Treme's Big Problem: Authenticity

The HBO series, returning Sunday, obsessively works to prove it's not a tourist in New Orleans. It ends up losing the city—and the viewers—in the process.
More
HBO

Early in the first season of Treme, HBO's drama about post-Katrina New Orleans, the show illustrates the intrinsic disconnect between the city's insiders and outsiders when a street musician named Sonny chats with a group of church volunteers visiting from Wisconsin.

As the dimwitted Madison tourists prattle on about their desire to "help save" the city's devastated Ninth Ward, Sonny smirks at them. "Let me ask you a question," he says. "Had you ever even heard of the Ninth Ward before the storm?" A beat later, when the tourists request that he play "something authentic," Sonny (who moments before had been performing an old-time blues standard called "Careless Love") sarcastically offers to play "When the Saints Go Marching In," noting how "every cheesehead from chowderland" loves to hear it.

The contentious notion of authenticity—and how to best identify and maintain it—is intrinsic to Treme, which begins its fourth and final season Sunday. As the drama follows a group of characters attempting to rebuild their lives in the months and years after the city's levees collapsed, it probes complicated questions of where New Orleans stands in relation to its deep-seated cultural traditions, and who has the right to determine its civic future. As often as not, the show channels the strident insider sensibilities evoked by Sonny—celebrating the type of folks who are intimate with obscure blues ballads, and ridiculing the semi-informed interlopers who arrive in the city as tourists, developers, and do-gooders.

Tellingly, however, the Sonny character is not a true New Orleans insider; he's a young, music-obsessed Dutchman who's only been there a few months. His disdain for ignorant outsiders stems not from local identity, but rather from the self-protective pose of what cultural historian Paul Fussell once dubbed the "anti-tourist." The anti-tourist, Fussell noted, does not merely scorn tourists: He is himself an outsider who—worried that his own enjoyment of a place might be itself construed as touristic—positions himself in solidarity with locals through the studied mimicry of local patterns and prejudices. For the anti-tourist, the search for authenticity isn't an empirical inquiry so much as a romantic exercise, an obsessive quest for (and assertion of) everything that feels unique and different about a place.

Treme, which depicts post-flood New Orleans largely through the lens of its music culture, firmly roots itself in an anti-tourist vision of New Orleans. Created by Maryland native David Simon and Seattle native Eric Overmyer, the show hasn't unpacked the received cultural stereotypes of the city so much as fine-tuned those stereotypes through compulsive attention to documentary detail. Treme's dedicates itself so totally to showcasing unique local color at the micro-level that it transforms New Orleans into a weirdly hermetic dreamland—a gritty, self-celebratory refuge from the dull forces of mass culture, where characters walk around saying things like, "Po'boys aren't sandwiches, they're a way of life!" and "Where else could we ever live, huh?" In Treme's world, brilliant jazz trumpeters are more interested in barbecue than fame, voodoo-Cajun bluesmen sacrifice live chickens on the radio, and fast-food chains exist only when junkie musicians need a paper sack to camouflage their stash. When black people die, they're given rousing jazz funerals; when white people die, their ashes are sprinkled into the Mississippi River during Mardi Gras. Few moments in the show exist outside of its notion of what New Orleans represents in contrast to the rest of the United States.

To be fair, Treme's exploration of authenticity often rises above its relentless cataloguing of local idiosyncrasies. Several characters exist to dramatize the ongoing debate about what the rebuilt city should look like, who will live there, and how it can maintain its connection to its traditions and its past. One character, Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), a dignified Mardi Gras Indian, embodies the city's working-class African-American traditions. Though Big Chief's storyline occasionally gets mired in Treme's penchant for cultural minutiae (such as the intricacies of Indian-costume preparation), his first-season display of civil disobedience at the city's shuttered Calliope housing-projects deftly illustrated the racist hypocrisies embedded in the government's recovery efforts. The arc of Albert's son Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), an accomplished jazz musician who's moved away from New Orleans, examines how the city's deep music tradition might keep from turning into a theme-park caricature of itself. Delmond's story doesn't carry the same dramatic stakes as his father, however, and he's often reduced to having bland music debates with snobbish, dimly drawn minor characters who throw out phrases like "deracinated synthesis" while declaring that the music of New Orleans is "caught in that tourist economy, like a minstrel show."

Treme can be clunky in its use of straw men to advance arguments, and perhaps none is quite so clunky as Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), a carpetbagger venture capitalist who arrives from Dallas in Season Two to meet with bankers, leverage government contracts, and profit from the disaster. In many ways Hidalgo is a symbolic counterweight to Big Chief Lambreaux—as malleable and bloodless in his capitalism as Albert is soulful in his traditionalism—and Seda's winking, swaggering portrayal of the character pretty much telegraphs what a douchebag might look like if Naomi Klein were playing charades. At times Hidalgo's dialogue ("Never let a disaster go to waste!" "This ain't the only disaster to be had!") sounds like it's been lifted directly from Klein's Shock Doctrine, and he spends a good chunk of his screen time rubbing shoulders with well-dressed men who talk about how to "monetize the culture" of the city. Treme is nuanced enough to infer that some of Hidalgo's capitalist sensibilities deserve to be considered in the post-Katrina discussion, but in dramatic terms he doesn't exist as a character so much as a cautionary counterpoint to the show's essentialist, jazz-tinged vision of what New Orleans is supposed to be.

