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Home » Culture and Criticism

Treme: The Great Whole

Submitted by on June 28, 2011 – 12:40 PM15 Comments

Heeeey, THAT'S not the world's tiniest violin!

I'd ordinarily open a TV essay with a phrasing along the lines of "Has anyone else noticed that…?" or "Is it just me, or does this show…?" I can't do that on a Treme piece, because nobody else is watching it. I shouldn't watch it; it isn't a show I should enjoy.

I don't care for, or about, the vast majority of jazz, aside from the unchallenging 1961-white-boy stuff, and the music sequences drag, mostly because the all-stars each episode is apparently stocked with don't register with me. I like the restaurant/foodie subplots while not liking the actress at the center of them, and yes, I know she played someone or other on Deadwood, but that doesn't mitigate anything, because I got through an episode and a half of that show and couldn't bring myself to care. Kim Dickens is basically fine; it's just one of my irrational hate-ons.

Most of the rest of the cast is actors I like a lot — many from The Wire, enough said — or actors who aren't exactly actors (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc is the shit, and if you haven't seen the Spike Lee doc on Katrina, arrange for that to happen in your life, because it is amazing), but I don't like very many of the characters. This is intentional, at least, and a realistic, human portrayal of a character I would not care to know personally is still worthwhile…but I can name a few characters I think the show wants me to like and side with who I can't really take. Annie, for one, with the cap-sleeve sweaters and the whimsical barrettes and the constant stricken "why isn't my junkie cheaty greezy boyfriend nice to me" face-pulling. Of course you root for her, in the sense that you root against Sonny, who is an everything's-your-fault dink of the ripest variety. Lucia Micarelli is a hell of a fiddle-player, and she's very pretty and her acting is fine, but the character is an Anthropologie amalgamation of doll-like faultlessness that everyone on the show, from writers to actors to characters, has a babbling crush on.

And yet, I keep plugging away with it, not because I feel obligated, but because I do actually like it, somehow. I don't like most of the parts, but then the whole is something different. David Simon's great gift is for transposing…or translating, or something…a place or an environment, entire. Its grammar, its hymns, its snacks and weather, whether it's the Baltimore projects or the Iraqi desert or New Orleans in 2006, all come through in documentary style. The location shooting helps, but it goes beyond that, comes from beyond that, from the writing and the construction, that deep and dimensional knowledge of place. It's why S2 of The Wire is fantastic despite a decent amount of bad acting and one of the most aggravating characters in TV history. It's why I want to see where the subcontactor subplot goes on Treme despite the presence of one Jon Seda, whose characters are never not slappable (but who is slapping himself with a top-flight moisturizer, apparently; dude hasn't aged a day since Homicide). The sense of watching a true story, the commitment to translating the real to the fictional faithfully, means that I can let irritants ride. The received wisdom on the show is that nothing "happens" or the plot doesn't really move, but I can't say I've noticed that — plenty happened in S1, and at a good pace, I thought. It does take its time, and Simon shows give less compelling characters equal time, but that contributes to the documentary texture; you can't have one without the other, so I wouldn't use a slow/fast metric for a Simon show, but that's me.

So, um. Has anyone else…noticed? That? [crickets] [eating beignets]

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  • pomme de terre says:

    Which S2 Wire character annoyed you so much? Ziggy?

  • K. says:

    When I saw that Wendell Pierce was going to be married to "the lady from 'If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise,'" I was in. I was in anyway because of David Simon, but when I saw her, I was really in. When [in the documentary] she gave out her home phone number and invited Barbara Bush to call her up and tell her personally how much better off black people were post-Katrina? Stop it, she's terrific. "Do you really think two teenage boys want to watch a baby sleep? During Mardi Gras?"

    I find myself rooting for Sonny more in the second season. His work on the boat and his crush ("How do I date you?" Aw!) make him more palatable to me. Steve Zahn's Davis has been the divisive factor among my friends and I – my best friend hated him on sight and hasn't stopped, and I don't mind him nearly as much. His whole "In my heart, I'm a 22-year-old black kid from the streets" schtick is mildly offensive to me as a black person (who is not from the streets), but he's the kind of friend you have where you're like "Davis, he's a trip" and kind of laugh about him behind his back a bit, but you still enjoy his company. And his aunt is amazing.

    I find LaDonna heartbreaking right now. Khandi Alexander is so, so good, and the scene where her husband finds out about [spoiler!] her rape was brilliantly done.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @pomme: Yes. Again, that was the intent, but it didn't make him any less…well, "annoying" isn't even the right word. "Difficult."

  • attica says:

    I gotta say I agree with you on Jon Seda. How does he not look his age? In The Pacific, he played a twentysomething believably. ('acourse, his job was to often look heroically off into middle distance and flirt decorously and patriotically with ADA Borgia, so: not so difficult)

    (My take on Deadwood was quite the opposite of yours. I was totally turned off by the concept, purposefully didn't tune in, and then happened across a re-air one afternoon and got completely sucked in immediately and hard.)

    (Off topic, but calling back to the L&O:CI finale addressed in the "Hair: Die" post: The Beek! Douchey but not villainous! Doing a wretched white-boy boogie! OMG!)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Attica, off topic: I saw that too and nearly wet my pants. And what a good ending. Awww.

