David Simon's rich, complex shows have always been rewarding to watch alone, but they almost demand conversation, whether it's a debate over Baltimore's future or a reality check at a particularly audacious act of cruelty, style, or recklessness. His new show, an exploration of New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, premieres on HBO on Sunday at 10 p.m. And to start the inevitable discussion, Alyssa Rosenberg, Latoya Peterson, Matthew Yglesias, Anna John, Kay Stieger, and Rachael Brown will be talking Treme.
Alyssa kicked off the discussion by writing about what makes Treme different from Simon's other shows. Now, Matthew Yglesias questions how realistic the show is.
In my (perhaps eccentric) view, the central critical question about David Simon's work is its problematic relationship to the concept of realism. How is it that The Wire, a show so praised for its realism, also features as a universally acclaimed character a kind of mythic bandit/poet/warrior/adventurer character whose exploits aren't even slightly plausible? With Treme's first two episodes, we see the realism issue advanced in a different way. Simon's Baltimore is definitely—and defiantly—Simon's Baltimore. You get the sense that if some lifelong Baltimorean were to tell him that he's gotten everything wrong, Simon will become enraged and put him in his place. The message of the The Wire is, "This is how It really Is goddamnit and you'd better believe it."
Treme also feels realistic, but it's a different realism. Not the realism of a man who's lived in a city for years and is here to share with us what it is. But the realism of a man who's gone to research a city he loves and wants to present it for us. Simon's New Orleans is the New Orleans of those who inhabit and love the city, a counterpoint to the tourist's New Orleans but not a deeply personal vision of the city the way The Wire is of Baltimore. It seems clear that if a lifelong resident of New Orleans were to complain to Simon about a lack of realism that he'd be genuinely saddened.
This manifests itself in a first episode that, as Alyssa noted, is deeply sentimental. This bothered me. A lot. The acting remained compelling and the camerawork by director Agnieszka Holland was lovely, and the dialogue by Simon and Eric Overmeyer was sharp. But oh oh oh oh oh did the sentimentality grate. I felt like I needed a trip to the television dentist or something. It reeked not so much of Simon being unwilling to challenge his audience, but of Simon being unwilling to alienate his subjects; as if he felt that New Orleans, having been through so much, didn't need to really be examined as a city populated by flawed human beings put under the lens of an exacting social critic.
The contrast that came to mind was with Werner Herzog's half-genius, half-insane Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans a post-Katrina feature film that came out late last year to little fanfare. Suffice it to say that for all its flaws, Herzog is determined in his films to remain Herzog—whether his subjects are grizzly men are antarctic scientists or fictional New Orleans detectives his dark vision of humanity remains. The idea of Simon facing tragedy and then deciding to flinch was, to me, depressing.
But then came episode two! I don't want to say too much, but though the themes and imagery from episode one remained we suddenly started to see a more complex view of humanity. Meanwhile, Treme already clearly features the thing the Wire most glaringly lacked—black people living in troubled neighborhoods who aren't criminals or drug addicts. Episode two made me think back to season two of The Wire, where Simon looks at a slice of white working class Baltimore that he clearly feels sentimental about, but not ultimately so sentimental that he's unable to tell a real and compelling story about the community. If he manages to strike that kind of balance between sentiment and cynicism while broadening its gaze to include working class African-Americans, he'll have pulled off a potentially watershed moment in American pop culture.
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