In relying so heavily on an editorial sensibility rather than a narrative one—didactics, not story, drive the show—Treme's evocation of local authenticity tends to get trumped by its sense of correctness. Pauline Kael once noted that viewers will put up with garbage before they endure pedagogy, and Treme's tendency to lecture its political and artistic points (rather than dramatize them) can indeed be wearying. Perhaps the most exasperating moment in the entire series comes midway through the second season, when Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli), an up-and-coming fiddler in the local music scene, walks through the French Quarter with her songwriting mentor after a John Hiatt concert. When Annie mentions that she liked Hiatt's song "Feels Like Rain," her mentor, Harley (portrayed by alt-country icon Steve Earle), launches into a folksy little equivalent of a TED talk about how art's universality lies in its specificity.

The self-congratulatory implication here is that Treme, in its fastidious attention to specific details of New Orleans, offers the audience something universal and profound. As often as not, however, its characters' verbalized epiphanies don't evoke a sense of profundity; they evoke a sense of screenwriters sitting in a room, straining to be profound. When, three episodes after the John Hiatt show, Harley is accosted by gun-toting thugs in the Marigny, he has regaled Annie with so many bon mots of Yoda-like music-wisdom that one half-expects him to pull out a light saber; instead he says something vaguely sanctimonious and gets shot in the face. For all of the mourning sequences that follow, Harley's violent death is a strangely unaffecting moment, as emotionally resonant as the disposal of a folk-wisdom quotationary.

Though Steve Earle portrays a fictional character in Treme, dozens of musicians play themselves, including Kermit Ruffins, John Boutte, Cassandra Wilson, Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Shawn Colvin, Juvenile, Terence Blanchard, Fats Domino, and Lucinda Williams. This lends the show a cinéma vérité feel, as fictional characters interact with their real-life counterparts. Treme takes its music seriously, and many of its sub-plots aren't storylines so much as a languorous meander into the particularities of life as a working musician. This scene-level quest for musical authenticity can at times swamp the show in interminable performance sequences, but these vérité flourishes for the most part work.

Outside of its music-themed sub-plots, however, Treme's mix of the fictional and the real tends to fall flat. The show's food-themed storyline, which centers on a struggling New Orleans restaurateur named Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), is compelling in the fictional arcs of its first season but it becomes nearly unwatchable when Janette moves to New York to work in the kitchens of nonfictional culinary hotshots like Eric Ripert and David Chang. As with the music sequences, the camera depicts Janette's food preparation with exacting verisimilitude, but her awkward interactions with these real-life chefs consistently distracts. Even when Janette isn't stuck in wooden conversations with non-actors, her character's dramatic stakes diminish as the show fixates on restaurant-industry realism. When, in the third season, she moves back to New Orleans to open a new restaurant, the viewer is invited to consider how one can spot food-bloggers by their cheap shoes, or how annoying it is when patrons order a disproportionate amount of crawfish ravioli after a positive review in Chowhound.

As it happens, the crawfish ravioli incident makes for the culminating event of the show's third-season food arc. Kitchen employees struggle to keep up with demand ("It's a monster," one of them intones, "it'll kill us all"), and Janette ultimately asserts her creative independence by taking it off the menu. No doubt her character was channeling the frustration that real-life chefs encounter in the face of popular-market success, but her resistance to showcasing a signature dish is at odds with the way the show celebrates every other culinary aspect of the city. In Treme, characters don't just eat; they advertise their taste by nattering at length about how Gene's Po-Boys is the place to get hot sausage, whereas Liuzza's by the Track is the place for barbecued shrimp (in Season One, Janette herself eats lunch at Domilise's instead of Parasol’s because she prefers shrimp po'boys to roast beef). New Orleans is, of course, renowned for its signature dishes, and Janette's irritation at the popularity of her ravioli feels puerile in comparison with what the cooks at Drago's or Camellia Grill must feel every time someone orders charbroiled oysters or pecan waffles.

Much like Janette, Treme takes pride in not pandering to its audience. Its numerous storylines rarely intersect in a dramatically resonant way, even as they maintain a nodding familiarity with one another—and even the more conventional narrative setups of the show (such as an investigation into an suspicious death) stretch across multiple seasons without being resolved. Characters celebrate and deconstruct music at length, and erstwhile plot points sit idle while performers talk about their songs, play their songs, and introduce each other during instrumental breaks in the middle of their songs. Dialogue drifts into unexplained subcultural insider-speak ("Ronnie gonna run flag; I'm gonna run spy"), and characters unironically announce things like "unlike some plot-driven entertainments there is no closure in real life."

