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.
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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.

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

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