Critiques of Treme abound. It’s brilliant. It’s abysmal. Too much music—fast forward through it. Nothing happens. It’s merely a delivery system for David Simon’s politics that, hey, isn’t—multiple choice for you—a. As good as The Wire, b. Isn’t thorough like The Wire, c. Isn’t the damn Wire. (Please don’t misunderstand. I am a total Wire fan, own the box set and number Omar among my personal heroes. I even have a signed post-it note wherein I accuse Mr. Simon of killing the above mentioned Omar. One of my prized possessions.)
Let’s just get that part over with. You’re correct. Treme is not called The Wire and that decision was made on purpose. It also wasn’t titled The Wire: Port of Call New Orleans, and not just so that it wouldn’t be mistaken for a part of the Port of Call movie franchise. It was never set up to take on Central City corner boys, then move on to the Avondale Shipyards until we finally ended up inside City Hall, the Recovery School District and the Times-Picayune. Just sayin’. So now that that’s out of everyone’s system, let’s go back to the various critiques. There’s plenty to say about all of them, but I’m just going to focus on one.
One that I didn’t mention above is one I’ve not seen in national reviews, but one I’ve heard mentioned here in New Orleans in bars and coffee houses. It’s one that I have been baffled by from the first time I heard it way back in Season One: The show shouldn’t have been made, it’s not telling the story right, it’s not depicting our population correctly, it’s not. . . .aw, hell, there are several “it’s not” statements along those lines, and frankly none of them make a lick of sense to me.
When I was a kid I remember going to bed and hearing the tv still on in the living room. My parents were watching for a bit without us kids nagging for Lassie or some such. It was a voice, male, steady. I’d be almost at that drift off place before sleep completely takes over and I’d hear him. “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one.” I’d try to stay awake to hear what that one was. What story? Tell me. TELL ME! Then I’d fall asleep and ask my mom over breakfast to tell me what the story was. She’d inevitably say that it was a story for grownups and that would be the end of that. Oh I so wanted to hear that story, whatever it was. And there were eight million of them. The man said so. I could possibly go my entire life hearing one a night until I died and maybe not hear them all and that idea was as enticing as a chocolate cake that couldn’t be touched til the relatives arrived.
I have given a lot of thought to the “it’s not” categories of critique and have come to a conclusion that many will no doubt disagree with: Some of the people maintaining that it shouldn’t have been made because it’s not telling the story to their satisfaction are upset that it’s not telling THEIR story. Okay, there. I said it out loud.
According to most of the statistical sites I’ve looked at, the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans (within the city limits, excluding the metropolitan area) was about 485,000. While not the eight million that the Naked City narrator tempted me with, that’s still a lot of stories. Those of us here know that each and every one of those almost half million people have a story. We heard them in restaurants and on street corners. We heard them in lines at the FEMA processing centers. We heard them in television interviews, telling their story from Atlanta or Houston. We heard them from the barstools next to us, both sides of us, with the bartender’s story thrown in. We heard them from our friends and neighbors as they returned home. Many of us wrote our own stories down as we were living them. Stories and stories and more stories. And those stories continued to be discussed for a year after the cataclysmic upheaval of our lives, or two years after the trauma of death and loss and hopes and hopes dashed, because some people couldn’t even go there then. Some still can’t. The truth is that even now, hearing someone’s story can make some of us burst into tears.
In addition to the individual stories was the story of the city itself. Politicians, government agencies, contractors, insurance companies, displaced families, closed schools—the list there could go on for a very long time. However, something that the “it’s not” folks seem to be forgetting is the sheer number of columns, articles and comments on those columns and articles that passionately, and in some cases callously, voiced the opinion that New Orleans was a below sea level cesspool that made Sodom and Gomorrah look holy. That New Orleans contributed nothing whatsoever to our nation, and further, that its inhabitants were no account good for nothing morons who chose to live there and why in hell should they reach into their pockets to help a place and people of that ilk to rebuild anyway.
In the novella, The Duel by Anton Chekhov, one of the main characters describes himself as one of the “superfluous people” who are forced to “look for an explanation and justification of my absurd existence in someone else’s theories. . .” During that period just about everything we read put us on the defensive. We found ourselves feeling that we were indeed superfluous people, and we spent a lot of time justifying our right to live here, to be who we are, where we are, after reading someone else’s theories. We overwhelmingly found explanations and justifications denying our “absurd existence.” At issue was our definition of absurd vs. the rest of the country’s. We thought it absurd that anyone could give a second’s thought to not rebuilding an American city, while they thought we were absurd to think we warranted such an effort.
