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This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile

August 31, 2011

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.

5 Comments
  1. 3Suns permalink
    August 31, 2011 9:46 pm

    Great insights, Mark. Good read.

    I just finished my 6th rewatching of The Wire last night. It got me thinking, if Peter Jackson was able to squeeze most of Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings Trilogy into 12 or so hours of film, how many books would it take to write The Wire. It probably shouldn’t even be attempted. I agree that The Wire, and now Treme, are the prototypes of a whole new type of episodic entertainment in the world of film/TV. It is like all the TV shows to this point were comic books, and now we have finally been given the 400 page novel. To make an ironic analogy, we no longer need illustrations in our books. We are intelligent enough to read books without pictures, and there are writers out there who respect our intelligence and are willing to craft deep and intricate stories for us.

    Referring to the article you linked, I also agree with Salman Rushdie in his appreciation for many of the new TV shows, and his recognition of the limitations (and diminshing quality) of feature films. There are some highly entertaining, well-written and acted television serials out there – Breaking Bad being one of my favorites.

    There is, however, a unique co-operation between film and narration in The Wire and Treme that hasn’t yet been duplicated in episodic content, I think. Even having seen The Wire as many times as I have, I cannot let the show just play in the background. More than any other show or movie for me, it needs to be “watched” at least as much as “listened to”. The nature and frequency of the cuts and the fact that many short but essential scenes are without dialog make just listening a no-go. I would say that there is more story in x minutes of The Wire than there is in most single episodes of other TV shows, including those as well done as Rushdie’s example, Mad Men.

    As an aside, strangely enough, I find Treme more difficult to rewatch than The Wire. The characters (ordinary people) and struggles (mostly just trying to survive and get to a place where higher level goals are possible) presented in Treme are closer to my own life experiences than that of those in The Wire. Simultaneously, the lighter, more entertaining aspects of Treme, (i.e., the sights, sounds, culture, food) are something for which I have no first hand experience or knowledge at all and am just “Oh, is that how it is? Cool.”. In that sense, the tragedy presented is harder to “relive” while the comedy in the classical sense is less accessible.

    “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.”

    I am still trying to figure out Treme. Your article brings me a little closer to that goal, and into greater appreciation for, and enjoyment of, the show.

  2. Anita permalink
    September 1, 2011 9:07 pm

    I have much to thank you for, you and Ray and all the other writers here at BOT, including the thoughtful commenters. I have enjoyed this community so much.

    This essay is really wonderful to read. I more or less had virtual fisticuffs with two of those critics but had not the knowledge or even the frame of reference to adequately express my passionate but mostly instinctive objections to their criticisms. I am glad you addressed the issues here.

    As for being a ‘new genus’, I think that’s the truth of Treme (and, as you say, The Wire, which I have not yet seen). The audience is not just the initial viewers but also all those who will find the work because it is recommended by someone they respect. That entire audience is made up of discriminating viewers, people who don’t mind thinking and being challenged. It might not be a massive majority, but for the sake of humanity, I really hope it is not diminishing. Popularity is truly not a sufficient reason for watching or reading anything but excellence is and always will be.

    It is not yet the optimum time for me to start on The Wire, which I’ve been saving for the fall. The 8-29 anniversary had to be observed and a little more time must pass. I know that once I start I will need to watch those fifty hours more than once or twice, as 3Suns is doing. When I start, I will be looking for what people like the BOTers have written about The Wire.

    “Treme is where the auteur gets chocolate on the novelist’s peanut butter, and vice versa,” just cracked me up. Recently, I have been indulging a very inappropriate summer craving for those chocolate peanut butter cups. (Inappropriate only because it’s August and they’re easily smushed in the heat.) Your bad candy analogy is not at all bad–once you get a taste of what synergistic delights are possible when someone like Simon chooses his own ingredients, mixes up the categories and breaks all the rules, the rest of the lineup is just not good enough.

    For 3Suns — Each year the ‘season’ for second lines begins in September and some Krewes have get togethers. One such parading party passed my house on Saturday night. About nine o’clock, I heard a brass band and costumed revelers paraded from pub to pub in my otherwise quiet, leafy neighborhood. I went to the balcony and stood there in the dark, smiling as they passed. Yes, it is like that. It is still like that.

  3. 3Suns permalink
    September 1, 2011 11:13 pm

    Anita, that is awesome! No doubt moments like those make so much hardship more bearable.

    (And Reese’s treats are delightful anytime of the year! Hint: if it is too hot, stick with the Pieces.)

  4. September 3, 2011 12:33 pm

    Then there’s Homicide, which was inspired by David Simon’s book about the Baltimore homicide squad. The more seasons of Homicide you see — first season is 1993 — the more you see what was learned from Barry Levinson and his writers on that series, even to how they began using music as commentary beds as well as source audio in season 3. Television wasn’t on my radar even in 1993, but I can imagine what a shock to the television viewer’s system Homicide must have been back then.

    In the meantime I hope everyone in New Orleans is doing OK. One friend, transmitting e-mail via his running out battery on his laptop said he’d been without power quite a while and that there was much flooding. “Lee packs serious business,” he says.

    We’re supposed to get fallout from Lee up here and even further, into New England, bringing at least 4 more inches of rain. So much of the region is still experiencing flooding as the rivers haven’t yet crested.

    This has been the worst year for weather disasters of every kind I’ve ever known.

    Love, C.

  5. mistlethrush1 permalink
    September 3, 2011 5:26 pm

    How wise and wonderful to equate the storytelling of Treme with Dickens’s serial works. The details that Orwell dismissed as Dickens scrabbling for a few more pence are the same sort of thing that modern critics pooh-pooh when they take swipes at Treme for being boring. So many people get their main entertainment from film and television that I think the slower pace of actual character-driven story telling doesn’t compute–at first–to some viewers

    I see Treme more as story-telling than a television ‘show’ because you need to think about it in order to follow the narrative rather than passively being shown everything–you have to involve yourself with the characters and their varied points of view because therein lies the richness of Simon’s work. I thank you and everyone else who posts here for showing me even more than I am able to read so much more into this story.

    I hope all of you are safe and snug with Lee spinning his bands of rain and rain your way.

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