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An Artful Imbalance | The Nation

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An Artful Imbalance

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Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux playing the tambourine in Treme

Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux playing the tambourine in Treme

The Wire is one of the few serial dramas in television history whose viewers thought that watching it earned them a merit badge. HBO’s gripping, dynamic procedural panorama of the cops, drug dealers, stevedores and politicians linked across the grim economy of postindustrial Baltimore has been compared to Shakespeare and Dickens, referenced by Cam’ron, Eminem and Young Jeezy, and theorized by academics as a topic and model of social critique. When Barack Obama called it his favorite television program, he wasn’t just telling the truth, but signaling his cultural literacy and an enlightened stance on various forms of institutional dysfunction. The mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, distilled his enthusiasm into an edict, declaring that he would cooperate only with politicians who had watched all five seasons of The Wire. The good-for-you hyperbole that insulates this singular cultural object from criticism seems unlikely to deflate anytime soon.

The Wire turned some friends of mine into social workers and local activists, others into graduate students, and their lives are the better for it. But did the show cumulatively telegraph anything other than an overwhelming pessimism in the face of relentless capitalist expansion? Omar, the show’s swashbuckling contract killer with a moral code, justified his activities by declaring “It’s all in the game,” and his fatalistic MO jibed with series creator David Simon’s own sense of the intractability of structural racism, structural inequality, structural decline. (Simon’s other programs include The Corner, Generation Kill and Homicide: Life on the Street.) In The Wire’s uncompromising autopsy, the American metropolis is shown to be a failed experiment, where every glimmer of possibility leads down a fast track to disappointment and ruin. Nobody escapes the game, and, sorry, the game is rigged. Deserved or not, Simon—who blogs at a personal website called The Audacity of Despair—has cultivated a reputation as the bitterest pill in American entertainment.

Decades of despair are given a temporary therapeutic respite in Treme, Simon and Eric Overmyer’s unjustly ignored, truly sui generis television series about labor, leisure and music in post-Katrina New Orleans. The duo announced a different set of intentions by naming the show after a specific place, Tremé—the country’s oldest African-American neighborhood—and at a time when only people with a mighty compelling reason to return there from exile (and those who had no place else to go) had made it their home. HBO’s perpetually low-rated drama, which premiered in 2010 and somehow survived long enough to complete a truncated fourth and final season in December, Treme initially seemed like the result of Simon’s quest for an environment ungoverned by market logic. The show retains his fascination with the death and life of great American cities, but Treme isn’t here to deliver the bad news. Densely atmospheric, foregrounding a kind of humanist exuberance that does not seem fleeting, Treme is an existential rebuttal to its formidable predecessor. Simon, a curmudgeonly ex-newspaperman and perpetual gadfly, has unforgettably cataloged all the reasons to quit; now he wants to know why the struggle could be worthwhile.  

What makes a city worth inhabiting, let alone fixing? Simon is not an up-with-people kinda guy, but the living theater of New Orleans sends him over the moon, representing “the best we can be as Americans: It’s a triumph of the melting pot, right down to the rhythms of the street! It’s black, it’s white, it’s Cuban, it’s Haitian. It’s our greatest export.” If the show clearly originated as a sentimental valentine, it never feels quite so deliriously naïve as that exclamation. While music can seem like a great equalizer and lubricant for Treme’s racially and ethnically mixed collection of gregarious locals, every episode is subtly attuned to the structural forces that stifle the flourishing of a post-racial bohemia. The show chronicles the disastrously unequal impact of public housing demolitions and post-flood redevelopment projects, and underscores the reality that Mardi Gras krewes are still largely segregated. On television, race representation remains so skewed that, as the comic Wyatt Cenac recently quipped, “There are more TV shows starring vampires than starring minorities.” Treme showcases the most diverse ensemble of black performers on contemporary American screens, and it’s become a rare haven for directors of color like Ernest Dickerson, Anthony Hemingway and Roxann Dawson. (The Wire was eventually syndicated to BET, and the less popular Treme would benefit from a similar fate.) 

Only perfunctorily concerned with plot, Treme offers little of what draws viewers to prestige programs like The Sopranos. It’s an indulgence. Simon and Overmyer use the scope of serialized narrative to evoke a sense of lived experience; the show provides evidence of its creators’ humbled intelligence, one not constantly seeking the causes that explain the effects. It eschews the tidy coincidence and smug oversimplification of a “network narrative” and never tries to make New Orleans seem smaller than it is. Whereas The Wire’s 200 or so speaking characters all seemed to cross paths, the narrative interconnectedness of Treme cannot be reduced to a flow chart. For all The Wire’s departures from the NYPD Blue crime drama format, it was still tightly scripted, rigorously controlled, always juggling several narratives in progress from point A to point B. But even when introducing a subplot about government corruption or police brutality, Treme continues to shuffle along amiably, generating a kind of ambient suspense through a lack of incident. 

Many of those who applauded The Wire’s revivification of an American social realist tradition have felt out of step with Treme’s quirky narrative ramble, even though the show sacrifices little of Simon’s crusading liberalism. (One of season three’s plotlines follows the research and development of an investigative article for The Nation.) In its emphasis on spaces seemingly untouched by institutional power, the show favors a different but no less vital kind of politics—a form of everyday resistance that’s messy and rhythmic, and affective rather than staunchly materialist. “As good as it is at effects,” wrote New Orleans native Nicholas Lemann in The New York Review of Books, “Treme isn’t so good at causes—of the immediate disaster, and of its seemingly never-ending aftermath. To explain that, Simon will have to move outside the appealing and tight cultural frame in which the action thus far has taken place.” Hurricane Katrina, the causes of institutional collapse—explain that. The political scientist Adolph Reed called the show an “abysmal failure,” saying that its cultural tourism “cannot help us make sense of the social forces that have produced New Orleans and its patterns of social relations and that will shape its and its residents’ future.” Simon, help us make sense. For Dave Thier at The Atlantic, “the most obvious problem with Treme is that it is boring…. Simon could ask all the same questions about New Orleans that he did about Baltimore, but his infatuation with the city clouds his eye.” Ask the same questions.

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