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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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Season Finale: Treme – “I’ll Fly Away”

“I’ll Fly Away”

June 20th, 2010

“I’m just a player.”

I’ve fallen into an unfortunate trap over the past month or so with Treme, and it’s quite a common one: with a show this dense and devoid of traditional plot development, and where the professional critics are receiving screeners and I am, well, not, I haven’t been able to work up the drive to write about the episodes when I’ve been seeing them a few days late every week (as a result of the conflict with Breaking Bad, which was so great this season). I’d hate for this to be read as a slight on the series as a whole, but I do think that I’ve avoided writing about it because I’ve felt uncomfortable offering a verdict on how the series has progressed.

I think what I’ve discovered is that Treme is constantly defined by fallout, both in terms of the overarching impact of Hurricane Katrina and the individual tragedies and events which define each character’s journey. When something happens on Treme, like the conclusion of last week’s penultimate episode, the real interest for David Simon and Eric Overmeyer seems to be the consequences. The Wire’s finales were always denouements, but Treme has been one long denouement from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and living within that space has taken these characters to some dangerous places and created consequences that will not end with tonight’s season finale. While The Wire was interested in how one small decision or one bureaucratic inefficiency could snowball into tragedy, Treme captures the spirit of a city fighting to overcome inescapable tragedy, and the result has been some great television.

“I’ll Fly Away” is a powerful and riveting finale, one which emphasizes the central notion of how these individuals fit into the world around them. Treme is filled with characters who either struggle against the script they’re given (the creators) or who simply play the sheet music placed before them (the players), and after Katrina hit New Orleans everyone was forced to ask how far they would follow their desire to take control of their own future, and at what point they would simply let themselves be washed away by the storm’s aftermath towards a new path in life. At the conclusion of Treme’s first season, we see numerous characters reach the point where they’re forced to make a choice, and yet it is never presented as a judgment (either positive or negative) on New Orleans culture.

Regardless of whether these characters choose to fly away or stay in New Orleans until the bitter end, they will always love this city, and that infectious love is so apparent in the production of this series that no amount of tragedy can outweigh the strength of spirit shown in these opening episodes. While the series’ highly recognizable subject matter could have overwhelmed the individual characters that Simon and Overmeyer have created to populate their historical fiction, these characters have instead become a powerful way in which we as an audience come to understand the life of New Orleans, and the sheer weight that they were forced to carry once Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke.

And Treme is that much more accomplished for carrying that weight with such confidence.

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