“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.