Monday, June 21, 2010

episode 10: renewal

For 90 minutes last night the only sound in my house was the din of the TV and the hypnotized silence of four viewers glued to the set, interrupted only by the occasional weep or gasp.

The season finale of Treme was emotionally gripping.

Frankly, draining.

Intimate stories of heartache and anger counterbalanced by lightness; visions of feathered people, stoic buildings, and abandoned vehicles emerging from shadowy hues; everpresent sounds of poignant guitars and rejoicing horns. David Simon went solo on the script for this one and he created a monumental sendoff to what has to be the most illuminating season of television about this fragile city. ("Sure was better that K-ville," was the first thing my wife said as we snapped back into the real world.)

We didn't need a cliffhanger to bring us back for more next year. The few lingering questions - Will Janette flee the Big Apple and dart back to the Big Easy? Will Creighton get his jazz funeral? Will Annie get wacked by Sonny or find comfort with Davis or both? - could easily go unresolved in order to make way for new themes, a la The Wire. But the changing of the seasons raises the question of renewal, of what directions the screenwriters will take the show in as they move it forward, and it's a testament to the show's effectiveness that so many New Orleanians have an opinion on this.

Here's mine.

The Treme team are masters of evocation. The words, the music, the cinematography are beyond captivating; they're capturing. The show is a fictional keyhole into intense realities and like all art it can condense the really real in a way that allows viewers/readers/listeners to make connections we would otherwise pass up or take for granted. The connections in season one are all about intimacy: between families, friends, strangers, the city they share, and ultimately between the creators of the show and a subject that is so clearly meaningful to them.

Treme stays close to the ground, offering such a revealing close-up of emotional connection that we walk away each Sunday evening knowing more than we ever knew about this city and its people. But there is a disconnect happening as well, and it is not at the ground level, or even at the local level, but at a much broader level.

The impact of Katrina on the lives of New Orleanians is immeasurable but the root causes and lasting effects of this impact are not. Katrina was a systemic failure of institutions before, during, and after the flood. Long before August 29, 2005, government agencies laid a pattern of neglect from lost wetlands to shoddy levees to the massive reduction of FEMA in favor of Homeland Security. Dysfunctional school systems and the insecurities of service work ensured that black New Orleanians were more vulnerable to the failed response of the flood. And do I need to even address that particular failure, or can I just point to a few anecdotes like, oh say, the fact that tens of thousands of people were stranded outside the Convention Center for five days while a military commander prepared an armed attack mission to deliver water? Or the fact that the troops and the megacorporate winners of no-bid contracts could not be effectively deployed to help Americans because they were fighting Iraqis? That the city police department is so infested with corruption that there are currently eight federal criminal investigations into officers' actions in the immediate aftermath of Katrina?

Fast forward to operation Deepwater Horizon (or are we stuck on pause?): Governmental deregulation once again leading to corporate gluttony and, go figure, another massive crisis to give those in the Gulf a sense of shared purpose through cultural and material loss.

These institutions shape the lives of New Orleanians not because we live in some isolated babylon but because we are Americans who happen to have paid the dearest for the ceaseless expansion of this dysregulation nation since 9/11.

The impact of 9/11 couldn't be portrayed only through New York's financial 'culture' or Washington's political culture because the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon were (intentionally) emblematic of the far reach of empire. The deregulation of Wall Street generated a financial crisis that changed all of our lives. Katrina, too, can stand as a lesson to all Americans, not only because of the possible eradication of a singular place, but because it was itself an ominous sign of trouble at home, in your home, wherever you are, whether or not you can walk down the street and order a po-boy and dance at a second line.

Of course, the Treme team has no responsibility to make these connections. And it's not as if the characters walk around in a vacuum: there are city councilmen and insurance agents and good cops and bad cops too. But this team is so abundantly capable to make this case to the American people; to harness the power of dramatic fiction that they use so effectively in intimate settings to situate these day-to-day experiences at the subterranean level of global connections without sacrificing the ground-level closeness.

