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. Then Matthew Yglesias questioned how realistic the show is. Latoya Peterson examined the series' approach to race and class.
Here, Kay Steiger looks at how the show depicts New Orleans' division between rich and poor.
One thing that's not hard to miss about Treme, David Simon and Eric Overmyer's new epic set in New Orleans, is that the city has stark differences between the haves and the have-nots. The rich and poor neighborhoods are evident in Simon and Overmyer's other projects, The Wire and Homicide, but somehow such disparity is more amplified in Treme. The characters, each in their own struggles, represent the diversity of race and economic backgrounds the city makes up.
While Ladonna Batiste-Williams (played by Khandi Alexander) searches for her brother who has been locked up and distributed to a prison upstate, Creighton and Toni Bernette (played by John Goodman and Melissa Leo, respectively) have a house that has been largely untouched by the storm. The Bernettes clearly still care greatly about the city--the passionate volume of Creighton's use of the f-word while describing the government's failures signifies his investment in New Orleans--but their experience is so clearly different than others who fled the city and returned to houses that are nearly unsalvageable.
Antoine Batiste (played by Wendell Pierce), the ex-husband of Ladonna, continually shorts cab drivers to get to his gigs. The repetition of shorting cab drivers is handled with a unique charm that is part of Batiste's personality, but he also doesn't seem to be the kind of character that would short drivers if he didn't have such a tight economic situation. And Davis McAlary (played by Steve Zahn), comes from an upper-class family but chooses to live in relative poverty to pursue of his love of music. But McAlary has a safety net of looking to his parents for help when he's fired from his low-wage job at a radio station. Others on the show are clearly not as lucky.
The best contrast of the differing ways the characters are dealing with the aftermath of Katrina becomes clear when Toni Bernette, a big-hearted public defender, comes to meet Batiste-Williams in a coffee shop. There she runs into New Orleans police officers--one of whom she sued in the past--and reveals that the Bernette's house is located off Octavia Street, a part of the city that experienced no flooding and little wind damage during the storm. She notes that they did still lose their roof.
"We can't complain," Bernette laughs off defensively.
"No, you can't," the officer responds pointedly.
The aftermath of Katrina may have highlighted it, but New Orleans has long been a city that best exemplifies disparity. As a 2009 report produced by the American Human Development Project notes that, "even before Hurricane Katrina, people in Louisiana lived as the average American lived nearly two decades ago in terms of life expectancy, educational opportunities, and income." A map of the city taken from the 2000 census has large swaths of neighborhoods that are made up of somewhere between 75 and 100 percent that live below twice the federal poverty level. As New Orleans rebuilds, news reports have clearly revealed that who gets resources and funding is heavily influenced by who has the most money and influence. Katrina may have brought attention to the economic divides, but they had long existed in the city.
Simon and Overmyer thought New Orleans was a compelling enough city to make a series about before Hurricane Katrina, they said in a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air. It's just that Katrina, which brought national attention to the city, provided them a reason for studios to finally listen to them when they pitched New Orleans as a city worthy of its own loving depiction. Simon and Overmyer know that the city came with the baggage, and they have already acknowledged it.
But just as the Bernettes are connected to Batiste-Williams and Batiste-Williams was married to Batiste, who, in turn, crosses paths with McAlary in the New Orleans music scene, the fact that the characters experience economic divides doesn't mean their lives won't overlap in the most intimate of ways. After all, in New Orleans, they're all in this together.
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