This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile
It’s not Dickens. That’s one thing I’ve gotten wrong every time I’ve stepped up and tried to correct one of the many television critics who don’t seem to understand Treme, tried to explain where David Simon’s work fits in the history of socially critical literature.
There are some similarities. Hell yes Simon’s oeuvre functions as social criticism could have just as easily been the subject of George Orwell’s book on Dickens in which he argues that all literature is propaganda, would have been dissected avidly and long into the night at any meeting of a Hollywood cell of the Communist Party in the late 1940s.
It is episodic, as Dickens was. With the exception of a few plays, Charles Dickens was paid by the word to write for magazines in installments. You could argue that the rich detail of Dickens is just a function of getting paid by the word. There’s a chapter in Orwell’s essay in which he talks about Dickens’s tendency to go on, to throw in extraneous details to eke out a few more pence and in the process, create what Orwell calls “that special Dickens atmosphere.” He’s wrong. In his example, he cites the description of what’s on the table as a family sits down to dinner as extraneous. It’s not. A shoulder of mutton on potatoes tells you in an instant something about the class of the characters. What can they afford to eat. What are they inclined to eat. It’s that single detail outside of the dialogue that helps fix the scene. It’s Raymond Carver-esque even as Dickens is the anti-Carver. And it’s cinematic. If you started a scene in Treme on a tight shot of a bar table with no patrons in sight I could tell you something about the characters before the shot opened up. Is it an Abita Amber or a Heineken, a PBR or an Olde English? Or is it a sazerac, a martini or a plastic cup 180 daiquiri?
Treme is not Dickens because it is based almost entirely on characters you could find yourself next to in the check out line at Rouse’s. The Wire is closer to Dickens: Omar, Bubbles, The Greek: these are characters that could have sprung from the mind of Dickens. There’s a great satire of The Wire as nineteenth century, socially critical novel that explains all this better than I ever could. If you didn’t read it the first time I posted it, go do so know. I’ll have a smoke while you’re gone.
OK, maybe it’s only funny to an English major. But go back and read the money quote: “Dickens’s success for the most part lies in his mastery of the serial format. Other serialized authors were mainly writing episodic sketches linked together only loosely by plot, characters, and a uniformity of style. With Oliver Twist, only his second volume of work, Dickens began to define an altogether new type of novel, one that was more complex, more psychologically and metaphorically contiguous.”
What makes that piece at once hilarious and apt is that it not only masters the style of an academic journal article, it’s full of real details that make the point, like the one above.
And that’s what I sat down to write about. So many television critics don’t get Treme because it’s not television. Television in the end is a medium, a delivery system, as much as it is a genre, or really a set of genres. We need something like the seven ranks of biology. Let’s call it a family, leaving room for genus (dramatic cable serial) and species (Treme). Now let’s take that apart, start from a new hypothesis. Treme is not a new species. It’s a new genus. Maybe an entirely new family. It breaks the system wide open, and leaves the fusty old fellows at the Royal Society shaking their heads. They can’t wrap their minds around it.
In fairness to most critics, if you’re trying to crank out reviews like the Colonel cranks out chicken, you need to stick to the formula. Something like Treme comes along and you run it through the formula and out comes a low score. Where’s the tension? Where’s the action? Where’s the weekly resolution? It’s on HBO for chrissakes. Where’s the explicit sex? Why don’t we see the criminal violence on screen?
Treme takes us to an entirely new place. I just recently finished Season Four of The Wire with my son. Last night Omar attacks someone with a shiv, brutally stabbing him in the anus, blood everywhere. It’s gruesome and it’s perfect. Omar is the sociopath with a heart of gold, but to understand the violence and its roots (at least partially in mainstream black culture’s view of gay men) you need that deeply uncomfortable scene. In Treme we don’t get that. Salon critic Matt Zoller Seitz complained that we don’t see LaDonna fight back against her attackers, that we cut away to other characters and other stories. “Simon and series co-creator Eric Overmyer have been staunch about treating every character and subplot as more or less equal; this was apparently Simon’s philosophy on ‘The Wire.’ But there are times when I think a series has to budge from that philosophy, and take advantage of series TV’s capacity to be elastic, and stretch to emphasize particular stories and downplay (or ignore) others.”
And he’s right, if what you are expecting from Treme is derivative television, but it’s not.
