Monday, May 3, 2010

episode 4: antagony

The pace of Treme moves in almost real-time, inter-cutting back-and-forth between simultaneous episodes in character's lives: dinners, appointments, drinks, sex. This kind of day-in-the-life scripting highlights the everyday nature of culture in New Orleans: music is not only central to those moments set aside for staged performance because it also insinuates itself into the mundane and the routine...

... Antoine Batiste casually improvises a lament to the tune of the New Orleans standard St. James Infirmary while waiting to fix his busted lip at the only emergency room in New Orleans. (fyi, check out this Preservation Hall remix.) Steve Earle leads an impromptu old-timey jam session at the Apple Barrell, a tiny bar in the Frenchmen Street entertainment district. Recordings by local rapper 5th Ward Weebie's are on in the background in two key scenes (including his post-K throwdown Fuck Katrina.)...

There's nothing exceptional about music here - its just always there. But then again, its not merely a soundtrack because music accomplishes things - it creates connections between characters, suturing their lives to one another.

There is a simmering tension in these scenes as we watch the characters piece their lives back together (or fail trying) and the music is nearly always a counterpoint to this tension. Its an outlet for expression, a consolation, a cathartic release. New Orleans music is so often upbeat ("Feel good music, I've been told. Good for your body, and it's good for your soul") and this allows the Treme writers to pepper their scripts with foot-tapping scenes. Glen David Andrews belts out Who Dat Called Da Police with the New Birth Brass Band. John Boutte also joins the band to sing At the Foot of Canal Street, which is re-arranged from his CD version to neatly recreate the progression of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral: beginning with a slow dirge and then transitioning to an upbeat finale.

The message: music can restore the characters' faith in New Orleans. Or, as the John Goodman character Creighton Bernette puts it in his YouTube rant, "One of our neighborhoods has more culture than all of your pathetic cookie-cutter suburbs laid end to end." (poached from Ashley Morris' actual blog entry 11/27/05.)

But from my perspective, the abundance of feel-good music has so far created a problem for the scriptwriters: What is the source of conflict in Treme? If music is the show's protagonist, the antagonist has yet to fully take shape, and the leading contenders are slightly worrisome. The dysfunctional institutions that frustrate characters (hospital emergency rooms, insurance offices, FEMA)? Straw men. Sonny the off-kilter busker? The rumor around town is that the character may be based on Zackery Bowen, who killed and dismembered his girlfriend and then jumped to his death from the roof of a French Quarter hotel a year after Katrina. This would inevitably ruffle some feathers in New Orleans, since Bowen was a bartender (not a musician) and an Iraqi war vet, but more importantly the murder-suicide was just too bizarre to be representative of New Orleanians' experiences post-Katrina.

The leading contender for the antagonist may be the janus-face of the protagonist: music. The tension that recurs in every episode is trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux's internal struggle over where exactly he stands as a musician. His roots in the streets of his hometown bestow him with notoriety but his ambition is to break from tradition in the progressive jazz clubs of New York City and beyond. With the spotlight on New Orleans, Delmond's agent wants him to exploit his New Orleans roots by recasting himself as a homeboy-done-good and taking his act on the road with a final homecoming concert. But Delmond prefers so see himself as a metropolitan mover-and-shaker rather than a tradition-bearer. When his high-styling girlfriend escorts him to a party full of the NYC jazz elite (McCoy Tyner, Stanley Crouch, etc.), Delmond is awestruck but also worried of how he'll be received.

"You been in New York for a few years?"one musicians asks. "Nah," replies Delmond, only half joking, "I'm from the country."

Sure enough, back in the country, tradition rules. In the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen, violinist Annie sits in with the Jazz Vipers playing jazz noir from the 20s. And of course, Delmond's pop Big Chief Albert is holding it down at the Mardi Gras Indian rehearsal in the bar he's restoring. The Indians chanting the traditional Shoo Fly (Don't Bother Me) lures a curious young neighborhood kid into the bar, and we get a sense not only of the everyday nature of musical traditions in New Orleans but also how those traditions are perpetuated by every new generation.

But the jury's still out about whether this storyline is going to take precedence and, if it does, whether it can sustain the kind of edge-of-the-seat tension that fans of David Simon's The Wire, Homicide, etc. are expecting.

Hate to leave on an open quesion, but I've got a house full of guests who helped me celebrate my debut at Jazz Fest yesterday... and now I've got to chauffer them to Cafe du Monde for some beignets. Culture in New Orleans w/o a script.


  1. First let me say that this is a great blog and I enjoy reading it every week

    Your question of just who or what the antagonist is in the series is a fascinating one as you're right that we are seeing very little of an actual plot line and much more of a character based narrative. I for one like this as you very rarely see anything quite like it on television. You'd almost have to be the man responsible for the show critics laud as the "best television show EVAR!!!!!!!" in order to get away with such a bold concept of stasis in a major program.

    To me, the narrative style is much more like a Faulkner short story or James Joyce's Ulysses than anything else on television today. That is to say that the story is not one of protagonist vs. antagonist, but rather one of characters dealing with their ordinary lives in the shadows of something monumental. Many of Faulkner's short stories, including the famous a Rose for Emily, are not driven by any conflict that appears in the story, but are instead stories that reflect the way in which characters of the old Southern power structure are surviving among the ruins of a once thriving culture. The story is not driven by a current conflict per se, but rather are still dealing with something they have never been able to sort out. Similarly, Ulysses is entirely driven by the character of Leopold Bloom trying to make it through one day of his life which appears rather disconnected from the rest of his culture.

  2. Yeah you rite Anon. Treme takes the ensemble cast-approach of Simon's other shows and, this time around, tracks the various individual characters as they deal with a collective traumatic event. I'm curious to see how the series will develop in terms of the individual characters and the shared events that connect them to one another. If local culture is what links characters together, then will that culture mostly serve as a 'feel-good' respite in the face of struggle? Not sure. Either way, the brilliance of The Wire was the way the writers humanized dealers, addicts, cops, and others who become caricatures in so many other depictions. I'm waiting to see how that level of complexity will develop in the lives of the New Orleanians in Treme.

  3. I want to compliment you on a fine blog that I have already learned a lot from. I was further delighted to realize that I saw your band at Jazz fest and really enjoyed it. Even bought your CD at the Louisiana Music factory.

    OK enough fawning, the new character that peeked his head above the surface- the small Houston bouncer who made the trip back to New Orleans with Sonny and his band mates is very dark.

    His intensity in just a seconds on screen lives me to believe he's going to be a catalyst for something very bad. Perhaps he'll just meet Davis's mystery stripper and everything will be just fine but i kind of doubt it

  4. Funny... I was totally oblivious to the bouncer character but others have also picked up on him as a kind of ominous presence. At one point David Simon said that HBO had requested he revise the script to include more of the violence and criminality that made The Wire so raw. Maybe the bouncer was his way of threading in a violent plotline???

  5. If I had to guess on a plot line for the bouncer it would have to be with Annie because Sonny would be helpless to stop him. This would bring the horrible Bowen incident you mentioned back into play. The bouncer becomes a bartender and protects Annie from Sonny but becomes obsessed. If you were going to make Treme grittier, I can hardly imagine a more gruesome way to do so.