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Dialing It Back

April 20, 2010

Episode-2 wasn’t as successful as the pilot in some ways BUT I liked the changes I saw in Davis and Creighton. Both John Goodman and Steve Zahn dialed it back a few notches. In short, they dished out less ham. Creighton was less of a ranter and shows signs of becoming a fully realized character as opposed to a caricature.

In the pilot, Zahn was frenetic, manic and generally OTT, in Meet De Boys, the performance was  energetic as opposed to frantic. It makes Davis more interesting and *may* placate some of the Davis haters. I just read all the comments to Maitri’s post, The Battlefront, which has an epic debate between pro and anti factions: the latter  cabal includes my friends the cartoonist and the tabloid editor. 57 comments and counting. Hmm, that reminds me of Springsteen’s dig at cable teevee, 57 Channels.

I come down on the pro-Davis side even though I can see why people think he’s egregiously obnoxious. He *is* obnoxious but I saw a nicer side to the character when he was manning the desk at the hotel. As a French Quarter merchant, I’ve dealt with the types who came Davis’ way: the drunkenly clueless Texans were spot on. Davis bit his tongue and ignored their douchebaggery, which is what you gotta do. I thought he was quite sweet to the young volunteers. Apparently, some viewers thought he was being an asshole and sending them into harm’s way. I disagree, he decided to give them an authentic New Orleans musical experience and they loved it. Their interactions with Antoine were hilarious, he, of course, was flirtatious as hell with the girls but that’s just Antoine being Antoine. (Earth to the very fertile Antoine: wear a Jimmy hat for chrissake.)

Now that I’ve praised the changes in Zahn’s performance, it’s time to bury the opening scene. I was hoping, praying and lighting candles that we could have a teevee show set in NOLA with nary a mention of voodoo, which has become such a cliche in a fictional setting and in the tourist driven economy of the Quarter: paging Angel Heart. The scene *was* entertaining, how could anything with Coco Robicheaux be anything else? I could, however, have lived without it. The real witch doctors in Debrisville, after all, wear cassocks and dog collars…

Finally, I got a kick out of seeing the wide-eyed slightly goofy young volunteers in this episode. The city was full of them for years and they’re still coming albeit in diminishing numbers. I’ve met a lot of them and liked at least 95% of them. The only malakas among the voluntourists tend to be Baptists from the Deep South but the church groups from the Midwest are all right with me, Jack.

-Adrastos

31 Comments
  1. April 20, 2010 10:51 am

    What I don’t get is why is it a bad thing to hate a character?

    Who cares if people love him or hate him? The characters are there to tell a story. Not all of them are supposed to be likable ( thank Christ). This isn’t primetime network cream of wheat.

    I sincerely doubt anyone did anything to try and placate the people who hate the character. Simon warned the real Davis Rogan that people would not like his character. He’s not supposed to be likable.

    He is however, supposed to change over time. But it’s not gonna have a damn thing to do with whether people out here like him. It will have to do with the story and what the character has to do in service to the story.

  2. adrastosno permalink
    April 20, 2010 11:07 am

    I feel ya, Virgo. It’s okay not to like him what I think of as dialing it back is the acting style. Zahn muted his energy level after the pilot because he needed to. He was uber hammy in the pilot and is now more like a real person with flaws and virtues instead of a toon.

  3. liprap permalink
    April 20, 2010 11:33 am

    I agree with you on the authentic New Orleans experience advice Zahn’s Davis gave to the Wisconsin kids…he was trying to do right by what they wanted, but I also loved the reaction of his when he told ’em to go to the Clover for breakfast, then realized he’d just put a crimp in his own style by doing that. And I’m in the camp that tends to see his untenable misadventures as dumbassedly funny and annoying at this point more than anything else, and there he is, blustering his way through it all with a bunch of SAT words spewing from his mouth.

  4. jeffreyb permalink
    April 20, 2010 12:36 pm

    The hotel situation amused me. Like Adrastos I’ve been there. In fact I’ve been behind those very front desks and I promise you the drunken Texans were absolutely spot-on. On the other hand, Davis would not have been fired for the kids having gone missing simply because he recommended a bar to them. That’s just stupid. Now, he could have been reprimanded for implying to the guests that the tour packages and other such traps the concierge might sell them for a commission are less “authentic” than his honest opinion. The script didn’t cover that issue specifically but you did see Zahn convey the conflict through his universally-praised-on-this-site acting skills. I very much appreciated that moment.

    And there you have my one nice thing to say about Treme for this week.

  5. April 20, 2010 1:25 pm

    It is always interesting to see what people focus on. That the Davis character seems to send people in conniptions means it was written and acted correctly. I have a hard time understanding how the character takes people out of the story.

