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Charm City, USA

Treme

a television series created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer
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Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Clarke Peters as the Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux in the television series Treme, set in post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans

Anthropology, the science of man, has been mainly concerned up to the present with the study of primitive peoples,” Robert E. Park, the founder of the “Chicago School” of sociology, wrote in The City in 1925. “But civilized man is quite as interesting an object of investigation, and at the same time his life is more open to observation and study.” Park, a former newspaperman, was principally responsible for marrying the theoretical German sociological tradition (he got his Ph.D. in Heidelberg) to a kind of painstakingly detailed, firsthand academic research on, to use a metaphor he liked, the ecology of the city.

For two or three decades after the publication of The City, Park’s students and his students’ students produced a torrent of work describing urban (usually Chicagoan) subcultures—taxi dancers, hobos, machine politicians, small-time criminals—with a special emphasis on how each element in the ecosystem related to the others, and a conviction that outsiders, losers, and violators of the rules were especially useful objects of study if one wanted to understand the dynamics of the city as a whole.

Although it’s not clear that David Simon, the journalist turned nonfiction author turned cable television auteur, has ever heard of Robert Park, The Wire, his HBO series on Baltimore, was about as complete a realization of Park’s dream of capturing the full richness and complexity of the city as anyone has ever accomplished. One of The Wire‘s virtues was that, without denying any of its characters an iota of humanity, it resolutely kept its attention focused on Baltimore as a total system, in which every neighborhood and every institution exist in some relation to every other and people behave according to the incentives and choices they find set before them, more than according to whether they are good guys or bad guys.

Now Simon, along with his collaborator Eric Overmyer, has turned his attention to New Orleans. Over the summer the initial ten-episode season of Treme, his new HBO series, ended. A second season will begin next spring. At first blush Treme would seem to be quite similar to The Wire: a synoptic portrait of a poor, old, troubled, black-majority American city, expressed through the intertwined unfolding stories of a group of characters. But there are several important differences—the most obvious of which is that The Wire presents Baltimore as the object of slow-motion devastation, in the form of a couple of generations’ worth of changes in urban economics, race relations, governance, and geography, whereas Treme presents New Orleans as having been devastated much more dramatically and rapidly, by Hurricane Katrina, which struck on August 29, 2005. The action of Treme begins a few weeks later; the series concerns itself with its characters’ struggles to rebuild their lives during the first six months after the storm.

At least initially, The Wire was about drugs: from there it opened out to take in the whole city. In the same way, Treme is about music and musicians. Of the ten principal characters in the first season, six are either professional or semiprofessional musicians, and the others (a lawyer, a professor, a chef, and a bar owner) are in some kind of association with one of the musicians. This has enormous advantages for a work executed in moving images and sound—every episode of Treme has quite a lot of wonderful, and wonderfully filmed and recorded, New Orleans music—but it has disadvantages too. To be reductive, drugs are bad and music is good; therefore a series about drugs almost has to be dark and mordant, and a series about music has to be celebratory.

The choice of music as a theme both expresses and reinforces the collective national resolve after Katrina to root for New Orleans—to hope and to assert that the city would come back just as strong as before, because of the courage and determination and spirit of its people. The David Simon of The Wire was utterly familiar with and unsentimental about his urban subject—he evidently didn’t feel he had to be “for” Baltimore—but the David Simon of Treme is in love with New Orleans and at pains to show it.

New Orleans is at once a welcoming and an inaccessible city. As a tourist town it has no choice but to be friendly to visitors. Its charms, which are abundantly on display in Treme—not just the music but the food, the domestic architecture, and the street culture—are matters of public expression. On the other hand New Orleans is an old, provincial city, whose distinctiveness comes substantially from its being cut off from many of the main currents of American culture. It’s an easy city to come from and a hard city to move to; full membership can take a generation or two to achieve. So while New Orleans necessarily and relentlessly entertains its visitors, the better one gets to know it the more often one is reminded that one doesn’t, really. A certain kind of New Orleanian gets very invested in becoming a walking encyclopedia on everything—the real stuff, not the tourist stuff—about the city, and a certain kind of newcomer gets very invested in establishing New Orleans bona fides by learning everything that the semiprofessional New Orleans insiders know.

Two of the leading characters in Treme represent, respectively, each of these types: Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary, the wayward and self- consciously cool scion of a local high-society family, is the professional native New Orleanian; and John Goodman as Creighton Bernette, a Tulane English professor and novelist, is the émigré who has gone native in a big way. They’re both white, and, more than the black characters in Treme, they function as the sources of editorial commentary on the state of New Orleans: McAlary through a radio show he intermittently hosts, Bernette through video posts on YouTube, and in both cases through frequent harangues delivered to friends and family. What they say is always in character, but it seems to express some of what Simon thinks too.

