Overthinking Treme: The White Asshole's Burden

Overthinking Treme: The White Asshole’s Burden

White men can save the Indians, the Arabs and the Japanese. But they can’t save New Orleans.

One of the many reasons that The Wire was the single greatest thing which the medium of television has yet to produce was, simply enough, casting black people. Before The Wire, you never saw a drama with that many black protagonists that wasn’t explicitly about race. Roots was similarly groundbreaking, but Roots wore its politics on its sleeve. It’s easy to put Roots in the “issue picture” bucket and ignore its artistic merits. But The Wire was, first and foremost, exceptional television drama. And its stars were overwhelmingly black.

Season One of The Wire is about the cat-and-mouse game between Lt. Daniels (black) and Avon Barksdale (black). Aiding Lt. Daniels in his drug unit are Kima (black / Korean), Carver (black), Herc (white), Sydnor (black), Lester Freamon (black), Bunk (black) and Prez (white). The white characters are largely played for comic relief. Meanwhile, Avon Barksdale’s drug gang – captained by Stringer Bell (black) – was uniformly black. The next blackest drama on cable, after The Wire, was Soul Food.


American audiences were shocked to learn that American gangs typically aren't multi-racial.

“Ah,” you’re saying, “but what about McNulty?”

He is the fly in our ointment, isn’t he? It’s Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West, white) and his meddling that kick off the whole investigation against Barksdale. He remains persistent in the face of cynicism, stalling and indifference and sees the case through to the end. Isn’t McNulty the hero? Isn’t this another case of the White Man’s Monomyth?

Sure, except for one problem: Jimmy McNulty’s an asshole.

People respect McNulty’s diligence, but nobody really likes him. The women he sleeps with despise him as soon as he’s done. His bosses hate him with a passion. He lies, schemes and shirks in order to get what he wants. He steals his neighbor’s newspapers, rats his department out to a judge to get results and reacts to every threat with bland insolence. He never learns and he never apologizes. Jimmy McNulty is an asshole.

And that’s all in the first season. Without treading too deep into spoiler territory, McNulty does not learn much from being yelled at all the time.


Now consider David Simon’s newest series, Treme.

The first white man we meet in Treme is Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), New Orleans radio DJ. McAlary is passionate about the slow disappearance of genuine N’awrlins culture – but he does almost nothing to stop it. Oh, he makes a lot of fruitless gestures, certainly, but nothing useful. And he’s presented in as unattractive a light as possible: our first glimpse of McAlary is of him stumbling out of bed, bare-ass naked, in his shit-hole apartment.

In the first three episodes (FAIRLY TRIVIAL SPOILERS), McAlary:

  • Pisses off his neighbors by playing Mystikal at floor-shaking volume;
  • Pisses off his erstwhile girlfriend Janette (Kim Dickens), who owns a struggling but popular restaurant, by opening a $300+ bottle of wine;
  • Pisses off his radio station bosses by refusing to play songs off a corporate playlist;
  • Hangs around Elvis Costello (himself) in a creepy and awkward way after spotting him at a bar;
  • Gets thrown out of a Tower Records;
  • Gets fired from his radio station gig after allowing a musician to sacrifice a live chicken in the studio;
  • Mooches money off his parents;
  • Gets fired from his next job as a hotel clerk.
  • Gets arrested for mouthing off to a National Guardsman while drunk.
  • Writes a gleeful (and awful) song about strippers moving into his neighborhood.
  • Harangues his neighbors for gentrifying the neighborhood, even though they’re also New Orleans residents.

There is literally nothing attractive about McAlary’s behavior. He’s an asshole.


Even his voice is annoying.

McAlary is not the only white character incensed at what’s happened to New Orleans. Local novelist Creighton Barrette (John Goodman) voices his anger, in profane and accusatory terms, to any media outlet that’ll talk to him. He throws an interviewer’s microphone in the river and curses a blue streak at NPR. If Barrette is helping, it’s not in any way we can tell. And Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a street musician who busks for change with his violinist girlfriend, reacts to every outsider’s attempts at sympathy with ill-masked contempt. He mocks tourists for “never having heard of the Ninth Ward before Katrina” and seems to harbor some resentment of his girlfriend’s superior talent. He’s at best surly and at worst dishonest. Barrette and Sonny: two more white assholes.

Now two instances aren’t quite enough to hang a chain on. But it’s enough to make a good Overthinker take notice. The problems dealt with in The Wire and Treme – how institutions can steamroll over the underclass – are not explicitly black problems. Ending racism won’t necessarily solve them. But they are problems that affect black people more than any other race in this country (until you get further west). So to tell the true story of how institutions blunder through people’s lives and the wreckage left behind, you need a predominantly black cast.

Since these are problems that affect black people, even if they’re not “black problems,” the temptation must have been strong to create a Great White Hero who would swoop in and save the situation. But Simon, Overmyer and Mills ducked that temptation. The black residents of Baltimore and New Orleans rise or fall based on what they can pull together. And the White Men who show up to help are not noble. They’re comically ignoble.