    The Davis character template, down to the obnoxious behavior and over the top attitude, can be found in some shape or form in every neighborhood of New Orleans. As a matter of fact, individuals like this can be found in every “cool” city in the world.

    Notice how the character is able to move throughout the story; this guy knows everyone. Even in a city as well connected as New Orleans, he is more connected than you. He goes to second lines and gets dapped up, friends throw him beers; he knows the location of all the “authentic” places, and gets to hang with the musicians after the show. He is obsessed with “authenticity” in a way that makes you hate authenticity.

    You suspect him of judging your own authenticity, even as you judge his. And you end up hating yourself for this, even as he bounces along on his merry, self-involved way, overexcited about the next once-shiny-thing to which he will ascribe personal overimportance.

    He knows all the people you meet before you meet them, and knows all the local secrets before you know them. He’s banging the hot owner of one of town’s hot new restaurants with no strings attached. Even though she kicks him out, you know she’ll take him to bed again (because all these responsible women have to have an infuriating boy/man in their lives to justify their sacrifices); the same way the musicians he smothers in obnoxiousness will offer him a hit off their joint next time they see him.

    Triangulated precariously between hipster, townie and douchebag – we all know that guy or gal. He gets away with behavior reserved for only a few of the most special castes on the planet, he takes this ability completely for granted, and this is white-knuckle enraging.

    I love this character.

  6. liprap permalink
    April 20, 2010 1:35 pm

    Hell to the yes, Coozan.

  7. virgotex permalink*
    April 20, 2010 1:40 pm

    exactly.

  8. April 20, 2010 1:42 pm

    I used to have this same discussion in every creative writing workshop I took and/or taught: just because something is true, doesn’t mean it makes a good story. That character might exist in every city, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good or appropriate or well written *fictional character* in a particular *story*.

    Do guys like that exist? Sure. Do I want to spend time with them, in reality or otherwise? No. Not as he’s written & acted, that’s for sure.

  9. April 20, 2010 2:01 pm

    I think my degree of separation helps me to find him funny as hell. I don’t have nearly as much invested in what he means to the context. Now if it were a pseud0-granola tech-riche model type clipping ankles with her $1000 stroller on a Seattle sidewalk, I’d be in a rage…

    (Re: the acting–I think Steve Zahn is doing his thing, which is playing a self-conscious character. I think by looking at previous roles as the zany rapscallion, we can find a thread of smart people who see themselves outside of their own situations. Remember “That Thing You Do?” “I’m in the Pig Pavilion and I’m going to win FIRST PRIZE!” The thing is, his characters can’t see their own situations clearly because of that separation. That’s where the annoyance comes in. You just want to shake him and say, “you just don’t GET IT, man!” Self-consciousness is tricky, because it can look like bad acting. I just don’t see it that way here. But again, see above.)

  10. Kevin permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:06 pm

    That the Davis character seems to send people in conniptions means it was written and acted correctly.

    Pat, I’d respectfully disagree with you. It reminds me of the argument that since Sarah Palin sends (some) liberals into conniptions, she’s on the right track. Davis/Zahn sends me into conniptions because I don’t think the character is well-written or -acted.

    I don’t want to turn Back of Town into the Zahnblog, so maybe I’ll shut up now — or perhaps Les Modérateurs would like to start a thread where we can argue his (de-)merits and leave decent people to debate the rest of the show.

  11. April 20, 2010 2:17 pm

    Patrick just likes him because they have the same beard.

  12. liprap permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:18 pm

    I concur with Ray on his Tweeter Tube feed: it’s looking like one day a week may well be set aside just to bash Zahn/Davis at this rate. Sheeit.

  13. April 20, 2010 2:31 pm

    But, respectfully, don’t you think white appropriation of black culture, has to be part of this story, in which New Orleans music is at the center of the drama? Or a part of any story about New Orleans. To not address it would seem to be a pretty big omission, wouldn’t it? And isn’t that what Davis is about?

  14. April 20, 2010 2:33 pm

    I understand that disagreement. My point is that the character is written and acted in this infuriating way intentionally. I do not think it is an accident that he sends people into conniptions. I do not think it is an accident that people think this is a badly written or overacted character.

    A character suffering simply from bad writing or bad acting would be forgettable, but even you admit you don’t want BoT to turn into Zahnblog (or, barring any further nudity scenes, Back of Zahn). Of all the things in the first two episodes, this character’s behavior has rubbed nerves raw.

    It takes a manic understanding of both Stuff White People Like and Hot Chicks With Douchebags to a design a character this in tune with a societal construct as unavoidable and innocuous as loathed.