The black characters get to be less self-consciously New Orleanian—instead, they simply live deep within the all-encompassing local culture. Antoine Batiste, played by the irresistibly charming Wendell Pierce, who grew up in New Orleans, is the dominant character in Treme, a journeyman trombone player who’s superficially an irresponsible cad but in a deeper and more offbeat way a pillar of the community. Batiste’s ex-wife, LaDonna, played (overplayed, actually) by Khandi Alexander, owns a neighborhood bar. Albert Lambreaux, played by Clarke Peters, is a handyman whose life revolves around his being the chief of one of the tribes of Mardi Gras Indians, elaborately costumed African-American parading organizations that started in the nineteenth century. Albert is the most saintly, and so perhaps the least plausible, character in Treme, a courageous political resister, rebuilder, and bearer of cultural tradition.

Treme is laid out in a familiar television series form. The plotting isn’t very subtle. A big question is posed about each major character: Will LaDonna find her brother, who went missing in the storm? Will Creighton (whose wife Toni is a lawyer-for-the-good-guys played by Melissa Leo) ever write his unconscionably overdue novel about the 1927 Mississippi River flood, the event most like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’s past? Will Albert’s organization be able to parade again in full regalia? Will Annie, an idealistic street musician beautifully played by the young violinist Lucia Micarelli, summon the will to leave Sonny (played by Michiel Huisman), her partner-in-busking, after his cocaine habit reappears? Each question plays itself out across a number of episodes, but in every case the answer is obvious from the moment the question is posed. What makes Treme engaging and a pleasure to watch is the quality of the acting, the high level of attention paid to production details, and the fluid, offhanded, Robert Altman–like way in which scenes are staged and shot, so that there is more of a feeling of being inside lived life than is usual on television.

I was born and raised in New Orleans; my family has been living in southern Louisiana since 1836, and most of my relatives are still there. So I can’t help looking at Treme as a long-departed native, and judging it for accuracy and acuity. I grew up more or less inside the world represented by Davis Mc-Alary’s parents, which takes up very little time on camera and didn’t seem to me especially well drawn—it’s generically Southern la-de-da rather than specifically New Orleanian. (In fairness, it would be quite difficult to capture that highly ritualized and private world, in which a plurality of the people are connected to ancient local Creole tribes, Villeres and Livaudais and Charbonnets and Lapeyres, that have opened their ranks to some but not all and have entered modern business and professional mores to an extent but not completely.) Treme is essentially populist, and it’s interested in elites far more as objects of ordinary people’s well-deserved scorn than as fully realized subjects. What limited negative attention it gives to the subject is directed more at the light-skinned black elite—public officials who appear briefly as unfeeling jerks, or the dullards at a society ball where Antoine has reluctantly accepted a gig in a big band—than the entirely separate white one.

When I was seventeen, wanting, like Davis, to escape my own subculture but to remain New Orleanian, I wandered into the second-floor loft office of an alternative weekly newspaper called The Vieux Carre Courier, at 1232 Decatur Street in the back end of the French Quarter, and talked my way into being given an assignment. The world I encountered through the Courier is astonishingly well captured in Treme—so much so that, after watching the first couple of episodes, I was convinced that Simon and his crew must have met the actual people I knew from those days. How else could they have gotten it so exactly right?

It turns out that although there are some direct connections (for example, one of the writers who worked on Treme, Lolis Eric Elie, is the son of Lolis Elie, a civil rights lawyer who’d occasionally appear in the Courier offices), most of the characters in Treme are based on people who arrived in New Orleans after I’d left. That only demonstrates the durability of a certain corner of New Orleans, inhabited by writers, artists, musicians, club-owners, restauranteurs, social agitators, professional partygoers, historic preservationists, and a few stray academics and politicians, all intensively chauvinistic about New Orleans, all brimming with great plans the accomplishment of which would have to entail a painful trimming back of their copious social habits.

New Orleans has had some kind of bohemia, on and off, at least since the glory days of George Washington Cable in the late nineteenth century; Cable himself was probably the first writer to call national attention to the custom, going back to slave times, of African-influenced music and dance being performed in Congo Square, in the heart of the neighborhood now called Treme. I once had a summer job interviewing elderly former staff members of The Double Dealer, a literary magazine of the 1920s that published the young Faulkner and Hemingway, about their memories of glorious youthful poverty in the French Quarter. Even tourist New Orleans—the French Quarter and the highway outskirts of town—in the precorporatized, prenationalized days of the 1940s and 1950s brought together purveyors of local music and food with middle-class and working-class regional audiences.

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