Treme the Morning After: Critical Arcs Conclude with “I’ll Fly Away”
June 21st, 2010
In Alan Sepinwall’s fantastic interview with David Simon about Treme’s first season, Simon was particularly animated about those who argue that Treme is a show light on plot. In an amendment to the earlier interview (which Simon requested to add during a subsequent conversation), Simon says the following about the criticism of the show:
When they start to sort of evaluate the arc that they can’t know, the story arcs themselves, even if they’re loving it, I just can’t take it seriously. Nobody knows what we’ve built until the end. In some ways, even though we’ve planned it out and know where we’re going, until we look at the last edit of the last episode and send it off – that’s the only point where we can look at it and go, “This worked really well, this not so much.” Until then, you can’t really tell. That’s what I was trying to say. I was not trying to say I do not take criticism seriously. Obviously, anybody who gets to the end and says, “I don’t think this worked,” that’s entirely legitimate. But I can’t take seriously stuff in the middle. It’s like reading a book report in the middle. Not to say there isn’t valid commentary about the process. Just not about arc.
Writing about Treme has been a distinct challenge (as Scott Tobias mentioned in this A.V. Club Crosstalk with Noel Murray) for those of us who write about television on a week-to-week basis, largely because “arcs” are one of the primary ways in which we evaluate individual episodes. What Simon is arguing is that it’s not really possible to evaluate an arc until it reaches its conclusion, and that while critics can like/dislike certain characters, or moments, or direction, they can’t like or dislike the story arc until they discover how it ends. In the case of Treme, these arcs were elusive on a good day and near non-existent on others, and so their presence or absence became a key part of these reviews despite Simon’s concerns.
I have a great deal of respect for Simon, and I’ll agree that he is in no way suggesting that criticism isn’t a worthwhile venture. However, I think that the “stuff in the middle” has been an important glimpse into how critics, and viewers, have been watching the series. A critics’ analysis of an individual season of television is not unlike the first season of Treme, building momentum and information until eventually reaching a conclusion: at no point do critics use individual reviews to offer definitive opinions on a storyline, their responses to episodes standing as evidence of their emotional and critical reaction to the series which build towards an eventual judgment on how the season has progressed. While a story should ultimately be judged once it has concluded, there is nothing wrong with reacting to that story as it unfolds, and critics have simply documented the ways in which they’ve responded to the series both positively and negatively over the course of a season. Even if those concerns are eventually washed away by a strong finale, or if their opinions change through the course of the year, this doesn’t mean that we should take earlier reviews less seriously: instead, we should see them as a dialogue with the text, valuable not in offering a definitive judgment of particular storylines but rather in terms of capturing the way viewers are experiencing the series as it unfolds week-by-week.
As critics confront “I’ll Fly Away,” they draw back on some of their early misgivings in order to properly elaborate on their perspectives, giving the show credit for pulling some storylines together while criticizing the show for potentially missing some opportunities with others. Simon is right that arcs can be judged prematurely, but I think critics have a responsibility to reflect the fact that watching a David Simon series requires a degree of patience that only monks could pull off without difficulty, and that while they will ultimately wait to pass judgment on the series they will have their moments of doubt which should be reflected in their reviews. While Simon is likely right that Treme (like The Wire) would benefit more from a Sepinwallian post-series rewind to these earlier episodes within the context of the broader story, critical commentary of the experience of watching Treme is valuable insight into how the arc is being read by viewers as it progresses, which is ultimately how we primarily watch television.
So as the internet’s television critics offer their views on Treme’s first season finale, all of those who have been writing about the show with some regularity acknowledge the ways in which their opinions have changed and how arcs have or have not come together, acknowledgements we can understand and see for ourselves in reading their intelligent analysis of the season’s individual episodes. As television become a more collective experience in the internet age, viewers want to be able to become part of critical communities which analyze episodes of a show like Treme and create discussion surrounding its relationship with history, its characters, its direction and, yes, its story arcs. And while writing about the show has at times been a challenge, the “stuff the middle” created intriguing conversations which extended the series’ impact beyond its individual segments, building towards a more thorough and definitive conversation to be held now, after the season has come to a close.
While I will agree with Simon that now is when the real analysis can truly take place (and has been taking place, as you’ll see from the reviews I’ll link to after the break), I wouldn’t want to have lost the dialogues which emerged throughout the season, if only because I can’t imagine how long my already ludicrously long review would have been if I had held it all in – while Simon’s concern is not entirely misplaced, the experience of Treme was better for the discussions which emerged from critical reviews, and so long as critics continue to reserve judgment within their analysis of individual episodes I will continue to take them seriously in the future.
I normally like to offer some further dialogue with the reviews when I do these pieces, but I already wrote 4500 words in my own review of “I’ll Fly Away” (which you can read here), so I figure I’ll let the critics do the talking.
Alan Sepinwall at HitFix.com’s What’s Alan Watching, nicely using a traditional description of The Wire to emphasize Treme’s differences and similarities to Simon’s previous series:
There are, after all, many different kinds of novels. Some are rich with incident, and some almost entirely about small moments in ordinary lives. “The Wire” belonged to one school, “Treme” to another. And I’m fine with that. There are times when I’m in the mood for a Richard Price urban crime epic. Then there are others where I just want to read a Richard Russo book about people in a small town where nothing seems to be happening – until I get to the end, and the emotional wallop makes me realize just how much happened, and how much it mattered to me that I got to experience it via such a confident, humanist storyteller.
