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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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Getty Images
Boys participating in the Valley of the Silent Men Social Aid and Pleasure Club Second Line Parade, August 26, 2007; photograph by Mario Tama from his book Coming Back: New Orleans Resurgent, just published by Umbrage Editions

The bohemian culture on display in Treme took form around the time of the founding of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in 1970. The festival’s organizers understood that New Orleans music wasn’t merely jazz from the era of Louis Armstrong’s young manhood, either preserved (the best-known jazz venue of the post–World War II era, founded in 1961, is called Preservation Hall) or gruesomely transmogrified into “Dixieland” music played in hotel lobbies, but also blues, country, zydeco, and boogie-woogie.

The festival resurrected and turned into its central heroic figures a group of black rhythm-and-blues musicians who had had some local commercial success in the 1950s and then become obscure: Irma Thomas, Huey “Piano” Smith, Ernie K-Doe, and, most of all, Henry Roeland Byrd, a wiry little piano player who recorded as Professor Longhair. (“There is only one God and his name is Professor Longhair,” Davis McAlary declares in an early episode of Treme.) Just as some of the pioneer jazz musicians had been working as stevedores on the docks before Preservation Hall came along, Professor Longhair spent most of the 1960s working as a janitor, but the Jazz Festival put him back on the stage. New Orleans’s most important music venue—featured, naturally, in Treme—is Tipitina’s, a club founded in 1977 and named after Professor Longhair’s signature song.

The Jazz Festival demonstrated that, by giving the right cultural signals, New Orleans could attract a new kind of tourist—not drunken University of Arkansas football fans, in town for the Sugar Bowl, careening down Royal Street shouting “Pig! Sooey!”; not a continent’s worth of dentists crammed into large hotels for their annual professional convention; but hip, sophisticated people who appreciated the real New Orleans rather than the ersatz, mass-production version one would find in the section of the French Quarter nearest Canal Street. I used to see Woody Allen wandering through the grounds of the festival in those early years.

Over the years New Orleans developed a greatly expanded subculture of revived old neighborhoods, music clubs, and chef-owned restaurants serving food in the local tradition (another leading character in Treme, Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens, owns such a restaurant), and it became at least a part-time home to many more writers, artists, actors, and musicians, some native, some émigrés looking for someplace different from the rest of America. These people prided themselves on having created a little interracial world inside the Deep South—or, to be blunt, on being the blackest white people around. Simon does a brilliant job of showing the precise (which is to say, less than total) extent of self-delusion embedded in this dream; Davis, for example, goes around greeting his white friends by joyously exclaiming “My Negro!”

But these developments don’t entirely characterize the recent history of New Orleans. At the same time that hip tourism was booming, so was unhip tourism, especially after casino gambling was made legal in the 1990s. New Orleans became one of the country’s major convention sites, which was fortunate, because otherwise its economy was deteriorating. Because charm is impossible to quantify, in any accounting of quality of life in America’s cities, New Orleans has long vied with Detroit for last place, thanks to its very high crime and poverty rates and its poor schools and civic infrastructure. It has gone from being an important port and a regional financial center to having a classic Caribbean economy, dependent on plantation agriculture (rice, sugar cane), natural resource extraction (oil, gas, sulphur), and tourism. After the civil rights movement, its politics followed the standard Southern pattern: a two-party system developed; most whites became Republican and because of that the Democratic Party became mostly black; and the significantly enlarged black middle class was disproportionately employed in a variety of thankless jobs managing the deteriorated public sector.

Treme is tremendously concerned with being authentically New Orleanian, and also with distancing itself from whatever is inauthentically New Orleanian. Every distinctive pattern of speech (“What that is?” instead of “What is that?”), every bit of local nomenclature (“Lower Nine” for the Lower Ninth Ward), every native foodstuff, seems to appear somewhere in the ten episodes. Characters effortlessly pronounce place names that defeat newcomers, like Natchitoches and Tchoupitoulas. Conversely, Treme takes pains to make fun of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Bourbon Street, Sazeracs, the most famous but least cool Mardi Gras parades, such as Rex and Endymion, and anything else that unschooled tourists associate with New Orleans.

The procession of New Orleans signs and signifiers is relentless to the point of being exhausting; I found myself longing for a character just once to sit down for a meal and have a hamburger and a Coke instead of mirlitons and a Barq’s. Also, the line between insider and general-public taste is difficult to maintain strictly; Treme has to note, and can hardly be against, red beans and rice and gumbo, Mardi Gras and jazz funerals, Jackson Square and the Mississippi River, but you can’t get ten yards down the airport concourse after deplaning without being made aware of these. Most of the classic artistic renderings of New Orleans—A Streetcar Named Desire, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (which John Goodman’s character is seen reading—in a first edition!), or John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces—didn’t work nearly so hard to be local, and neither did The Wire.

