Friday, July 9, 2010
After two episodes of Treme, I declared it on the path to HBO’s upper echelon. Two more and I needed a break. There’s only so much cultural superiority a man can reasonably defend before a show is officially insufferable. Spoiler alert: my frustration was unwarranted, and soon Treme galvanized into my original estimation, a soaring monument to the American spirit whose bricks are the fleeting moments of human connection. Spoilers for Treme’s first season to follow.
“We’ve got more culture in one neighborhood than you’ve got in all your sorry-ass sprawling suburbs put together,” John Goodman’s New Orleans supremacist rants early in Treme. It was indefensible. Airing such grievance in earnest, without undercutting it or presenting alternative viewpoints, seemed to me a tacit endorsement. Treme’s ombudsman had more on his plate than FEMA after the hurricane, but none of the existing accusations of superiority were very convincing. The treatment of the suburban missionary kids was only superficially nativist, the idea that Sonny and Annie are New Orleans immigrants themselves suggests an openness Treme’s naysayers overlook, and Davis’ obsession with “the real New Orleans” is a character trait as virtuous as it is frustrating. But degrees of culture? Arbiters of authenticity? If this thing’s about to become David Simon’s Studio 60, I’d like to know now.
I kept my notes open as I watched further, for ease of documentation in my case against Treme’s snobbery. I never added another word.
Sure, Ambassador Goodman keeps ranting for the rest of the season, but at worthy targets. And confined to the one character, the rant that broke the potato’s couch is defensible as a less than appealing but entirely believable aspect of Creighton’s dyspepsia. Besides, none of us would have grandmas if we couldn’t endure a little political ranting. Like the Bush administration, you have to pay attention to what the series is doing, not what it’s saying. Treme happily takes us to New York, Baton Rouge, Houston, Huntsville and beyond. New Orleans is certainly the star, but it would be a lie to dismiss the role of Texas in the Katrina fallout, and the Lone Star state is quoted warmly and accurately. Treme loves America; it just doesn’t want to get all mushy about it.
In fact, Treme’s traveloguey On the Road component is a clever vehicle for the series’ national themes. Distilled to its essence, Treme is about America as a gathering of disparate peoples. Just as the country depends on its diverse cities, New Orleans needs its various denizens to return and rebuild. The series thus derives a cumulative wallop from the ephemeral moments where two people come together: Toni catching Ladonna by Daymo’s body, Davina excitedly running into an old friend at the second line parade, Albert and Delmond achieving a new peace on St. Joseph’s. Spiritually, culturally, and even literally, as when Arnie generously fixes Ladonna’s long dilapidated roof, these connections rebuild New Orleans. By the same token, the near-misses—Delmond glancing past Janette at the airport, Toni so invested in the world’s problems that she fails to recognize Creighton’s depression, the cops electing to antagonize the Indians—represent lost potential, wasted opportunities to bolster the New Orleans and indeed American community. In the end, you rejoice in all those little connections and lament the broken ones. Seeing Annie atop Davis’ porch is transcendently joyful, but it doesn’t quite make up for Janette leaving town.
That emotional punch is blindsiding. Over the season, everyone is navigating his own short story, and it’s not until the end that you perceive how far you’ve come, how invested you are in Janette’s restaurant and Ladonna’s search and Antoine’s financial stability. This largely thanks to the remarkable ensemble—it’s nearly impossible to single out anyone qualitatively, but Emmy has no business awarding the Best anything without Khandi Alexander, Kim Dickens, Melissa Leo, and Steve Zahn in the running—and the simmering slow burn that subtly draws us in before overwhelming our senses.
It’s almost beside the point to mention the imperfections in this great American epic, but the occasional typo illuminates the rest of the novel's immaculacy. Treme’s greatness is not restrained but enlivened by the Albert story’s isolation, Sonny’s self-sabotaging alienation, and shoehorned expositional dialogue about the state of disaster relief. The potholes need to be filled, but they're hardly noticeable from this magnificent view.