We bought books like Tom Piazza’s “Why New Orleans Matters,” and Chin Music/Rutledge’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” and read them cover to cover delighted that someone got it. Got us. We wrote blazing comments in our own defense in those columns and articles. We were angry that no one seemed to understand how much we had already lost and how much more we stood to lose if there was no support for us. We wanted those idiots who were living ten miles from defective levees in their own flood prone states to have some compassion for our plight. We were delighted that Spike Lee stayed and stayed, interviewing real people no matter if we agreed with all of them or not. He rolled miles of film recording some of those half million stories and didn’t care how long the damn film was as long as it was the story—or at least some of it. We were furious that neither New Yorkers nor San Franciscans had had to justify their continued existence or make a case for rebuilding after the catastrophes that had struck them.
We continued to hope that some people out there, who assumed we were all non-stop party people and that none of the women here ever wore shirts, would hear some of the stories and understand. We knew that although they’d not heard every story from every soldier who ever served, they’d heard some, seen some depicted in movies and yes, even novels, and respected them for having weathered their ordeal. We hoped that the images of people on roofs or dead in wheelchairs at the Convention Center, coupled with stories of survival in the face of the rising water would not so soon be dismissed but would instead morph into a respect no matter how grudging.
It didn’t by and large.
Treme’s writers have done that for us. They have told the story that in my view needed to be told. They’ve done it with honesty and sensitivity, with harsh realities and sweet joys. They’ve done it through characters that we care about. And we care about them because they ring true. I’ve watched an audience watch an episode and nod in assent or holler out a “yeah you right” or groan “that’s what happened to my sister with her house.” These are New Orleanians who are saying this, or quietly dabbing their eyes in certain difficult to re-live scenes, or singing along with a favorite song.
I went through a little list of the characters in the last couple of days, even re-watched that wrenching last scene from Season One to get confirmation on some of their storylines. It’s a pretty good cross section. We have property owners: Janette, the Burnettes, Albert, LaDonna’s mom, LaDonna’s bar, Antoine and Desiree, Davis, and probably Colson as he’s got a trailer out in front of his house. We have renters: Jacques, Sonny, Annie. The property owners are from varying neighborhoods, races and economic levels. We know some of their backstories (if they’re necessary to their story arc), others not so much (where’s Colson’s wife for instance, or did LaDonna and Larry live with her mom prior to the storm—we don’t know and it’s so far not been relevant.) They are business owners, professionals, academics, musicians, kitchen workers and DJ’s, teachers, kids and cops. If you add in the big name musicians who were busy working every where but here during that time as they’d lost their homes and instruments in many cases, Treme has a large number of stories being told, even in the little quick exchanges as one musician passes another in the street.
Okay, ya know, that’s not everyone. Not everyone in New Orleans falls into one of those categories or job descriptions. Not a secretary in sight for instance—although we could kind of count Toni’s assistant who’s moving with her family and sees it as her only choice. But let’s put her aside.
For those who say the story shouldn’t be told, at least not in a fictional format, that the show shouldn’t have been made, I have to ask why? Weren’t you the same people ranting in the comments sections in defense of New Orleans? I think you were. For those who say it isn’t realistic, come watch the show with an audience and you’ll see how much, how very much, it rings true. Albert’s 495 dollar insurance check got big groans and a multitude of post episode stories of paltry sums from insurance agents. Do you think the person watching the show in Idaho realizes how often that happened? Probably not, but maybe now it will occur to them because they care about Albert.
For those who say that it doesn’t tell their particular story, I’ll buy you a beer and listen to yours. I’ll commiserate and maybe cry, I still do that too easily. Then I’ll tell you that while it may not be your particular story or your face on that screen, what the writers of Treme have managed to do is put faces on the people who lived through the nightmare of nearly six years ago. They gave us a voice through those characters, they changed us from a faceless horde on CNN to real people, maybe composite characters in most cases, but real people that we recognize as our neighbors or friends or yes, even ourselves. Those writers have managed to capture the frustrations, the anger, the hurt, the loss, the gargantuan task of rebuilding a house with no help and the labyrinthine hoops many of us are still jumping through. They wrote the joy of survival and the pain of injustice. They wrote the reality of a lot of folks. And many of them, many of us, are grateful.
Fifty years from now, some kid will stumble onto this show as it travels through the paths of the internet, or whatever will pass for the internet by then, and they’ll be as touched by it as we were the first time we ever saw Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s story and Fonda’s Tom Joad put a face on the downtrodden Dust Bowl travelers, showing us their camps and their struggles and their dreams. Maybe Treme will do that for that kid and he’ll be amazed by the fortitude of those absurd, superfluous people who lived in New Orleans when the Federal Flood came.
If I count just the characters that pop into my mind, I come up with 18/19 without counting peripheral characters. So tonight, as I’m going to sleep, I’ll hear John Boutte sing and then I’ll imagine him saying, “There are a half million stories in the naked city. These are 18 of them.”