arm’s length in regards to certain parts of this story.
- Davis’ obsession with the strippers in his neighbourhood was at times a bit broad, but I thought the song really drove it home: Davis’ behaviour just feels better contextualized now, and while he remains impulsive and resistant to reason (like when he ignores the fact that his neighbour is not quite as ill-informed as he imagined) it’s more endearing now than I thought it would be.
- I can’t believe they left us hanging about Batiste’s trombone; I presumed that Sonny or Annie would have picked it up, personally.
- Not sure where they’re going with the teenager shacking up with a girl in Lambreaux’s bar and then showing up with his aunt looking for work, but I like the potential dynamics in terms of Lambreaux extending his cultural traditions to another generation, so I’ll be curious to see where that goes (and whether he continues to mull over what he did to that kid last week).
- Continuity issue: why was the Bernette daughter at boarding school one moment and back at the house the next? The passage of time is really screwy on the show, and I’m still not quite sure what that arrangement is all about.