Before Treme aired I read somewhere that Simon thought his story of New Orleans would resonate with audiences unfamiliar with the city because Katrina was a bellweather for the financial crisis, a foreboding sign of institutions run amuck. This piqued the interest of New Orleanians (OK, maybe just me) because part of the brilliance of The Wire was its capacity to show how institutional corruption effects the lives of policemen, politicians, dealers, dock workers, and school kids.

Now, Treme is not The Wire and it shouldn't be. There is no romance of distinction for Baltimore and that gave the creative team an almost blank-slate on which to inscribe politics at the everyday level through the lives of diverse characters. New Orleans and Katrina are too distinctive to permit that degree of interchangeability: Baltimore could maybe be your town or a town near you, and the devastating effects of bureaucratic corruption resonate everywhere, but New Orleans is not Indianapolis and Katrina is nothing but Katrina.

An unprecedented disaster and an exceptional place in the hands of great poets makes for compelling drama, but when all the 'otherness' of New Orleans creates an intoxicating fantasy world of local culture then the opportunity to challenge viewers about the state of the nation is lessened. I worry that Post-Katrina New Orleans could become just another fantastical storyscape of fundamentalist bigotry or backwoods vampirism in the eyes of viewers who might feel more connection and proximity to the characters if they saw how their lives were shaped by the same forces.

It's not a fair comparison, of course, and the surreality of black men in feathered costumes or crowds of mourners dancing in a graveyard does not have the innocuous, cartoonish, fringe quality of Mormons or bloodsuckers. But neither is New Orleans an imaginary museum of curiosities - a thing apart - because it is tied to America and the world through connections that are not readily visible. I say make more of an effort to uncover them, for the sake of New Orleans and for the sake of good drama too.

There are signs that the creative minds at Treme will complicate things in this subterranean direction. Regardless, I'm looking forward. But until then I'm signing off. I've got to write a book and that requires me to move off of the blogosphere and onto the word processor. See you in season two.


  1. long time reader, first time commenter...

    just want to say thanks so much for this blog. my mom and her side of the family is from the new orleans area and thereabouts and although i visit every year there is a lot about the area and the culture i do not know, and both treme and your blog has taught me a lot. i like to think i'm cooler than all the tourists because i know a bit about the town and am a regular visitor, but this all showed me i barely scratched the surface and i am embarrassed at my arrogance.

    look forward to season 2 and your commentary.

    p.s. - your link at the end for "creative minds at treme will complicate things" seems to go nowhere. could you post an updated link to where you meant for it to go?

  2. Thanks anon! And I fixed the broken link (to a very recent interview w/David Simon).

  3. You're a Versatile Blogger! Look here:

  4. I don't know if you'll see this, since yr in book mode, but I think you overstate the degree to which Baltimore is Every City. It's really really not. Of course there is no New Orleans like New Orleans; but the point here is that there's no Baltimore like Baltimore, either. :>

  5. wow thats loud but very nice deep sound. I understand why u start it up and take of straight away. not a neighbourfriendly exhaust. Thanks for it.


  6. great post!

    I resided in DC for 8 years. I can see your point that Baltimore could be any city but that's only because you juxtaposing New Orleans into that analogy. There is no place in the United States like New Orleans, ya'll speak another language here, literally, American visitors strain to understand English and the French visitors strain to understand the French spoken in this town.

    So it's a bit unfair. The Wire's Baltimore could be Detroit or Atlantic City or another US city where a great industrial exodus has invited an extreme poverty cycle, but not exactly any city. It couldn't be New York or Miami or Atlanta or Boise or Seattle. Though these are micro criticism.

    I love your writing.

    Take Care, Renee Claire

  7. Thanks for all your comments... and re: Baltimore as a 'blank state' of course you all are right that B-more has its own identity... i should know, I lived there for 5 years!

    See ya back here for Season 2.