Warning: This post contains spoilers.
I trudged through Treme.
The first episode made me crawl and squirm inside so badly I wanted to rip open my old leather sofa and get inside with the decomposing cheerios and wine stains. At first I thought it was the forced dialogue – overt references to red beans on Mondays, second lines, carnival, hell… there was even a voodoo scene. But things got better, and minor faults aside, it was infinitely superior to any film or show I’d ever seen about New Orleans. But it was still falling flat for me, desperately screaming from the start, Hey, I’m a New Orleans show! I’m full of New Orleans-y stuff that will make you midwesterners want to sell everything and join the steamy bacchanal down here.
But I stuck it out. I kept watching out of obligation, like when your kid makes you a crappy finger painting and you stick it on the fridge like a budding friggin’ Picasso made it. It was “our” show so we had to watch it. But as things progressed I began to discover why it really made me uncomfortable.
I felt like I was watching one of my home movies; not in quality, but in content. It was unnerving to watch people, places, and events I was so familiar with on a daily basis. Intimate details of my life were now being exposed on television. Conversations I’d had in bars and cafe’s with friends, backyard parties I’d had with family – the camaraderie eerily accurate. I spent most of my adult life reveling in the ‘bohemian’ ideal portrayed on the show. Now I felt reduced to a script. Intellectually violated for entertainment value. But I was taking it all too personally. You never want to admit when someone has you pegged. I wanted to punch the snot out of David Simon. And I wanted to kiss him stupefied for getting it so damned right.
This is the best film depiction of New Orleans ever made. And likely the best that ever will be made. The attention to detail is so brutally authentic in some scenes that I just sat there whispering inside “please don’t do this to me“. And yet I find myself so grateful that this city was finally put into the hands of brilliantly capable filmmakers. Professional artists with a rebellious streak to match our own. The way every episode hangs onto a music scene just too long – it’s a homage to a city that never really gets credit for what it gives to the world, and definitely a ‘piss off’ to people who want formulaic television.
As the episodes went on I kept waiting for the show to fail. I’m particularly sensitive to political grandstanding on TV. After its wobbly start I knew at any moment Treme was going careen to its death with the complex social issues of Nola strapped to its back. And I almost thought I had them. I was convinced that when Albert took on public housing, that this would be the divisive move that drove off half the audience. But after barreling around with the topic, they landed abruptly, but safely and gracefully with it, like Capt Sully on the Hudson.
Overall, this is how Treme handled many of Nola’s sensitive social and political problems. Instead of trying to solve them, or get on a sappy liberal soapbox, they just floated above them with zen mastery. This is just the way it is. Life is a big gray area. Deal, you twitchy absolutists.
While I related strongly to many aspects of the show, I also thought it conveyed a romanticized, and even fetishized, version of Nola – the one all the outsiders want to gawk at and fondle. For instance, I was born here in the 70s and lived here all but one year of my 35 so far. I did not grow up listening to local music except carnival music, which I considered ‘holiday’ music. Perhaps the 70s were a dark age for all culture in America. But when I think of music during my early years, I don’t think of funky local tunes, I think of the same shitty arena rock and disco that everyone else does. The pretentious preservationists love to pretend that they grew up dancing in the street with Mardi Gras Indians, but I can promise you, while a handful may have, most did not. To this day, I have never seen an Indian in person, and I’d never even HEARD of them until I was in graduate school. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a second line in my life either, and don’t know anyone pre-Katrina who wanted one. It wasn’t until post-storm cultural revival became chic that a bunch of middle class white people wanted second lines all of a sudden – or to attend MG Indian parades, or go to music clubs/see bands that could barely make the bills pre-K. I don’t think my ignorance of these things is a poor reflection on me, I think it just means I live naturally in my own city and don’t seek out “cultural”, or worse, “ethnic” things to do. That is just too sickeningly superficial to live with.
I also eat red beans and rice when I damn well feel like it.
I don’t mean to insult the revival – in fact I’m thrilled about it. Better late than never. Plus, I’m enjoying learning all these things about old Nola that I never knew about. But I’m sick of both local (and imported) hypocrites pretending like they were always on board with preserving Our Unique Culture™. Just be honest with yourselves. And please spare us your shallow condescending hipster fantasies about being the cool white guy the black folks tolerate. These parts of Treme make me squirm the worst. The immigrant street musician, Sonny, epitomizes the cultural freeloader here – the guy who thinks he “gets it”, but so doesn’t.
What it comes down to is that people who do NOT live here will determine if Treme is successful, and this show is for their entertainment. And I’m okay with that. For us locals, or for me personally anyway, this show is more like therapy. It’s forcing me to look at things I shelved away in the abandoned storage closet of my mind so I’d have the strength to move on. So I wouldn’t selfishly indulge in the pain and jump in the river like Creigh. Treme feels too much like my real life. Why would I want to watch my everyday shit, or past drama, when I could do the escapist thing and watch sexy vampires shag on HBO’s other Louisiana show?
But not all things on film are for entertainment. You don’t go to the movies to see Harry Potter for the same reasons you go see Schindler’s List. Some films are complex art inspired by gritty realities that are constructed to make you think. Some are just fun roller coaster rides designed to make you squeal with excitement. Treme is more the former. I like both experiences in film, but Treme is just so personal. If you’re local, you won’t likely have ‘fun’ watching it, or even enjoy it. But you’ll feel better, albeit exhausted when it’s over, like you just got something heavy off your chest.
There’s a thread in the final episode where Davis (the typical Nola cheerleader) is trying to convince his friend with benefits, Janette (who has been defeated by the city in every way imaginable) to stay in New Orleans by taking her on a tour of the city. I’ve done this more times than I can count, playing the roles of both Davis and Janette depending on where I was in life. I’ve begged some people to stay, while I’ve advised others to escape while they could. This depended on where they were in life. Other times it was I who was about to run, and being swayed by others. I know what it is to love this place, and I know what it is to hate it. It’s not for everyone. And Treme is just like that. If you’re a local, I can only recommend the show if I know you well enough to convince you to stay… or go.