    Oh, Treme. God, I wish I had HBO.

  • Brigitte says:

    So I'm really enjoying Treme, as a sort of immersive experience, I guess. Remember when Kim Dickens said to Steve Zahn (end of S1) something along the lines of living in New Orleans was like living in a series of experiences? Rather than having a cohesive life? I feel like that's what Treme is, but I think it works for what the storytellers are setting out to do, i.e. look at the city pulling back together through the lens of the local culture. However, I will say that I think that David Simon does a more standard narrative better. The show seems better when it's more focused, like with the NOPD storylines.

  • Kelly says:

    Re: Jon Seda–how does he look younger than he did on Homicide? Seriously.

    Elizabeth Ashley is a gem as always on this show.

    Plus, Bunk & Lester!!!

  • Jo says:

    You have good timing. I'm about 20 minutes away from popping in the latest "Treme" disc from Netflix. I love jazz and the music on the show makes me want to go to New Orleans, but I'm not enjoying the individual episodes as much as "The Wire." I want to keep watching and I'm waiting to see where it goes, but the pieces aren't as interesting. But you put it perfectly comparing it to season two of "The Wire."

  • DWB says:

    Oh, Treme… I want to like you more than I do. There will be individual moments or plotlines or characters that I like, but as a series it needs, I think, an organizing through line. No matter a season's focus on The Wire, the central plot was always "Get the Barksdales/Marlo" off the streets." I get that Treme is supposed to be an immersive look at New Orleans, but, man, that's a LOT of characters in one bowl of gumbo (and sometimes out of the gumbo on a bread plate on a table across the room [Janette]). I also get that music is an integral part of N.O. life, but some of the performances just bring the show to a screeching halt. (And some that I want played out get cut off so we can go check in on, oh, say, Ziggy and Joanie Stubbs. [Whew, I watch waaay too much HBO...]).

    I'm totally David Simon's spaniel and will watch whatever he wants to create — Homicide: LOTS, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and many more going forward, one hopes, not to mention his *fabulous* core of repertory actors. But, right now, Treme, at least compared with The Wire and GenKill, seems to me like weakish chicory. Nevertheless, yes, I'll take a top-up.

  • Abigail says:

    I'm liking season 2 a lot more, but I agree that Treme somehow adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Enjoying jazz probably helps, and I do. One thing I really like – even more of a focus S2 – is how the show focuses on the working life of so many people. This is a chef, this is a working musician, this is a cop. It both glamorizes them and brings them down to earth.

    Annie, well, we've all known Annies, yes? Pretty, passive girls coasting by on looks, letting life happen to them. This one happens to be a gifted musician, so I'm hoping (guessing a little bit) that the writers are setting us up to enjoy her finding her spine and her voice. And the actor playing Sonny is hot, so skeevy as he is, he's fun to watch.

    The one character that drives me up a wall is LaDonna, as wonderful as Khandi Alexander is. Ugh.

  • Abigail says:

    PS – Davis' aunt is the SHIT. Love love love.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I love her too! The scene where she's bonding with the drag queen over footwear at the club is amazing.

  • Kris says:

    This is a lame metaphor, but it’s the best I can come up with. For me, this show is like the Mississippi as it nears the sea. Instead of flowing in well-ordered banks (like a more narrative drama progressing to the end of the story), it spreads out and meanders this way and that. Sometimes the river flows out into the sea, sometimes the sea flows back into the river, sometimes you can’t see it move at all, but it is all a part of the whole, and it still keeps moving.

    This story feels as if something I need to immerse myself in and feel the whole, rather than put clues together to try to figure out where the story is headed (not that I don’t do some of that anyway). It also does a great job of showing the creative process for the slog it can be, along with those moments of inspiration. My only complaint this year is that they’re cutting the music short in too many places.

    I don’t know jazz well enough to recognize many faces (although some of the names register once I’ve heard them), but I was insanely thrilled to see Susan Cowsill on the show a couple of weeks ago. The Cowsills’ "Indian Lake" was always playing on the car radio when we went to swimming lessons. What a blast from the past.

  • Amynae says:

    What a wonderful summation of the show! I'm not much for jazz, but that New Orleans Jazz and Blues is intoxicating, and Steve Earle breaks my heart. Seeing so many acts I've seen live is a pleasure.

    I actually hated the first season. I found it too loud, and lacking the subtleties I expected going in. I hated John Goodman's character, not so much for his message, which I found exceptionally realistic, but the constant rage and yelling just lost me.

    Now (especially with the Game Of Thrones lead-in) I am loving Treme. There's more of that sweet music, and it's less about the Storm, and more about the Place. We're Wire fanatics as well, and I think it's nearly impossible to NOT compare the two shows. I think I'd describe Treme as the Southern, more Genteel version of The Wire.

  • Tina says:

    @DWB: I'm with you. I want to like the show, but lately I'm just rapidly losing interest. When the season ends this Sunday, I may be out for good.
    There are characters I like, and characters who bug. I'm not in love with Annie (Sars hit the nail on the head with that description). Why is she in charge of the beard guy's estate? Because she was standing next to him when he got shot?
    I'm just meh on the whole thing.

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