Making such unlikeable assholes as Jimmy McNulty and Davis McAlary the representatives of white America may be a conscious choice on David Simon’s part. It might be a way of thrusting the temptation of the White Man’s Burden – a monomyth that’s so easy to fall into – as far away from the writer’s table as possible. Jimmy McNulty is not going to save Baltimore from the War on Drugs. And, though we’re only three episodes in, I’ll bet Davis McAlary does not save New Orleans from the corruption of its local, state and federal governments, either. Telling an audacious, city-wide story through the medium of television is achievement enough. Rewriting the ingrained archetypes of White Men among the Natives? That’s some kind of miracle.

25 Comments on “Overthinking Treme: The White Asshole’s Burden”

  1. Maria #

    Well…. I am not an American, but I think I can present a crucial factor here:

    We compare movies with television. Movies are for international audiences who are going to say: oh! Brad Pitt. I like this White Man. I’m watching it (or at least this is what the production company thinks). This is why the whole Last Airbender controversy is all about: making the protagonist white just for the sake of it (even though I have to watch the movie to form my personal opinion). The Wire is a series never shown in my country. Why? Probably because such a show is not bankable here. Does that hurt the interests of the show’s producers? I doubt it. My country was never included in their target group. Also, let’s not forget the difference between the woman in Disney movies and in Disney series (Ariel vs. Kim Possible anybody?).

    So, this is my opinion. I hate the White Superhero, however delicately his super powers are presented. And this is why I like world cinema: the directors are not afraid to use a language that’s not English and the scripts reflect the actual culture of the country, without the “discreet” eye of the White Man (or Woman).


  2. mlawski OTI Staff #

    I’ve always seen Simon’s white asshole characters as author avatars, ’cause Simon is well known to be, and comes off across in interviews, as a asshole–although clearly a charming one. In McAlary this author identification is doubly clear, since his entire character is based on idea of striking a balance between “authenticity” and “selling out” (clearly a balance any TV writer has to strike). Plus McAlary, like Simon, lives and breathes black culture even though he’s white. Which is all really interesting when you consider the authenticity debate within the show, particularly the meta bit at the end of the last episode when a group of black New Orleans natives stare down a busload of white tourists and their driver.


  3. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Meant to write “an asshole,” obviously. Apologies.


  4. perich OTI Staff #

    @mlawski: that vignette (and others like it) will be part of my next “Overthinking Treme” post.

    @Maria: that’s an intriguing observation! One thing I’ll note is that, despite its overwhelming critical acclaim, The Wire struggled to find an audience in the U.S. – for a lot of the same reasons you mention. American television audiences are used to urban blacks sounding a particular way (typically higher vocal register, louder in volume, and a more “TV-friendly” Southern accent). The Wire cast black actors who talk the way Baltimore natives genuinely talk.


  5. Bob #

    Perich – love the article. I was lazily reading the first page then BAM, suprise Wire article!!! When is the Podcast going to finally Overthing the Wire?


    • perich OTI Staff #

      @Bob: honestly, I think the Wire’s been pretty well Overthought by better pundits than we. Our motto is “subjecting pop culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve,” and The Wire deserves all the scrutiny it gets. Hell, I was hesitant to go in on Treme for the same reason, but it’s fresh and I found an angle.


  6. not really #

    If Davis McAlary is an avatar for David Simon then what are we to make of the existence of Davis Rogan, an actual New Orleans ex-DJ at WWOZ and musician whose song “Strippers” is on his 2005 album “The Once And Future DJ”

    Evaluating any creative art through what we believe we know of its creator — through our assessment of interviews or profiles or whatever — is a dubious process. Ad hominem can inhibit an understanding of the actual work, not enhance it.

    McNulty might have some Simon in him. Might also be Ed Burns. Or half a dozen other writers who worked on the show. Or half a dozen other Baltimore cops known to Simon or the other writers.


  7. Bill Brasky #

    I honestly like this site for what it is, but you folks come off as a low rent version of The A.V. Club. Maybe you should give Nathan Rabin a resume and see what happens.


  8. stokes #

    Hah! We should slap that on a t-shirt.


  9. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Bill – There are worse things to be compared to – I’m a tremendous fan of all the manifestations of The Onion. And of course, the A.V. Club folks get paid, and we are all doing this on the side, for the lulz. If we could all somehow work on Overthinking It fulltime (or even more part-time)… wow. We’d kick SO much ass. This may sound kind of conceited, but the people who write for this site are some of the funniest and most talented people I’ve ever met.


  10. perich OTI Staff #

    Plus, we attract a higher class of commenter (I’m being serious).


  11. Tom S #

    I think it’s worth pointing out that since Lawrence is among other things gay masochist, the initial image of Pure White Hero he presents is complicated by his actual character as it develops, and by the end the viewer seems him through the eyes of the Arabs, rather than the other way around.


