An Artful Imbalance
A travelogue show that loudly insisted on the authenticity of New Orleans and the accuracy of its own depiction would rightly be deemed insufferable. Simon was up front about his desire to get the details right, to shoot on location, cast a bunch of locals and ensure that every “lagniappe” receives a spot-on pronunciation. But on the day of the show’s premiere, he published an open letter in The Times-Picayune warning the “fact-grounded literalists” that “we have trespassed throughout our narrative…. And [we] will be subject to the judgment of you whom we have trespassed against.” (Dave Walker’s Treme Explained blog at the T-P website has approvingly and entertainingly annotated the show’s local references in real time.) It’s clear that Simon and Overmyer’s bid for local respect is less dependent on deploying proper place names than on cultivating a serious respect for the hard work that props up an ecosystem saturated by earthly indulgences, and a sensitivity toward the ways the city’s traditions have been so easily grifted and commodified. In its dramatization of love and theft, Treme is one of the least condescending depictions of cultural labor that I’ve seen on-screen.
Treme’s pivotal figure is the Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux, played by Clarke Peters, a distinguished Wire alum who also brought a turbulent intensity to Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. Albert is the leader of an esoteric and very real secret society, the Guardians of the Flame. Chanting in a distinctive patois, this working-class Afrocentric tribe appropriates its aesthetic from Native American traditions—not to usurp their power, but to acknowledge their shared social marginality. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition, over a century old, also pays tribute to the Native Americans who harbored runaway slaves. Every year, the Guardians spend an entire year hand-stitching their colorful, breathtakingly ornate beaded costumes, vying to be deemed the “prettiest” on Mardi Gras day. Albert is unfailingly sour and stubborn—“Won’t bow, don’t know how” is his trademark intonation, and one that succinctly defines his relationship to the law—but the show affords his obsession an uncommon measure of respect. “Will the Guardians suit up for Mardi Gras this year?” is the common narrative thread of each Treme season. “Will the cops let them?” is the other. In the second season, the Big Chief’s son Delmond (Rob Brown), a popular New York jazz trumpeter who has developed a modern hard-bop sound, gives up fighting his father’s intransigence and records an album incorporating Albert’s Indian traditions. (Christian Scott’s 2012 Christian aTunde Adjuah is the album’s acclaimed real-world corollary.) Still, Albert’s locally well-recognized place atop a tribal hierarchy does next to nothing for his social capital. The aging artist earns his keep by plastering renovated homes purchased by the wealthy, work that takes a serious toll on his health.
The tavern owner LaDonna (fiercely embodied by Khandi Alexander), who eventually hosts the Guardians’ raucous rehearsal sessions, is the show’s long-suffering avatar of implacable, inexplicable fortitude. In season one, she seeks information about her missing brother, who was taken into police custody when Katrina hit the city, and is stymied at every turn. Later, after being victimized by a violent crime, she refuses to leave her bar behind, even as her solid dentist husband in Baton Rouge encourages her to quit the city and join him for good. Touchingly, he eventually realizes that the defiance and pride she musters in the face of unending humiliation and despair is the source of their romantic spark. She stays in New Orleans. He moves.
The show’s ensemble includes all manner of headstrong hustlers and knights of the spirit: musicians of every stripe, DJs, chefs, baristas, district attorneys, impresarios, developers, journalists, cops, shrimp boat captains, united only by their uncommon resilience and a faith that compels them to hunker down in a battered and thoroughly dysfunctional place. The excessive preaching these folks do on behalf of New Orleans’ proud exceptionalism cannot be easily separated from willful self-delusion.
Not by accident, the series’ two most exasperating characters are the ones who bear the closest resemblance to Simon’s bumptious public persona: Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), the grating and unflappable goofball, and Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), the hectoring, self-righteous, profane Tulane professor. Both are self-appointed shamans (and privileged white men) who try to wrangle personal control of the city’s post-Katrina malaise by publicly disseminating their paeans to the city’s cultural heritage. Davis the DJ is a politically naïve, musically challenged Garden District blue-blood turned Treme resident and full-time booster, constantly seeking novel ways to harness the local mystique for self-serving ends. Creighton, who when not ostentatiously thumbing copies of The Awakening or The Moviegoer can be found posting first-person political harangues on YouTube, is eventually revealed as not just shallow but tragically unbalanced. The ongoing, unsubtle auto-critique of dewy-eyed views serves as Simon’s obvious rebuke to anyone who might accuse him of shilling for the tourist bureau.
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