No doubt this self-conscious defiance of TV norms is part of the point of Treme (a reflection, perhaps, of its city's unconcerned pace of life) but this rarely proves evocative so much as tedious. All too often, the show has the feel of something that has been designed to be to be admired rather than enjoyed—and, like a leather-bound set of Great Books, it has a way of advertising its own importance without actually offering anything new. At times it comes off less like a character drama than an avant-garde adaptation of Wikipedia's "List of Musicians from New Orleans," serving to remind viewers that their lives are less than complete if they’ve missed out on the musical stylings of Germaine Bazzle, or Earl Turbinton, or Frogman Henry, or Trombone Shorty, or Mr. Google Eyes.

The more the show catalogues the details of New Orleans at the microscopic level, however, the more the city's obvious particularities feel absent. A prime example of this is the city's much-loved football team, the Saints, which is never mentioned by name in the show's first season. In Treme's ethos, mass-culture entertainments are by nature vulgar and inauthentic, and one senses the show's creators may have been hesitant to have characters discuss the National Football League when they could instead be rhapsodizing about sweet potato Andouille shrimp soup, or marveling at an Allen Toussaint performance. The show corrects course on the Saints in its second season (supposedly in tandem with the team's 2006 season, though more likely because these episodes were filmed in the wake of the team's historic 2010 Super Bowl victory), but by then other narrative anomalies have begun to stand out. When Delmond Lambreaux's friend encourages him to use social media to promote his jazz career, for instance, Facebook is mentioned before MySpace—an odd detail, since by late 2006 MySpace was synonymous with music promotion, whereas Facebook had only been accessible to the general public for a couple of months. One suspects this detail wasn't pegged to its 2006 setting so much as its 2011 airdate (by which time MySpace had become passé). The Facebook reference was likely tacked on because viewers not attuned to the year might be tempted to think the show's characters were out of touch—and in Treme's obscurist, hyper-specific cultural universe, the viewers are the ones who are supposed to be out of touch.

It's easy to nitpick these kinds of details, of course, but the show's molecular-level authenticity fixation invites you to do so. And its picaresque sense for plot has a way of clashing with the dramatic resonance of its more engrossing storylines. This muddles the show's point of view, and makes its sense for New Orleans feel off-kilter, even as it gets a thousand small details of the city right. One of the vérité cameo characters in Season Three is Kimberly Roberts, a New Orleans native whose video footage of the Ninth Ward before, during, and after Katrina became the basis for the Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary Trouble the Water. Roberts's footage of her flooded neighborhood was mesmerizing, but her goofy, informal personality was what made Trouble the Water so intriguing to watch. Unlike the characters in Treme, Roberts wasn’t saddled with a sense of weary nobility, and she didn't make long, pedantic speeches about the failings of government or the wonders of rabbit roulade; she just coped with the storm and its aftermath in her own peculiar, exuberant, decidedly non-thematic way. Her story evoked something true about New Orleans in part because she wasn't compelled to expound at length about the unique essence of New Orleans.

Treme's authenticity problem comes from the show's well-intentioned affection for the city, but it's also the result of its creators' decision to isolate its narrative scope to the months and years immediately after Katrina. Without a concrete sense for what New Orleans was like before it flooded, the viewer's imagination buys into the anti-tourist fantasy of the city as a self-contained, organic cultural entity, its traditions unsullied by commercial influences or outside interests.

As sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham notes in his 2007 book Authentic New Orleans, however, the city's culture has never been fixed by continuous traditions so much as it has been constructed out of a complex interplay between inside and outside forces, old factors and new ones. Concerns about the homogenization of the city's culture didn't begin with post-Katrina reconstruction; they trace back at least to 1850s, when local newspaper editors worried that "an aesthetically rich and fragile French creole culture [was] gradually losing out to an Anglo-Saxon world of soulless materialism." The show's conviction that the city's authenticity lies in its music and food traditions is actually an old civic-booster invention that originated with the tourism campaigns of the 1880s—and the mid-20th-century emergence of commercial "super krewes" (ridiculed by one Treme character as "cheap and mass-produced, like everything else in American culture") has been instrumental in breaking down the traditionally racist, classist tone of Mardi Gras. "In the case of New Orleans," Gotham writes, "authenticity has always been a fluid and hybrid category that is constantly being created again and again" as different parties assert their idealized vision of what the city was, is, and should be.

In the end, Treme doesn't capture an authentic sense for New Orleans so much as join the city's ragged, time-honored argument about what authenticity should look like. "I'm not trying to be a spokesman for the city," a character declares early on in the series. "New Orleans speaks for itself." One gets the sense that Treme believes this, even as it imposes its vexing vision of the city on the viewer. The result is an ambitious, occasionally compelling, consistently frustrating mess of a show.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn't Go There. Learn more at his website.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In