“Treme” is like a park with a sign that says “Welcome” followed by a long list of “Do Not”’s.
—John McWhorter, “Please, Treme, I Beg You – Get Over Yourself”
You say you got a real solution
Well, you know,
We’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know,
We’re all doing what we can.
—The Beatles, “Revolution”
Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), desperate for work, takes a gig playing his bone in a Bourbon Street club (Episode 2, “Meet De Boys on De Battlefront”). He winces when handed the number to call. When wandering down the tourist trap toward his gig, he runs into a fellow artist and lies about where he’s headed. “There’s still pride on Bourbon Street,” he’s told several times; it’s repeated like a rosary chant.
Earlier in that same episode, we formally meet Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli), two street musicians hustling tourists for a little coin. A trio of college kids from Wisconsin, their cheeks ripe with baby fat, applaud them and leave tips. They mention that they’re in New Orleans rebuilding houses with their church group. “You ever even heard of the Ninth Ward before the storm?” Sonny asks. He bristles until Annie changes the subject, then offers to repair the offense by playing “When The Saints Go Marching In,” all the while harping on its fakeness. “You said ‘Saints,’ not us,” one of the college students points out, but Sonny’s too fired up to stop now.
(Don’t mind him, kids; Sonny’s an asshole.)
But the culmination of this attitude comes at the end of Episode 3 (“Right Place, Wrong Time”), when Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) holds a service for the loss of his Indian troupe’s “wild man.” Lambreaux, his Indians and several Chiefs from other troupes gather outside the wild man’s home and begin a mournful yet vibrant dance. They’ve worked themselves into a riot when a big white bus labeled “KATRINA TOURS” lumbers down the road toward them. The driver rolls his window down and asks what’s going on, as several passengers (their faces obscured by tinted windows) snap pictures.
“Drive away from here, son,” one of the other Chiefs admonishes. The man apologizes (without being told that he’s intruded on a memorial service) and drives on.
The message is clear: New Orleans is not for the tourists. Most people who visit New Orleans – for Mardi Gras or a summer trip – go no more than a block from Bourbon St, that supposed source of shame for the rest of the city. The majority of America had probably never heard of the Ninth Ward, poor as it was, before Katrina and the cameras came. Most of us, in fact, are the equivalent of the tourists snapping pictures in the back of that bus. And Simon and Overmyer have told us, in no uncertain terms, that they do not want us around.
We are the tourists. We’re the weekend crusaders, cruising into town to gut a mold-ridden house and then flying back to Middle America. If we had been more aware of the vibrant artistic culture of Faubourg Tremé before the floods destroyed it, we would not need shows like Treme to take us inside. And we know the residents are suffering; David Simon never shows us a world where everything’s running smoothly. When the residents of New Orleans ask, “Why the fuck are you even here?”, as novelist Creighton Burnette (John Goodman) asks of the BBC crew in Episode 1 (“Do You Know What It Means”), that’s directed at us. The audience. The people watching this show, without whom the show – and this increased awareness of the suffering of the Ninth Ward – would not exist.
In a normal show this would be confusing enough. But the people who brought us The Wire and Generation Kill don’t produce a lot of light, popcorn-and-beer TV to begin with. One of the reasons The Wire struggled to find an audience was because David Simon and the writers under him presented a Baltimore with impenetrable accents, an army of complex characters and zero exposition. That’s their style. Traditional TV puts characters into archetypes and a recognizable hierarchy. Traditional drama begins each episode with a problem, builds it to a boil, and then resolves it at the end, with a touch of denouement and maybe a hint of future trouble just before the credits. Not so with The Wire or Generation Kill, where the problems introduced in one episode usually aren’t resolved until three or four episodes later, if at all.
And not so with Treme. Start with the thick patois of N’awrlins dialect. Add to that the complexities of New Orleans’s musical culture: the second-line marching bands, the Mardi Gras Indians, the hustling for a gig. Add to that the lines drawn between neighborhoods: light-skinned residents looking down on dark-skinned Creoles, Ninth Ward vs. Seventh Ward vs. Bourbon Street. Add to that Simon’s zero-exposition style and a slew of characters. Add to that a story which begins in media res: Batiste’s continuing poverty, Lambreaux’s desire to restore his Indians, LaDonna’s search for her son, Janette’s struggle to keep her restaurant afloat, Creighton’s quest for a constructive outlet for his anger. The very format of Treme resists casual viewing, to say nothing of its attitude.
Treme is a lens into the lives of artists in the Ninth Ward, recovering from Katrina and realizing the institutions they trusted – police, correctional facilities, insurance companies, FEMA – are not going to come through for them. Simon and Overmyer focus that lens for us and produce an image. This image, loud and baroque, baffles us: we want to spend hours exploring it but we only get glimpses. Then the artists shame us for looking. Drive away from here, son.