James Poniewozik at Time’s Tuned In, acknowledging the difficult task that Simon and Overmeyer took on with the series (degree of difficulty is often tossed aside as an excuse, but I’d consider it a valid critical observation):
But it has to be said: They took on a tremendous challenge, creating an hourlong drama about life and survival, in a series that eschewed the automatic-conflict generators of genres like cop and medical shows—and did it while placing the main driving event, Katrina, deliberately offstage. And in the season’s finest, most transcendent moments—like the closing second-line and some others in this finale—they actually pulled it off: they actually, through the relatively ordinary stories of characters we’d come to know, showed that culture was not just something a city like New Orleans creates as a tourist-business proposition but a sustaining part of everyday life.
Scott Tobias at The A.V. Club, giving Davis the respect he deserves:
Aside from maybe Big Chief, the man who emerges as the truest, most stalwart champion of New Orleans is not Creighton, but Davis, who I think many have underrated and undervalued throughout the season. He could be pesky and annoying—and seemed to be cited most by detractors as the reason they were turned off by Treme early in the season—but his fortunes rose on his dogged optimism and rascally soul. His visit to Janette’s darkened apartment in the wake of her restaurant closing a couple weeks ago was one of the season’s sweetest moments, and his follow-through in “I’ll Fly Away” is as affirming as a David Simon series is ever likely to get.
Maureen Ryan at the Chicago Tribune, reflecting on the finale after her recent visit to New Orleans and expressing her mixed feelings on the season as a whole:
In trying to be a jeremiad, travelogue, picaresque and music history all at once, “Treme” may have been trying too hard to do too many things. And the constant appearances of non-actors on the show was frankly distracting. While it’s admirable that “Treme’s” creators wanted to give paychecks to so many New Orleans and residents, at times the locals’ awkwardly inserted presences ground the show to a halt, and constantly putting non-actors in scenes with skilled actors didn’t do either group any favors. But as the characters and their stories became deeper, “Treme” became not just easier to take but enjoyable. This show, which started out so uptight, relaxed.
Heather Havrilesky at Salon.com, capturing the sense of admiration which overcomes her concerns with the series (in particular Creighton’s character arc):
And with scenes that evocative and unforgettable, you can’t exactly begrudge “Treme” its unique perspective and pace. Unlike almost every other finely-tuned, carefully calibrated dramatic entertainment on the small screen, this show isn’t a tightly plotted engine that’s designed to meet audience expectations and feed us witty one-liners and toss out appetizing glimpses of the next twist or turn up ahead. You have to admire David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s utter indifference to serving up the typical narrative arc.
Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly, expressing his desire for the second season to expand the show’s storytelling further:
Going into next season, however, I’m not sure whose stories I’m invested in following. I certainly want to see what LaDonna and Toni are doing, moving on from the deaths in their families. Beyond that, I hope that Simon and company go even further in embracing the narrative style they’ve established here; rather than discrete subplots that must be chopped up and shuffled to form an hour or so, Treme could use the kind of fluidity its music extols.
Matt Roush at TV Guide, focusing on Creighton’s words within last week’s penultimate episode and their meaning on the series as a whole:
As Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) told his students in the penultimate episode, before presumably stepping off the ferry to put an end to his blocked creative life, “Don’t think in terms of a beginning and an end. Because unlike some plot-driven entertainments, there is no closure in real life — not really.” Could be a testimony to Treme itself, which has taken some knocks for its often oblique approach to actual narrative. (Ominously, Cray added when asked about an upcoming test, “In the end, every one of us will be tested, and every one of us will be found wanting.”)
Rachael Brown at The Atlantic, raising an intriguing point about the ambiguity of protagonists/antagonists considering the series’ unique pace:
Perhaps the ambiguity of Treme is intentional—Creigh’s discourse on ignoring plot seemed to imply as much—and as the series continues we’ll likely see that the first season was a long exposition for the narrative ahead. If The Wire took a television story arc from an episode to an entire season, will Treme take that arc from a season to a series? One can’t help but feel we’ve only begun to receive hints about who our protagonists are.
Also, as always, you should be reading those blogs which take a look at the non-narrative elements of the series, like Dave Walker’s “Treme Explained” at NOLA.com which outlines the various reference to New Orleans culture, and Music of Treme, which collects the various songs performed in each episode.
- Considering how many reviews note their anticipation for the second season, owing both to the show’s growing confidence and The Wire’s evolution over time, the expectations for next year’s premiere are likely to be even higher than for the series premiere, which could create more of the same disappointment when Simon doesn’t necessarily bow to that expectation.
- There have been some intriguing Twitter conversations surrounding the finale as well, including further discussion of Creighton’s suicide: I’m officially with Scott Tobias in that very few people are giving the show credit for having the supposed mouthpiece for producers give up on New Orleans, showing how (similar to Brown’s comments) the notion of viewpoint is slippery with such an expansive cast and such diverse focus.
- It’s not really a review, but Karen Dalton Beninato has an intriguing piece at NewOrleans.com about her viewing of the finale and the memories it evoked.
- There are some “recaps” of the finale floating around at the usual locations, but for me Treme is a show which demonstrates the lack of value in such recaps: the notion that anyone could watch this show and not have an opinion is mind-boggling to me, so entirely plot-based summaries without a single critical thought are so unnatural that I won’t even bother linking to them.