Another critic complains about the show’s tendency to hard cut between scenes, even breaking out the textbook definition of scene. Edward Copeland (and a few others, I’m not sure who started this and who’s ripping off who) complain specifically about the hard cuts between Janette watching Delmond’s first tentative steps toward blending his modern jazz with old New Orleans and the spoken word event attended by Davis and his buddy at which Gian Smith speaks his poem O Beautiful Storm. “There’s no reason why those two scenes could not be shown as a CONTINUOUS RELATED whole”, Copeland complains, emphasizing the fourth definition of scene. Geez, Mr. Simon, that’s how it’s done.
And in conventional television, he’s right. Conventional television is like KFC, to return to my earlier analogy. It’s not Popeye’s. It’s seasoned to appeal to middle American tastes, and carefully portion controlled. You walk into any KFC, you know what to expect. They’ve got the formula down.
Simon and episode director Rob Baily choose instead to hard cut between the scenes because it ties together Smith’s evocation of the complex pain and beauty of the post-Karina experience to Delmond’s burgeoning transformation, gives us a different and cinematic version of the novelistic internal monologue or omniscient narrator, reveals via the poem the complex emotions bubbling inside of Delmond that come out as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Milneberg Joys”. If you don’t blend those two moments together you lose that connection, that indirect and perfect view into Delmond’s state of mind.
This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.
A lot of the criticism of Treme on blogs and blog comments call Treme boring. Compared to The Wire, where the commission of the crimes is explicit, perhaps it is. The Wire was a crime drama at its heart, if a very complex one with an agenda. At any moment violence can explode, a constant tension anyone who’s walked through the wrong part of town immediately and viscerally understands. Treme is understated and focuses on character first. The story is advanced as a feature of character development, rather than having the characters dragged along by the story. Again, if your reference is formulaic television, or even formulaic beach-book literature, Treme probably is boring.
If we’re going to look at Treme and the rest of Simon’s work as the latest incarnation of the novel of social criticism, let’s talk about one of the great 20th Century social novelists, John Steinbeck, for a minute. (Settle down, settle down, Prez says. Back in your seats.). What happens in the first section of Of Mice and Men? Two hobos find a place to camp, and sit there and talk. One of them is mentally retarded, which doesn’t make for sparkling dialogue. Come on, admit it. You were forced to read this in high school and reading that section was worse than church. A great deal happens later in the book, but it is all driven by the characters in the circumstance, the characters meticulously drawn in those opening pages.
Treme may not be Dickens, or exactly Steinbeck (although the latter is a better analogy), but it stands in the long progression of socially conscious and critical novels that helped to transform the world in which they appeared. Treme ultimately confounds the critics because it moves beyond what is possible in conventional television and even conventional cinema, where only the top dollar auteur dares take three hours to try to tell a full and complete story in the way a novelist can. Treme is that rare specimen that upsets the established order: this is television, that is a novel. We can trace its place in the Darwinian tree of life taxonomy, but like Darwin it upends the simplicities of Linneaus Systema Naturæ.
If I keep coming back to the word novel it is because Treme is where the auteur gets chocolate on the novelist’s peanut butter, and vice versa. What emerges is rich and satisfying and complex in ways that bad candy analogy can’t begin to describe. There is a great deal of hand-wringing and chatter in literary circles about the death of the literary novel at the hands of bottom-line media conglomerate publishers and a public more inclined to watch than to read. The intelligent, literate novel may in fact go the way of poetry: authors writing for each other, a tiny audience and no money, ultimately so irrelevant it can’t manage to sustain its own channel on cable.
But culture doesn’t die. As Ray elegantly explained here in his Diaspora post, one form leads to another. Is Treme the mistake that ends the career that started with Homicide and ends on the streets of New Orleans, or is it the beginning of something entirely new, an evolutionary leap, a fusion of the novel with cinematic television? Salman Rushdie announced recently his next work would not be a novel but a serialized cable television science fiction drama. The original article in The Guardian was couched to suggest Rushdie was positing the end of the novel, that television of the sort that The Wire and Treme made possible was the wave of the future.
I can’t wait to see what the television critics, some of whom may have actually read The Satanic Verses but probably not Grimus or Midnight’s Children, critics whose idea of magical realism is formed by season four of True Blood, will make of that.