    Hell, I figured people (not familiar to NOLA) would reject the ideas of second lines and jazz funerals and the broken criminal justice system as fiction. So color me fascinated that the people who know all of those things to be facts are ruptered from the WSOD by the Davis character: the cultural commonality between New Orleans and the likes of New York City, San Francisco, Austin, Athens, Chapel Hill, Memphis, Portland, etc. etc. etc.

    And your analogy with Sarah Palin is fantastic. My point is that the character that she plays on television is written and acted in an infuriating way specifically to appeal to the cliches most associated with one party’s political base and the other party’s political anathema. Like the Davis character, I think Palin’s tightly scripted persona is intentional.

  15. April 20, 2010 2:34 pm

    Ohhh. Burn.

  16. adrastosno permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:37 pm

    Ahh, the tabloid editor and Toon Boy have joined the thread. Excellent. I’m surprised that Jeffrey tormented his souls by watching again. He’s right that Davis would have been reprimanded for not selling something to the punters via the concierge desk.

  17. April 20, 2010 2:41 pm

    I’m going to wander away from this site, either because I’m no longer a skilled enough writer to make myself understood, or because I don’t see every argument as a fight and don’t feel like internet arguing any more:

    I agree with every sentence of Virgo’s quote, with the possible exception of the last. (I think he’s about more than that — he’s also about privilege, real and imagined, and about the commercialization of a culture.) My objection is to *how the character is handled, written, and performed*, not about what he stands for. In a show full of crafty jazz and ensemble playing, he’s a cheap seat yahoo with an airhorn.

  18. April 20, 2010 2:45 pm

    I can dig that, GP. But if you’re telling a story revolving around music, especially music in New Orleans, ignoring this archetype would be guilt by omission.

  19. April 20, 2010 3:04 pm

    I too thought this episode was stronger that the opener and agree that toning down Davis’ character helped a great deal. I also like the developing contrast between the characters played by Wendell Pierce and Clark Peters. But my favorite scene was when Peters’ son took the stage with Big Sam and Galactica: He had trouble getting started, but then the rhythm and the music of the city found its place in his soul and he played with authority.

    The weakest scene — to the point of being excruciating — was the busker putting down the volunteers from Wisconsin. I’m not from NOLA, but anyone who is that I’ve spoken with had nothing but good things to say about the volunteers. It was no more reasonable to expect them to have heard about the Lower 9 than to expect the buskers to know the names of the neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

    For my money, Davis sent the volunteers to Bullets with the best of intentions: He wanted them to experience the city he loves with its residents, not other tourists. I’d be thrilled if a hotel clerk sent me there.

  20. jeffrey permalink
    April 20, 2010 3:28 pm

    Oh I’m afraid I’m in this for the long haul, A.

    Also regarding Davis, I’m 100% behind Patrick on this. He’s kind of a douchebag and there are a lot of those here. Virgo mentioned something about “white appropriation of black culture” which I think is only half true. New Orleans’ racial history, and particularly the history of jazz music, is more complicated and interesting than that. I wonder if this jazz-centric show will come close to making that point.

  21. liprap permalink
    April 20, 2010 3:34 pm

    I think they already hinted at it a little with Big Sam inviting Costello out to see Galactic and having the Englishman turn up his nose at the fact that white guys were playing. Elvis, man, just say you’re tired.

    Then again, from what I understand, it is consistent with MacManus’ history of how he tries to get out of conversations…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elvis_Costello

  22. April 20, 2010 4:00 pm

    Of course the racial history of New Orleans and the history of New Orleans jazz is more complicated and interesting than that. I wasn’t saying otherwise. Nor was I saying that this was the only thing Davis represents. What I said was that I didn’t believe this particular story could be told without referencing cultural appropriation.

  23. April 20, 2010 4:12 pm

    A character can be unlikable or obnoxious but be a Great Character, that the audience appreciates very much.

    If a ‘good’ character’ mean only a character filled with virtue and likeable by all, all the time, storytelling would have died the death a long time ago.

  24. wev permalink
    April 20, 2010 6:22 pm

    I thought it was a superb scene when Davis heard those kids had joined Delmore for a tour of the real New Orleans. He sees them standing there perfectly fine and telling him they had a great time but he perfectly conveys his fear and nausea upon realizing what could have happened to them. So he sends them to his own choice of a breakfast place and only then realizes that he will have to go somewhere else. It’s minimal, perhaps, but I think it foreshadows some growing up on Davis’s part.

    I’ve already established that I’m not a Davis lover but maddening characters can be well done. (I’m reminded of Lost where a lot of spleen has been vented by fans toward the character of Benjamin Linus. I read that, once they found how much we loved to hate him, his part was bumped up to major proportions over many seasons.)

    My favorite line of episode two is Antoine telling Desiree as he prepared to go to Algiers, “For you, girl, I cross mighty rivers and shit.”

