“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.
“Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront”
April 18th, 2010
There’s a scene in this week’s episode of Treme where John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette sits in his office going over a list of programs being cut from what we soon learn is his own university. He lists off a lot of practical degrees, many of them in engineering, noting the irony that the programs are being cut just after a disaster which he believes could have been prevented or at the very least mitigated through proper engineers (electrical, mechnical, and otherwise) working on the levees, power grids, and everything else. That’s ultimately consistent with his character, or what we’ve seen of the character so far, but his subsequent rant about the courses being maintained (women’s studies, Caribbean studies, Portuguese, etc.) seems a little bit “off.”
It’s not that we can say that this character wouldn’t make that argument: while we could argue that his own position as a professor of English makes him a little bit disingenuous to be bashing the liberal arts in such a fashion, we don’t know enough about the characters to say that this is out of character. However, it’s one of the moments when you realize that not everybody is on the same page when it comes to the future of New Orleans, as “Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront” identifies at nearly every turn. It is an episode filled with moments where structural integrity or personal safety or the letter of the law are placed in opposition to both the cultural past and the storm-addled future of New Orleans, and while some stress the importance of identity others emphasize the importance of survival.
While there are temptations to read characters like Creighton, who rallies against authority and emphasizes the failures of bureaucracy, as representations of the creative impulse of David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, this speech and this episode are a reminder that they’re trying to capture the complexity of this city rather than a singular image of its rehabilitation.