I find it only appropriate that my first viewing of Treme was on videotape. The grainy lack of clarity was a component of those days so it is only fitting it should inform this re-imagining of them.
Yes there were errors. There was much more dust and grime in the air and coating everything due to the drought that came in Katrina’s wake. There was nowhere near that much green because the plants had pretty much all drowned. Quite a number of inconsistencies actually, but you know what? I don’t think that matters.
Let me tell you why. The vast majority of the HBO’s audience does not live in New Orleans. Shocking, I know, but true. To them this is an alien world, one obscured by the patina of tragedy and the mystique of legend. For them this stands as the most accurate and undiluted glimpse of New Orleans available without physically going there. How long have we all complained at length that people in The Big Easy and other efforts always sound like they’re from Atlanta or Birmingham and not New Orleans? Well for the most part this sounds right. People sound like New Orleanians more often than not. That alone is a step forward.
It was accurate enough to engender an intense bout of homesickness. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Kermit at Vaughan’s. It’s been so long since I had anything other than f-ing frozen Chinese crawfish. Brass is almost non-existent in Ohio music and what there is lacks that shake your ass decadence that NOLA bands exude without trying. Treme was close enough to home to make me get a knot in my throat. It’s the most I’ve wanted a cigarette since I quit them.
As someone who has now been living on the “outside” I cannot express how happy I am to see this on the air. Yes it is a simplification, that is not always a bad thing. If it builds over time, as all good series do, there will be numerous opportunities to add nuance. Look at any of your favorite TV series, go back and check out its first episode and you’ll see that as far as beginnings go this is a solid one. It serves to communicate a reasonably accurate picture of things to those who have no context for it outside of their five year-old memories of histrionic newscasts. That picture can be brought into tighter focus for the viewers as the future seasons play out.
It is the feel, the magical atmosphere that New Orleans has even on its bad days, that is important. It gets across things that are different from other places, like the pervasive nature of music in the city and the combination of cultural standard bearers and jackass hipsters that swirl around it. Like the high standards born of proximity to the water – “I won’t have f*cking frozen crawfish in my kitchen!” Living in Cincy for almost a year now has really reminded me just how much of a cultural variant NOLA is when compared to the rest of the USA. In this regard I think Treme is on the right track.
Three months later places the pilot episode in November of ’05. Here is a small excerpt from one of my HumidCity posts at that time:
Uptown is an island in the midst of a sea of chaos. It is truly bizarre to think that mountains of refuse, empty streetcar tracks, and all the other details of Post-K life are not only the “new normality,” but also vastly better than neighborhoods only a few blocks or miles away. A few blocks on the other side of St Charles Avenue it goes completely dark. No power, streetlights, or anything. Yet I know people living there, camping out in their homes using generators for heat and refrigeration (if they have a working fridge which is rare). A few minutes away lies the total devastation of Lakeview and the Lower 9. A trip into those areas is a disturbing and frightening thing.
Now let’s get this straight, I’m one of the lucky ones. While my wife and I were displaced to NYC with our cats for six weeks, we returned to find that most of our stuff had survived. We had been moving into an old slaves quarters when the storm came. That apartment was in the Isle of Denial you heard them talking about in Treme. That means that everything we had already moved there was high and dry. Meanwhile three blocks away the water lines began. Most of our belongings made it. We were incredibly lucky.
That said I have to admit that this is a very hard one for me to watch. Two of the main characters are based on people in my social circle, one of whom is dead now. More of the secondary characters remind me of people I know. The red-headed guy with the long hair is actually my friend Henry Griffin who does dance like that all the time. The DJ at WWOZ, (NOT Davis) reminds me of a few different announcers I worked with there. And so on. In so many ways it is as accurate as the constraints of dramatic television will allow. I must say that I do somewhat fear the possible dilution of my own memories of this time that may come hand in hand with the story becoming art. We shall see over the course of the next few episodes.
I loved it, it made me homesick as hell. It also made me really remember again the ugliness of those days, the feeling of living on the edge of civilization. I used to joke that we were in the Forbidden Zone from Planet of the Apes. Despite eliciting that feeling in me I don’t think it adequately communicates the crazy weird feel that seeped like humidity through the streets in the wake of the levee failures.
I will be watching it. I’m cautious but fairly optimistic. If they can maintain this it will be a great thing. The rest of the country fails to “get it” because of a lack f context. Treme seems to be a good first step towards providing that context. Isn’t that part of what we have all been blogging towards since those early days?
In the final analysis my feelings are mixed. I need time and more viewings to see what I rightfully attribute to the work itself and what is actually the resonating homesickness in my heart vibrating in time to the themes of post levee failure trials and displacement.
One last thing: No matter what problems some may have with the scene where Albert Lambreaux comes out in his indian suit it was brilliantly powerful to sit here in Ohio and hear the refrain that so epitomizes NOLA, “Won’t bow. Don’t know how.”