Simon’s aim is not to be omni- authentic about New Orleans. Nobody in Treme goes hunting or fishing though those are treasured local activities. Although Treme is set deep in the South, almost nobody in it ever says anything politically conservative. Although it is substantially about African-American music, it devotes no attention to hip-hop (in a late episode, we see the name of Lil Wayne, the most famous New Orleans rapper, flash by on a marquee, as if to signal that the makers of the series aren’t unaware of his existence).

The place about which Treme means to be authentic, and is, is the place devoted to maintaining local cultural traditions—but Treme leaves the strong impression that that place is the real New Orleans, the heart and soul of the city. Davis McAlary’s line about Professor Longhair being God is meant to express his character, of course, but it also expresses what seems to be the message of the series itself. Whenever a character in Treme picks out the opening bars of “Tipitina” or “Big Chief” or “Iko Iko” on a piano, it’s played as a taking of sacraments—whoever it is, whatever is going on, they are now covenanted and therefore are fundamentally going to be okay.

The story line for Albert Lambreaux’s son Delmond, a rising young trumpeter in New York who’s in love with the precision of modern jazz, involves his gradually coming to honor both his father’s Mardi Gras Indian tribe and the funky Professor Longhair way of being in the world. The first season of Treme begins and ends with a kind of informal New Orleans street parade called “second line,” and in the last scene Antoine Batiste’s standoffish sons, who are being raised by their black-bourgeois stepfather, a dentist in Baton Rouge, find redemption by enthusiastically joining in.

Treme aims to depict a corner of New Orleans that, as a matter of factual accuracy, is partly inhabited by glamorous seekers of the authenticity its characters are purveying. The real John Goodman lives there part-time. So it isn’t wrong, exactly, that the series is full of cameos by hip celebrities. Some of them (like Steve Earle, the alt-country singer, and Vernel Bagneris, the actor-director) play minor characters; most play themselves. Elvis Costello turns up in a bar sitting next to Davis McAlary. Delmond Lambreaux chats with McCoy Tyner and Stanley Crouch at a party. Four celebrated New York chefs turn up at Janette’s restaurant. It’s fun to spot these people, but collectively they confer a jarring lightness on a story that Simon plainly thinks of, and rightly so, as a tragedy. In Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke, the expatriate New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard is shown sobbing as he sees his family’s house, flooded out, for the first time since the storm; in Treme, Blanchard, accompanied by the jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, appears as an impressive guest at a New Orleans party.

That is an off-note; but there is a more fundamental problem with coming at New Orleans via the subculture Treme uses. What one wants from David Simon, and what he further whets one’s appetite for by choosing a great civic disaster as his subject, is a powerful, persuasive explanation of how the entire system failed an American city. Treme has the challenge that always presents itself in narratives whose ambitions encompass social critique: either the story itself has to carry the author’s message in an unmistakable way (think of Oliver Twist or The Jungle), or a strong analytic voice (in film, a voice-over, or an observational character) has to be somehow worked into the piece. In Treme, the main message that the intertwined story lines carry is that a local, mainly musical, mainly African-American culture with deep historical roots in struggle and privation offered New Orleans about the best help it could get after the storm. But you can’t help wondering why less spiritual, more tangible forms of help did not materialize.

The leading characters in Treme are not deeply enough embedded in the city’s operations—politics, education, law enforcement, business—for Simon to be able to address that question simply by showing them as actors in the urban tableau, as he did with the characters in The Wire. He can only show them displaying individual determination. And those characters who do try to explain what happened, mainly the English professor Creighton Bernette and Davis McAlary, plus an occasional walk-on like Jacques Morial, the son of New Orleans’s first black mayor, don’t have access to real information.

Creighton is shown reading John M. Barry’s 1997 book about the 1927 flood, Rising Tide, which painstakingly put together the story of the human (and therefore avoidable) elements of a natural disaster from a distance of fifty years; Creighton’s attempts to do the same for Katrina are far less analytically effective, because, though he’s smart and well read, he’s also so depressed that he spends his days in excruciating inactivity, sitting at his desk at home staring at a blank computer screen. Davis lives in a state of perpetual mild intoxication, and not just on the magic of New Orleans, so his take is just as limited.

In the aggregate, the position of the characters in Treme is that, as a matter of right and justice and pride, post-Katrina New Orleans must be entirely rebuilt. No neighborhood, even (especially!) the Lower Nine, should be written off. (Creighton, in one of his YouTube sermons, derides “idiot planners putting green dots on maps,” which refers to the several failed attempts at master plans to rebuild the city in a prescribed order.) Charity Hospital should be reopened. So should the housing projects; Albert Lambreaux, his Mardi Gras Indian tribe having no place to live, leads a heroic occupation of one of them, and consequently spends his first Mardi Gras after the storm in jail. And who should do all this rebuilding? It isn’t specified, but the implication is, probably the Bush administration. Another bitter rant of Creighton’s: “You rebuilt Chicago! You rebuilt San Francisco!” Some outside entity, Creighton comes close to saying several times, has made an intentional decision to let New Orleans die.

