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.