A reader writes:
David Simon doesn't hate his viewers because they're not from here; he's just trying to capture a real side of New Orleans. We love tourism here, but hate tourists (I think this is probably true of most tourist spots). Like Wendell Pierce's character, most of us wouldn't be caught dead on Bourbon, and nothing irks us more than hearing a sports announcer call us New Or-Leens, or New Or-Lee-Uhns. And nothing makes us feel more superior than pointing it out. It's shallow and arrogant, but it's absolutely a New Orleans truth, and I think Simon's doing an awesome job portraying it.
We're all thrilled with the show right now. And this is not an easy audience to please; I don't know a single local who watched more than an episode or two of Hollywood's last attempt (FOX's atrocious "K-Ville") because it was so lazily researched and written. I spent most of a class the next day discussing its stupidity with my students. We couldn't follow the plot for all our cursing and laughter. This one we're talking about every Monday. Simon's obsession with getting his portrayal right is incredible.
I had a similar reaction to certain scenes in the first few episodes: an idealization of New Orleans that deflated the show's narrative power; an indulgent, tinny self-righteousness in spots. But don't sell Simon and his writers short. Not yet. They're playing long ball.
Those false notes are deliberate bait that draw you in. And then the writers start to hit you with complications: the stereotypical gentrifying gay couple turn out not to be colonizers but native New Orleanians who know as much about their neighborhood as the authenticity-obsessed fool/truth-teller Davis McAlary; just when you think the NOLAs are stoic saints, thugs shoot up the first post-flood Mardi Gras; tribalism threatens to divide the Mardi Gras Indians; questions of authenticity and progress - functional music in the parade bands, or the more abstract modern Jazz? - plague the musicians.
This should be the show that a deeply thoughtful conservative like McWhorter prays for, one in which Negroes (yes, I mean Negroes because the terms bespeaks a situational culture and heritage rather than race or color) are depicted in all of their infinite hues and individual selves without any of the reductive linguistic, behavioral, or sartorial trappings of contemporary pop culture. That in itself is a whopping triumph. "American culture is incontestably mulatto," wrote the great essayist Albert Murray. That's what this show is about. My friend McWhorter should be ecstatic; instead he is cranky.
I remember watching "The Wire" in its first season and thought it was pretty bad. It struggled with similar false notes. It patted itself on the back. And then it developed into the most substantial television program that's ever been broadcast. As jazz musicians from New Orleans like to say, goading one another on the bandstand, "Take your your time, now. Take. Your. Time."
There was a lot of talk about how Simon wanted to “get New Orleans right” for this show. Seems to me that those efforts have so far come at the expense of likable, relatable characters. The Wire’s appeal came in the depth and appeal of its characters. The show was chock full of flawed heroes and sympathetic villains. More importantly, the characters felt organic. They never came off as punch-outs created to represent specific factions or demographics. (Save for the fifth season newsroom.) I think I’ve had a hard time embracing Treme thus far because few of the characters have that same authenticity. They feel perfunctory. (Though Wendell Pierce’s charm and acting chops bring Antoine Batiste to life, in spite of the character’s caricature-ishness).
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