  25. brueso10 permalink
    April 20, 2010 8:37 pm

    Citizen- re Sonny being snarky with the tourists: again, he’s one guy- he (and his partner) don’t represent all buskers. Some buskers wouldn’t ‘go there’- that’s guy got a dark streak. Maybe it is foreshadowing towards a “Shake the Devil” end- who knows? But one of the things that Simon and Co. talked about at the panel discussion during the Tenn Wms Fest was that they weren’t going to portray New Orleans as a place where everyone gets along. It makes sense that along with that, and with people still recovering from the stress of a long series of months, now and then you’re going to get a jerk someone who’s supposed to be a resident that’s a jerk.

    As far as Zahn’s performance goes- folks, if the powers that be weren’t satisfied with Steve Zahn’s performance, they would change it. It’s not like they go “Ooops – ol Steve was kind of annoying there- do you want to say something to him?” “No- I’m afraid I’ll hurt his feelings- do you want to say something to him?” That ain’t the way it works. So be CERTAIN that he was doing what they wanted, or he’d have gotten 86ed.

    And for that matter, you can bet that his character- like every character – is going to serve the story. He won’t be disappeared or kept on because the fans want it that way. Simon repeatedly had to deal with that kind of thing in The Wire and some of his decisions upset some fans, but he’s telling the story he wants to tell, not the story that got voted favorite by the audience.

  26. April 21, 2010 8:34 am

    I know I’ve linked to it before, and possibly in this thread, but that scene with the tourists was pretty much dead on for a common attitude at the time. http://tunedin.blogs.time.com/2010/04/19/treme-watch-david-simon-on-pity-and-tourists/#more-9512

    “New Orleanians got tired of defending their city’s right to exist (the old city being above sea level and other American cities existing with problematic natural risk factors (San Francisco, earthquake; Phoenix, water use, etc.). They were disgusted with the folks who wanted to write them off or talk about the opportunities Katrina presented (God got rid of the housing projects when government couldn’t, from a certain congressman…) And, too, there was overwhelming, almost pornographic curiosity about the lower ninth ward, as if it was the only place drowned by the waters. New Orleanians, black and white, recognized that the focus on a singular narrative — the poor people got left behind to drown — was very satisfying to outsiders who wanted to make a particular political point.”

    Even though the scene was cruel, it was funny and it fit. Also interesting to me is that I’ve seen several negative reactions to that scene from non-New Orleanians — which I expect was part of the point. It’s provocative and the underlying question is “what’s wrong with _that_ guy?!” I have little doubt that there will be scenes and storylines that irritate everyone in different ways.

    And Davis has a different reaction it seems to the tourist crew. He contrasts them with the earlier Texas(I assume) tourists and see their desire to see a bit more of the city as genuine. So he sends them to some place much more to his own taste. I definitely didn’t read it as him sending them into potential harm maliciously.

  27. April 21, 2010 9:10 am

    The Treme Jazz blog found this defense of Davis, which is a good read and puts a different perspective on things:

    http://treme-jazz.com/found-someone-who-doesnt-despise-steve-zahns-treme-character

  28. April 21, 2010 9:24 am

    Hey, if someone had sent me to Bullet’s during my first visit to New Orleans, I would’ve kissed them. Even if it’s in a neighborhood supposedly “unsafe for people not from that ‘hood.”

  29. April 21, 2010 11:36 am

    I also got a bad Zack vibe from this character, and it’s an irresistable storyline. I rather hope they take his end, whatever it is, in a different drection as thinking about that incident still makes my skin crawl.

  30. brueso permalink
    April 21, 2010 12:27 pm

    Been speculating about where the ‘where’s LaDonna’s brother’ subplot is going to go and whether Anwan Glover’s cameo was more than just a glimpse of a “guy Wire-heads would be glad to see”. Toni said that prisoners were stealing bracelets. It’s probably not too much to guess that the REAL person Anwan was playing (if he had some serious crimes already on his record, or had done something serious this time) could’ve grabbed LaDonna’s real brother’s bracelet off him knowing that he was going to get out sooner than that guy would’ve on his own. (And how would he get his bracelet off him? Could’ve been a series of beat-downs- or worse).

  31. Tim permalink
    April 21, 2010 7:36 pm

    Cousin Pat, nice post, I like the Davis character just fine – for much the same reasons. As we get to know him better, we may be surprised. He is annoying, but he’s intelligent and probably has a decent heart.

    The Albert Lambreaux character is my favorite (so far), though.

    Doesn’t anyone remember Twin Peaks? I haven’t seen The Wire, but the characters in Twin Peaks went through wild arcs, especially the ones you were led to believe were the “evil ones.”

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