Carver, Altman, Kurosawa, Treme and that other show
“I can’t understand it. I just can’t understand it at all.” –The Woodcutter, Rashomon
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about some of the end-of-season criticism that’s been lobbed in the direction of Treme the past few weeks, primarily the claim that the show is just, well, boring compared to something like The Wire. (I’m going to leave out my nagging suspicion that most of these reviewers didn’t watch The Wire as television but only fell in love with the DVDs after the fact when they heard that it was the Greatest blahblahblah in the History of etc etc.) The main problem, as I see it, is that some reviewers have certain expectations about what makes a television show “interesting”, and without being able to check off any of these attributes on Treme‘s scorecard, they go with “boring” as the default category.
The thing is, the type of storytelling that Treme is attempting is one that is widely prevalent in movies, in theatre, and most especially in literature, but is less common in the episode-driven world of TV. Treme is basically taking the equivalent of literary fiction and translating it to a long-form television format.
Consider a few stories of Raymond Carver:
“Why Don’t You Dance?”
- : An alcoholic arranges all of his furniture in his driveway, and a passing young couple stop and offer to buy some of it.
“A Small Good Thing”: A woman orders a birthday cake for her son, who later gets hit by a car. While he is dying in the hospital, the parents and the cake baker trade unkind words due to a misunderstanding, but later apologize.
“Sacks”: A man and his estranged father meet in an airport bar and the father tells the son about an extramarital affair he once had.
“Chef’s House”: A sober alcoholic finds out he is getting evicted. He considers drinking again, and by the end of the story it is clear he will drink, although he has not yet.
“So Much Water Close To Home”: Three men on a fishing trip discover a dead girl’s body, but finish their weekend before reporting it to the police. Who the girl was and what happened to her are never revealed and not important; the story is about how the wives of the men react when they find out.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”: Two couples sit around the kitchen table drinking the evening away and talking about love, and the older man tells an anecdote. About love.
Raymond Carver is one of the great American short story writers of the 20th century. His stories involve ordinary people and those on the fringes of society, alcoholics and divorced parents and estranged children and unhappy couples. People trapped in their loneliness and anger and sadness, finding solace and redemption, or not. If you read the story synopses above, it’s not obvious that there is much there that you’d call drama. There are no real antagonists, no strong dramatic central questions, no powerful catalysts or turning points. If you’re used to science fiction or detective fiction or some other plot-driven genre, you might even think they’re, well, boring. I mean, nothing happens. A sad person gets slightly sadder. A struggling alcoholic edges closer to giving up the struggle. An angry baker realizes his anger was misplaced.
But this is the essence of the character-driven narrative. We read Carver’s stories, like those of Cheever or Chekhov or Hemingway, and we are profoundly moved by subtle shifts in a character’s outlook or beliefs or emotional state, shifts that resonate within ourselves, that reveal some larger truth, that really mean something. These stories are deeply affecting, heartbreaking, even thought actually not very much happens.
And yet these boring stories where nothing happens form the basis of Robert Altman’s award-winning 1993 film Short Cuts. Altman took a dozen or so of Carver’s stories, set them all in Los Angeles, and interconnected them in somewhat incidental or fortuitous ways (the boy’s father from A Small Good Thing, for example, is also the son from Sacks) so that they formed a loosely-coupled whole. You’d be hard-pressed to find the plot in Short Cuts. There’s one murder at the end. There’s a dead girl in the river, the specifics of her death largely unimportant. People cheat on their spouses. A father gives away his kids’ dog, and later gets the dog back. A man is jealous of his wife’s phone sex clients. There are no wiretaps, no drug gangs, no mob hits, no extorted politicians, no crime labs, no leveraged buyouts, no bootleggers, no vampires. Yet all put together, the movie forms a coherent narrative, with conflict and resolution, pain and heartbreak and triumph and redemption and despair. Just a single sprawling story of a couple dozen ordinary people, living their lives over a short period of time in one unique and vibrant city.
Sounds familiar, no? Altman, although certainly not the first to do so, presents a crystal-clear example of how character-driven literary fiction can be translated to the screen.
I would argue that Simon/Overmyer/Noble are pushing that translation one step further, to long-form television. If you watched Short Cuts’ full three hours in half-hour weekly installments, the experience would be very much akin to watching the intertwined stories of Treme over a single season.
