Tuesday, May 18, 2010

To the Makers of Treme: Please Re-Wire

Update (6/23/2010): I am leaving this post as I wrote it, but I now consider it, well, wrong. It is more misplaced than wrong, exactly, but wrong will do. My second thoughts appear here.

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Believing, as I do, that The Wire (Amazon) is simply the best televised dramatic series ever -- I would genuinely love to be pointed to a better one -- I stand confident in my bona fides as a fan and granter-of-latitude to its creator, David Simon. Because I loved The Wire so much, I had elevated hopes for Simon's new series based in and on New Orleans, Treme, but sadly, I am not alone in finding it disappointing.

John McWhorter has his complaints, which are not unfounded:

A main message from this sultry pageant of a show is that New Orleans is an occult matter that you can never truly “get” unless you’re a native or pretty close to it. The perky, hopelessly “white” tourists from Wisconsin with their nasal voices, the ones who get schooled by the street musician, can be taken as stand-ins for the viewer. Which makes the whole enterprise strangely unwelcoming.

Sure, one could ask why it has to be welcoming, but that’s a less effective comeback when we are being told again and again how much we are supposed to love and admire New Orleans.
Radley Balko comes closer to what ails the show:
Tremefeels self-consciously about the city . . . first, early, and often. That’s fine if you’re making a documentary. But so far, it’s made for unconvincing drama. Of course, it’s still one of the better shows on TV.
To which I would add that there has to be drama before it can be fairly called unconvincing. It's difficult to care about even the most thoroughly-drawn characters in the most convincingly depicted setting of New Orleans if their situations and conflicts don't seize the imagination or the heart.

Sadly, the situations and conflicts presented through the first four episodes of Treme don't especially matter -- or not in the way that makes for compelling drama: some guy can't find consistent gigs as a musician and has a complicated relationship with his ex-wife and sons; most everyone is fighting mad at FEMA, the Bush administration, the mayor, the governor, and everyone else in government; some other guy has girlfriend troubles and flits around the edges of the local music, political, and bar scenes; somebody else, a lawyer, is undertaking a rather slow-moving missing persons investigation; some other guy is gamely refusing to give up his flooded-out properties and does a fair amount of flopping around in a native American costume.

To be clear, all of these items that I've callously reduced to snarky summary would matter to real human beings living through them; nor would I pretend to claim they aren't representative of post-Katrina New Orleans. The material presented so far would, as Balko astutely says, make for an excellent documentary.

The Wire placed its amazing characters in a mesmerizing Baltimore and then did something with them, a great many elaborately criss-crossing somethings: they schemed, suffered, loved, fought, won, lost, learned, regressed, and sometimes died. I so thoroughly wanted to understand what was going on, and it was all depicted so uncompromisingly, that I watched with subtitles to catch all the Baltimore English, always ready to pause and track down a reference on the internets. I didn't want to miss a single word.

It's not too late. The talent is assembled; the scene is rich and ready; Treme needs to wire up and deliver some jolts.

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