It’s this romanticizing of the pre-Katrina New Orleans in toto that has led, for example, to the funding by Brad Pitt (another part-time New Orleans resident) of the construction of a couple dozen dazzling new houses by Thom Mayne and other famous architects in the most devastated corner of the Lower Ninth Ward, where they sit scattered among empty lots and the remains of ruined houses. Charity Hospital and the housing projects that weren’t rebuilt were nightmarish places. In The New York Times during the height of the controversy over the project in 2006, Adam Nossiter quoted a former director of the New Orleans housing authority describing life there this way: “Women that would put their babies in bathtubs at the sound of gunfire, that was a reality; coming home from your job and having to walk through young people participating in drug trades.” However ignoble President Bush’s reasons for being unpersuaded by the rebuild-everything argument may have been, it’s worth noting that President Obama has been unpersuaded too.

Simon traffics a bit, especially in the later episodes of Treme, in another, less externalized theory of the disastrousness of Katrina, but it amounts to a general cultural, rather than a specific institutional, explanation. The idea is that New Orleans’s lack of Babbitry may be deeply appealing, but that it comes at a price: in exchange for being free of the standard all-consuming American preoccupation with progress, you get an excess of lassitude and inefficiency. LaDonna struggles for months to have the roof of her tavern repaired; finally a young guy appears, announces “I’m from Texas, and y’all got a deficient work ethic around here,” and completes the job in a couple of days. Janette, the chef, loses her restaurant and decides to move to New York and pursue her career ambitions there. “This town beat me,” she says. Davis, in the course of a day spent fruitlessly trying to persuade Janette to change her mind because life outside New Orleans is always unpardonably pallid and routinized, says, “Which would you rather have, a healthy economy or a four-hour lunch?” Exactly! I’ve had that conversation myself, back when I was in my early twenties and was spending a lot of time deciding whether to wrest myself away from New Orleans.

Neither form of generalized blame—of unsympathetic outsiders like Bush or unreliable insiders like Davis—is as useful as the story of what actually happened would be. Like the BP oil spill, the subsequent Louisiana disaster, which coincided exactly with the air dates of Treme, Katrina (not the hurricane, the appalling aftermath) was entirely avoidable. In a new book called The Trouble with City Planning: What New Orleans Can Teach Us,1 Kristina Ford, former director of the New Orleans city planning department, lays out the story of how, during the twentieth century, the city set up the disaster by permitting extensive building on low-lying empty land that was highly susceptible to flooding, and constructing the Industrial Canal, which broke open next to the Lower Ninth Ward during Katrina. All this was supposed to be safe because of an extensive levee system that was designed to withstand a storm of Katrina’s magnitude. It did not because of corner-cutting construction. Those who share Creighton Burnette’s love of Louisiana literature will recall that Willie Stark’s career in All the King’s Men is set off by a similar incident, back in the 1920s, involving the collapse of a staircase in a public school building. BP’s Deepwater Horizon well would not have blown out if it had been built to better, more expensive safety standards.

The evacuation before Katrina hit, a local responsibility, could have been handled far better. After Katrina, a big, instantaneous deployment of the National Guard would have made an enormous difference; that is a state and national function. After the waters receded, the federal government, the state government, the city government, and the local civil-business establishment were all serious underperformers in the rebuilding of the city. (Creighton’s “they” who rebuilt Chicago and San Francisco more than a century ago was not the federal government, which was tiny by today’s standards.)

Ford’s book describes in detail the sad procession of plans to rebuild in a more organized way than by simply letting each individual homeowner apply for reconstruction funds and then wait endlessly for them to come through, while the city refused to say when it would restore full services where; much of this story is available as future material for Treme, since it mainly unfolded after the action of the first season. Weak states all over the world construct poorly, underregulate, and underserve their citizens in basic matters of health, safety, and education. Civically, New Orleans isn’t in the league of Haiti, but it isn’t in the league of New York or Chicago either. How did that happen? How does it work?

Underneath its culturally celebratory surface, Treme succeeds at conveying, with patience and humanity, quite a lot of the grinding cruelty of life in post-Katrina New Orleans: the unpardonable privation and death during the first few days, the uprootedness and uncertainty of every single ordinary life in the city, the relentless difficulty that even the bravest and most determined people had to face in rebuilding their flooded houses, the pain of the slow realization that things were not going to be the same as before, at least anytime soon. As good as it is at effects, Treme isn’t so good at causes—of the immediate disaster, and of its seemingly never-ending aftermath. To explain that, Simon will have to move outside the appealing and tight cultural frame in which the action thus far has taken place. Maybe next season?

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    Yale University Press, 2010.

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