Do Simon and Overmyer even want us to watch Treme?
I don’t mean to keep returning to The Wire in order to interpret Treme, but it’s proven helpful so far. We have five seasons of The Wire, 50 hours of television over six years, to act as a Talmud to the five scant hours of Treme. So let’s use The Wire as our text.
After a few hours on the streets of Baltimore, you’ll see a dozen lives get ground up in the bureaucracy and brutality of the War on Drugs. Wallace, Omar’s boy Brandon, Stinkum, Gant, D’angelo, the Sobotkas, those fiends in the lockup that Avon gave the hot shots to … and that’s just the first two seasons. You might start wondering, “If keeping drugs illegal causes all this strife, why not legalize drugs?” Major Colvin tries just that in Season 3, pushing all the dealers in his district to an abandoned block of houses and telling them he’ll turn a blind eye to anything they sell in there. Anyone who sells outside of “Hamsterdam” gets busted, hard. Anyone who shoots up “Hamsterdam” gets busted harder. Just stay within the lines and sell your shit and everything will be cool.
What’s the result?
In Season 4, a professor from Hopkins gets the idea to take a few kids out of Baltimore’s high schools. He’d work with them in small seminars instead of crowded classes. Through interviews and exercises, he’d get at the root of their anti-social behavior. In time, and with the proper funding, he could hopefully devise a curriculum that would get them out of the generational cycles of crime and poverty.
Fortunately, he ran into Major Colvin, who talked him into picking kids a little younger. Otherwise, every interview would have gone like this:
(Sorry for the laugh track; this is the only version of this clip I could find. Somehow the laughter seems appropriate)
When Mayor Carcetti sweeps into office (Season 4), he has a bold series of inspiring plans. On his first day, he galvanizes the traffic and sanitation departments into action with a series of crafty “constituent complaints.” He tours the police department; disappointed by their malaise, he promises swift changes. Then he learns just how bad the school’s budgets are. He can’t – rather, won’t – go to the governor for help, so he has to rummage through the police budget to make up for it.
And this is a short list. Consider McNulty’s plan to free up some money for the police department in Season 5. Or Stringer’s plan to make the drug business in Baltimore peaceful through a co-op of like-minded businessmen. Nobody’s well-laid plans go very far. Even if they can cut through the red tape of one institution with a lateral move, another institution – the DEA, the Governor’s office, or the simple force of greed – can strangle them with the remainder.
If The Wire had one lesson, it’s that Not Everything You Call “Help” Helps.
Now let’s reconsider the types of help that have been offered in Treme:
Playing for tourists on Bourbon Street. Tourism will pour money into New Orleans and that usually helps. But tourists only pay for certain things: safe restaurants, hotels with modern conveniences and a limited variety of museums. They don’t pay for poor kids to learn music so they can march the second line. And that (as Davis McAlary points out in Episode 5) is where the heart of New Orleans music comes from.
Gutting water-damaged houses. Ripping out the interior of a house is a quick and cheap way to make it livable, especially if you have volunteer labor. But, as Chief Lambreaux points out in Episode 2, not every water-damaged house needs to be gutted. A lot of those old houses, built with solid plaster, have stood through storms for a century. And antebellum architecture is another one of New Orleans unique traits.
And finally, the Katrina Tours. You might defend these as raising awareness of the poverty of the Ninth Ward. But any such awareness will be superficial and short-lived. And awareness without a follow-up plan doesn’t do much good. You can see the blocks and blocks of ravaged homes and say, “Oh, how terrible.” But who would you give money to? The Red Cross? Habitat for Humanity? Levees.org? Where will your money do the most good?
The problems that affect New Orleans in Treme, just like the problems that afflict the Recon Marines in Generation Kill or Baltimore in The Wire, are institutional in nature. New Orleans is a city of quirks, grown up like kudzu and ossified into a culture. Institutions don’t handle quirks well, however; they prefer uniformity. But it’s not because these institutions – FEMA or the Department of Corrections or the big insurance companies – are malicious. An institution is not ten people conspiring to do evil. It’s ten thousand people with no incentive to do good.
And if Simon and Overmyer have tried to teach us anything, it’s that you can’t play within the institution and expect to get different results. Bringing tourists back to New Orleans won’t create an agency that’s accountable for the levees. Playing a few benefit concerts won’t end the generational mistrust between rich and poor. Marching in a second line won’t stop people from shooting each other. Not Everything That You Call “Help” Helps.
So what is to be done? How does New Orleans rebuild?