So given all that, it makes it easier to address some of the complaints that nothing happens on the show, that Simon loves New Orleans too much to make Treme interesting (presumably he really loathes Baltimore, judging from how good The Wire was). This quote from David Thier in the comments of his article in The Atlantic very concisely sums up for me everything wrong with this line of thinking:
It just seems that there’s a difference between things happening to characters and genuine conflict between them. If this was The Wire, one of the Danziger cops would be a character, and the audience would have to live with him.
On the one hand, this statement is really right on the money. If this was The Wire, one of the Danziger cops might well have been a character. It makes perfect sense. In The Wire, everything was important, all the pieces were connected, and the job of the characters (and the viewer) was to figure all those pieces out. We saw all the crimes, and all the crime-fighting. Everything that worked right, and everything that was broken. We saw all the criminals, all the cops, all the politicians pulling strings, even the corrupt Federal agents.
But see, here’s the deal, and we can say it and say it and say it, but after a while it starts seeming like you’re having one of those circular conversations with a dope fiend. Treme is not The Wire. This is not a cop show. And this ain’t gonna work if everything we say, you keep hearing it backwards.
The problem is that Treme went and added some story lines about murder and crime and police corruption and police brutality, which makes some of the sets and costumes start to look like a cop show, which produces a knee-jerk reaction whereby viewers feel a compulsive need to have all the plot devices and plot resolutions of a police procedural or they start getting a weird itch, like a phantom leg syndrome for all the parts of the show that they think are supposed to be there but mysteriously aren’t.
This here is the really the crux of the discontent. If this was The Wire, it would have X, and since it lacks X, it is not as good as The Wire.
But it’s not The Wire, and it’s not really anything remotely similar to The Wire. Treme is the story of ordinary people living in an extraordinary place during an extraordinary time. Certainly, the ordinariness of the people is context-dependent, and so the fact that some of our ordinary people are chefs and musicians is a factor of the flavor of extra-ordinariness of the place. But still, by and large they are citizens. Unlike the protagonists and antagonists of The Wire, they are civilians. They are not in the game, any game, other than the game of trying to scratch out some happiness in a time and place where it feels like the invisible forces of the world are stacked against them.
They’re just regular folks, like Carver’s characters, like Altman’s characters. And Treme is, as we discussed, a character-driven rather than plot-driven drama, so the dramatic choices that are made are going to reflect that. In a cop show, even one with the complex and lofty themes of The Wire, the central question of the Abreu story would be, “Who killed the Abreu kid, and how are they going to figure out the crime?” Because it’s a plot-driven narrative. But Treme is not plot-driven, it’s character-driven, and so the central questions of the Abreu story are things like “How will Lt. Colson reconcile his instinctive defense of the department’s performance after the storm with the increasing evidence to the contrary, and how will this internal crisis of faith in his profession affect him?” In Season 1, Daymo’s fate was not the story, the story was LaDonna and Toni’s personal journey while searching for Daymo. Same this season. Who did what to whom in the Abreu shooting or the Danziger shootings is not the story. The story is the personal journey that Colson and Toni undergo in an environment where those kinds of killings and the ensuing coverups are the norm.
Consider Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. In it, a murder has taken place. We hear the testimony of a number of people who possibly witnessed or took part in the crime. We even hear the testimony of the deceased himself, channeled though a medium. We see all of these versions of the story on the screen, and yet none of what we see is what actually happened. All of them are versions of the story told by people with varying motives. The film was a brilliant allegory about the nature of objective versus subjective reality. The truth of what actually took place in the woods in Rashomon is never revealed, because it is beside the point.
“The wonder of “Rashomon” is that while the shadowplay of truth and memory is going on, we are absorbed by what we trust is an unfolding story. The film’s engine is our faith that we’ll get to the bottom of things–even though the woodcutter tells us at the outset he doesn’t understand, and if an eyewitness who has heard the testimony of the other three participants doesn’t understand, why should we expect to?” — Roger Ebert
Toni’s investigation of what happened to the Abreu kid reveals many versions of the truth. And much like the real-life Glover case and Danziger case, which version you believe will have as much to do with what you bring to table as it will with the objective truth. Depending on whether you think the NOPD are a bunch of thugs with badges who lie and murder as a way of life, or the Iberville is a den of savages that just needs to be cleaned up, or the DA is just bringing charges to play to his electoral base, or the NOPD leadership gave shoot-to-kill orders and then let the rank-and-file twist in the wind afterwards, or the cops had to take the city back from the looters, or “come on, Toni, you know how it was after the storm”…those biases you bring with you will sway you more than whatever objective truth can ever be known.
