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Treme the Morning After: Critical Arcs Conclude with “I’ll Fly Away”

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.

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Treme – “Shame, Shame, Shame”

“Shame, Shame, Shame”

May 9th, 2010

There is a certain familiarity within Treme that has seemed a little bit foreign in the early stages of the series – community is obviously a key theme for the series, but it seems like everyone knows everyone else, or at least seem to know everyone who they need to know in order to allow Simon and Overmeyer to make the arguments they want to make. It just so happens that Lambreaux knows a city councilor, and it turns out that Ladonna’s brother worked at Janette’s restaurant, and it seems Toni Bernette represents just about everyone in this city. There’s a point where we start to wonder just how all of these connections could be possible, moments that pull us out of the sense of “realism” and authenticity the show seems to be trying to capture (and which Christopher Cwynar wrote about here).

And yet, “Shame, Shame, Shame” opens with a dream sequence, which is precisely the opposite of realistic and yet which sort of places everything into perspective. There is a certain level of spiritual fantasy to New Orleans, a lyricism which the show wants to be able to capture: it wants to show people struggling in the wake of the storm, certainly, but it also wants to emphasize that they are always part of a community, and what better way to capture that than by having them know one another, or at the very least having their paths intersect more than we could have imagined. The show’s various cameos are not so much meant to overwhelm us with star power (although tonight’s got to me for reasons I’ll get into after the jump) as they are to place these characters within “real” communities, providing them a sense of hope within a situation that isn’t going to be getting better anytime soon.

Sure, there are occasionally moments when things seem a bit too serendipitous, but there are enough moments where this episode nicely delineates between hope and reality that I think I’m along for the ride.

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Treme – “At the Foot of Canal Street”

“At the Foot of Canal Street”

May 2nd, 2010

How do you solve a problem like Katrina? If Treme started out by looking at how people survived the storm and how they are struggling to bounce back personally and professionally from its immediate impact, “At the Foot of Canal Street” moves onto how it is that the myriad of problems caused by the storm are being fixed. As the nation talks about canceling Carnival or not rebuilding the city, and as the city’s public works contractor is revealed to be incompetent, characters are forced to wonder whether they should take things into their own hands and try to enact some change on their own.

There’s some broad strokes in this particular part of the episode, characters proposing political campaigns and recording profanity-laced YouTube videos, but it subtly ripples through the rest of the show’s characters and storylines. Everyone has that point where they wonder if they should take their fate into their own hands, or where they struggle to do the right thing because they know it’s bigger than they realize, and Treme is just as interested in those responses as it is the direct engagement with bureaucracy and national media. “At the Foot of Canal Street” doesn’t entirely fix some of the show’s early red flags, but George Pelecanos nicely integrates even the show’s most problematic character into a narrative that feels as genuine as the rest of the series.

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Treme – “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront”

“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.

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