  12. Tom S #

    (Not that the ‘gay’ part is pejorative, just that Lawrence is a complicated, tortured, and unusual man and not a Sam Worthington-style blank slate)


  13. perich OTI Staff #

    @Tom S: I’ll agree that T.E. Lawrence is a more complex character than most (the moreso for being a real human being). But it’s still his exposure to Araby that changes him. That’s an essential part of the White Man’s Burden monomyth: the white man, missing something, finds it in a foreign land. To say nothing of casting Alec Guinness or Anthony Quinn as Arabs.

    (This takes nothing away from the monumental quality of Lawrence of Arabia as a film. But I’m comfortable simultaneously admitting that I really like a movie and that its racial identities sit funny with me)


  14. Gordon Shumway #

    @Matthew Belinkie

    I think Bill was trying to say you guys are A.V. Club Material and it wouldn’t hurt to try to write for them. I know I’d love a job in a NYC high rise writing about the virtues of the Durain fruit or 21 spin-offs that never made it.


  15. Tom S #

    While that’s true of the White Man’s Burden Monomyth, I think it’s more broadly true of any “A stranger rolls into town, and…” story; look at anything from Beowulf to Yojimbo to The Wizard of Oz (although that one is pretty colonialist in a Narnia sort of way.) I think one of the reasons the Wire and Treme are different from a lot of those stories is because they are a different genre; they’re like Do The Right Thing, stories about a community and how it deals with things (or fails to deal with them) and not about a single heroic figure.

    I think a movie that gets at the heart of that split is The Third Man- it looks like a heroic fiction story, where Cotten’s character is going to get to the bottom of things, dammit, but the community is bigger than he is, and Cotten is mostly just blundering around and screwing things up. Vienna deals with its own problems, and sends Cotten home to continue writing his cowboy novels where strangers do solve things heroically.


  16. Tom S #

    I’m not going to deny the whatever-the-Arab-equivalent-of-blackface is, though- I think there was an idea of using Guiness as Faisal to highlight his European-ness and his distance from his people, but that’s a weak justification and doesn’t apply to Quinn in any case. I would argue that the politics of hiring one ethnicity to play another are fairly complicated and not necessarily inherently hateful outside of literal blackface, though.


  17. Valatan #

    @Tom S:

    This example might not be particularly bad, but what about casting very obviously ethnically Indian Naveen Andrews as an iraqi in Lost? The ‘they’re all brown, it’s basically the same’ attitude is pretty damn toxic.


  18. Valatan #

    especially when the story wouldn’t change significantly if he were a Taliban-sympathizing ISI agent.


  19. Tom S #

    It’s a difficult issue, since on the one hand I think people should be free to cast whomever the feel best fits the role, and on the other hand that process seems coincidentally to benefit white people and name actors disproportionately.

    If nothing else, it lessens people’s belief that they can place someone’s ethnicity by how they look, which I would argue is not a bad thing.


  20. Tom S #

    In any case, I think it’s only really hateful when the portrayal is a burlesque of the ethnic group portrayed- Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for example- and otherwise just an example of how a system that tends to prefer the white, pretty, and recognizable propagates that tendency.


  21. Johann #

    Great article!
    But what about the gender issue that is so apparent here?!? True, all the white major characters in Treme are somewhat assholes, but what about the women? Specifically, Janette (the chef), Toni (the lawyer) and Annie (the violinist) are all partners / girl friends of those white male assholes, but they themselves are presented as nice people. So what’s the deal with this? Provocative question: Are white women not worth carrying the white asshole’s burden in David Simon’s world?


  22. Brimstone #

    “# Pisses off his radio station bosses by refusing to play songs off a corporate playlist;
    # Hangs around Elvis Costello (himself) in a creepy and awkward way after spotting him at a bar; ”

    Huh? the first thing is heroic and the second thing is understandable – it’s Elvis Costello! and he even wrote ‘Radio Radio’ about, um, fighting corporate radio


  23. Spike #

    The author does not know Kipling. White Man’s Burden is a critique of that very “imperialist sentiment” the author seems to think it glorifies.
    Kipling is far more sensitive, nuanced and subtle than he is given credit for. It’s a shame, because he’s a heck of a story teller, and those who avoid reading him thinking him an obtuse tool of Empire lose out.


  24. perich OTI Staff #

    @Brimstone: “heroic” is, I think, big talk for avoiding a corporate playlist. I think “aesthetically independent” is the strongest word I would use to describe it.

    Also, don’t forget that he misrepresents himself to Elvis, especially vis-a-vis Kermit. “I taught him everything he knows …” (off Elvis’s disbelieving look) “… about Keynesian economics?”

    @Spike: the jury is still out on whether Kipling meant “White Man’s Burden” satirically or not. It takes nothing away from the quality of Kipling as an artist, just as the weird racial overtones of Lawrence of Arabia take nothing away from its achievement as a film.


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