Toni’s assistant asks, “Why did they lie if all they had to do was get their story straight?” Kurosawa responds, “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”
In Treme, as in New Orleans, all we get are the embellishments. For the average citizen (and this is a show about the average citizen), this is how the city is experienced, and so this is how we get to experience the story as viewers. We don’t know who killed Abreu, and we may never find out. Despite Hidalgo’s passionate speech about this being “a village on an island…it’s all connected somehow. I’m this close to seeing how it all hooks up”, despite how closely it echoes Lester Freemon’s mantra from The Wire, he (and we) never really knew who his benefactors were, or who pulled the plug when he got too close to the wrong people. We don’t know what happened in the DA’s office that let LaDonna’s rapist go free. LaDonna’s closing rant at the DA’s office states the theme outright. “We trying to live in this city. And all y’all manage to bring to that is nothing. Solve a crime or two? Oh HELL the fuck no.” Like most New Orleanians, the characters (and us) don’t ever see the dysfunction taking place. We only see its effects on the characters, and the story we are following is how those characters will change and survive, or not, in the process.
Compare these two scenarios:
In Season 2 of The Wire, Agent Fitz contacts an Agent Koutras a couple of times to ask him questions about one of their targets on the docks. But Koutras is a mole; we see him leaking word of the investigation to The Greek. At the end of the season, Fitz faxes a summary of Frank Sobotka’s agreement to testify, we see the fax intercepted by Koutras, we see him call The Greek, we see the Greek tell Vondas that making a deal with Sobotka won’t work, and the next thing we know Sobotka is floating in the harbor with his throat cut.
In Season 2 of Treme, Lt. Colson wants to establish that the Iberville shooting and the Abreu shooting were by the same gun, and that it was a police service weapon. But he doesn’t have the ballistics evidence to prove it, and he is also afraid that somebody in the department is covering up both murders. He doesn’t know who to trust. We don’t know who to trust. Are his superiors in on the cover-up, or are they just tired of Colson getting up in people’s shit all the time? Are the detectives in his squad in on the cover-up, or are they just tired of him busting their balls over working too many paid details? He sends two casings over to the ballistics lab, lying to his captain about their significance in the cases, and sure enough, one of the casings disappears. We don’t know who disappeared it. We don’t know if the captain is covering up, or if the captain blabbed to somebody who was. We don’t know if it’s one conspirator, or a handful, or if the whole homicide division is united behind Colson’s back.
The Fitz/Koutras story made sense for the plot-driven purposes of The Wire. That show was all about showing us all the moving parts. Showing how the system worked, and what went wrong when it didn’t. The Colson story makes sense for the character-driven purposes of Treme. Dramatizing the internal conflicts that an honest cop experiences when he (and we) don’t know who to trust, when the dysfunction is so very obvious but never out in plain sight.
What if we never saw Koutras in The Wire? What if Fitz’s faxes just ended up getting witnesses killed, and his epiphany at the end was just a hunch that was never confirmed for the viewer? Conversely, what if we saw NOPD officers talking about the Abreu coverup, saw a detective drop a casing into the river, knew who killed Abreu and knew exactly which cops Colson shouldn’t trust and why?
They could have told either story either way, but I would argue that they told each of these stories exactly in the way that they should have been told to serve the larger purpose of the respective shows.
If Treme was The Wire, one of the Danziger cops would be a character. And if The Wire was Treme, we may have never have met Koutras, or even The Greek for that matter. But The Wire is that, and Treme is this, and each is loyal to its own narrative.
Treme is about faith and doubt, stubbornness in the face of adversity and fear in the shadow of the unknown. In as much as it succeeds at this, and I personally think it does very well, it is the story of every New Orleanian in the post-Katrina era. And the reason it succeeds is because it doesn’t show us all the moving parts. It shows us only what the ordinary citizens see, so that we can experience the city and the era as they do.
It admittedly must make for frustrating viewing if you think you’re watching a cop show and want cop-show closure of all your cop-show plots. But there are other shows for that. Treme is not that.
“There is no closure, there is only affirmation. The very fact that we have no consistency means that we have a great affirmation at the end, and the affirmation is completely symbolic… Things going on as they must, despite the fact that we cannot trust our own reality, we still have our faith. Everything that we have seen is questioned, and affirmed. To nakedly affirm in the very face of the things that make you doubt is a heroic action.” –Donald Richie, Rashomon Criterion Collection commentary
“Don’t think in terms of a beginning and an end, because unlike some plot-driven entertainments, there is no closure in real life, not really.” –Creighton Bernette