Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Down in the Treme: Episode 6, “Shallow Water, Oh Mama”

tremePNG Two Charge Shot!!! writers duck into New Orleans for a taste of David Simon’s new show, “Treme.” Hit the jump for their take on Episode 6. Spoilers ahoy.

Rob: I'm not sure it gets any better than John Goodman parading through New Orleans wearing a paper-mache sperm on his head. 

Jordan: You know, I might have said the same thing if I wasn't four seasons into this other great show right now. "The Wire?” You may have heard of it. See, this is my second time watching the whole damn thing, and I'm still as addicted as ever. With "Treme," you'd think the week-long breaks between episodes would be torture. But I usually miss it on Sunday nights and catch it On Demand when I have time.

Rob: We spend a lot of time comparing "The Wire," David Simon's realist epic set in Baltimore, with "Treme." The deeper we get into "Treme," the less I think comparison is even possible. Then again, the deeper we get, the more it feels like a manifesto; I'm not sure it’s a good thing.

Jordan: You mentioned on the phone last night - yeah, we call each other before bed every night - that "Treme" lives in an entirely different, drastically more optimistic world than "The Wire." And I think you're right that the difference between those worlds makes comparisons mostly futile. But I use "The Wire" as a reference point only to say this: I just ain't motivated to watch "Treme" every week. In fact, if I wasn't writing this column, I'd probably just let the thing accrue on DVD. So if "Treme" doesn't work as cynical epic, does it at least work as compelling television?

Rob: I watch "Treme" because I love the cast, the writing, and David Simon's vision of New Orleans. I can't say I tune in for the plot. Even if moving postcard is really, really good, is TV the appropriate canvas?

Jordan: I'd say not. Maybe it is the hegemony of the "place" concept that robs "Treme" of its urgency. Because shows like "Mad Men" and "Six Feet Under" manage(d) to do just fine without a real story arc (a facet of "Treme" which I've pointed out before). But where those shows knew the best scenery is inside the characters' heads, Simon thinks he can get by with a travelogue. An admittedly excellent one, though.

Rob: For now, let's say it's enough. There is a plot here, however ponderous and glacial: DJ/hipster/trustfundee Davis McAlary starts taking his stunt-ish council run seriously (maybe); Lawyer Toni Bernette's sleuthing for a prisoner lost during Katrina finally gets somewhere; disgruntled English professor and latent novelist Creighton Bernette finds himself on the hook for an uncomfortably timely book about Katrina. For a show about a storm, this isn't a bad narrative backbone.

Jordan: And those threads really are excellent. But it's sorta depressing to think that before we get much farther on any of 'em, Simon'll stop everything for another (again, admittedly amazing) musical number. All the performances by Kermit Ruffins, Dr. John, and Allen Toussaint so far in the show haven't equalled the scene where Janette tries (and fails) to ask her staff to work a week without pay. I think Simon bummed everybody out so much with "The Wire" that he thinks he needs to have as much fun onscreen as he can. But watching people have fun just isn't that much fun.

Rob: I wholeheartedly disagree - the music scenes are my favorite part of "Treme." Then again, my folks wouldn't let me watch MTV when I was a kid; this could all be repression in the guise of affinity. The thing that turns me off, though, is the politics, which may seem absurd - Katrina was a man-made disaster, after all, and I don't think FEMA or the Bush administration were adequately punished for their failings during the storm. But for someone who never lived in New Orleans, Simon has made a show with an awful lot of native-son swagger and chest-thumping.

Jordan: You know, we've never talked about this before, but Simon does have a co-creator on this thing. Eric Overmyer does live (part-time) in New Orleans, and so he has at least a modicum of authenticity. But I guess I'm set to auto-ignore irritating politics; I had to read dry, thoroughly dispassionate academic articles about institutional inefficiency and democratic consensus-building. I'll be damned if I'm gonna learn much of anything from a TV writer.

Rob: I'd love to hear what Nola natives think of "Treme." It feels authentic to the outsider, and past Simon has a good reputation for doing his homework and sticking close to the source. I just wonder how long "Treme" can subsist on an us-versus-them mentality. Is antagonism the plot? What about reconciliation?

Jordan: I think the show's a dichotomy in that way. The music is as inclusive as it gets, but the show does have the swinging dick bullshit you mentioned. Though the ambivalent treatment of people like Davis and Creighton (who's both a sincere NOLA patriot and a boorish, lazy douchebag) does indicate that Simon isn't entirely on the provincial wagon. Antagonism? Reconciliation? I don't care what it is; just give me an HBO drama, not a Travel Channel special.