“Keep Sewing”: Treme’s First Season

It would be a bold viewer who too closely related Treme, the television show about New Orleans after the levees broke, with Wynton Marsalis, the stubbornly conservative musician and historian of jazz. Certainly David Simon, who with Eric Overmeyer is creator and executive producer of Treme, is no reactionary traditionalist: on The Wire and Generation Kill alike, he laid into the destructive shibboleths of contemporary American discourse. But in Ken Burns’s 2001 documentary Jazz, itself criticised for its prescriptive, classicist approach to the music, Marsalis said: “Jazz music objectifies America. It’s an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves. The real power of jazz and the innovation of jazz, is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art.” If Treme had a voice, this is what it would say.

The first season begins just five months after Hurricane Katrina leapt with disarming ease over the insufficient defences provided to New Orleans. One of the show’s first scenes features the Tulane English lecturer, Creighton Bernette, labelling the flooding “a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions and decades in the making.” Treme doesn’t really interrogate Creighton’s assumptions – it takes as fact (as indeed it is) that New Orleans is suffering as a result of long-term federal neglect and local corruption, and if it doesn’t (yet) delve deep into the politics of all this as The Wire might have done, this is only because, having decided where to place it, the show is uninterested in blame. It is focused on what comes next – if anything can. Ultimately, Creighton comes to fear that the old New Orleans is lost for good – that it cannot rebuild itself except as facsimile. Other characters are less fatalistic.

Take Wendell Pierce’s affable degenerate, Antoine Batiste. A trombonist once considered the next big thing, and now routinely short-changing taxi drivers as he shuttles from venue to venue in an attempt to make ends meet, Antoine is too focused on the next paycheck to think conceptually. We first meet him at a funeral parade, where he exhorts his fellow musicians to “play for the fucking money”; there is a cool pragmatism to his work which is allied with a very deep and heartfelt love for and commitment to New Orleans and its music. Indeed, when an old friend of his dies, Batiste passes down a trombone to the man’s grandson – it’s what the people of New Orleans do, he explains to the wealthy Japanese jazz enthusiast who has funded Batiste’s largesse. This isn’t just a moribund tradition, a museum piece kept in place for the benefit of afficionados and tourists; it is certainly that, but it is also the beating heart and the central nervous system of a city on life support.

This makes the band, the collective, the raggle-taggle coming-together of musicians too stupid or stubborn to leave for Austin, into the show’s governing metaphor. In their work, in the negotiations and accomodations of Marsalis’s characterisation of jazz, we see a sort of parallel rebuilding. As the first season progresses, stores reopen and streets are cleaned; but this work takes place in the background, and foregrounded always is the formation, the management, the performances of bands. In writing about Treme, Jonathan McCalmont has wondered if the show’s approach to the world of New Orleans isn’t a little shallow. He cites, for instance, the moment when the out-of-work DJ and middle class slacker, David McAlary, runs into a pothole and is shook down first for a lift and then by the man he’d paid to look after his vehicle; the only consequence of this absence both of the state and a sense of community responsibility, he opines, is that Davis writes a song. A song! That’s it! But Treme is about how we might create cultural product from suffering; thus is the New Orleans tradition – and thus must it be rebuilt.

Jonathan reads Davis unkindly. On many levels, this is fair – he can only afford to live a creative life, unlike for instance his sometime girlfriend, and struggling chef, Janette Desautel, because he hails from a rich family, whilst his constant quest for stimulation, and his habitual emphasis on the purity of New Orleans culture, can appear self-defeating and sterile in equal measure. But as much as he is a curator, the sort of passionate enthusiast who can risk ossifying a tradition in an image of what it should be rather than what it is, he is also one of the city’s greatest advocates, its most eloquent evangelist. New Orleans needs Davis as it needs a show like Treme, and it is a sign of the openness of the culture he exhorts that it accepts a man like him, rather than a token of its closed qualities that he spouts so much false rule-making and elitist pride.

So, in her own post about the season, Abigail is on stronger ground when she argues that Treme risks looking most of all like a product of the New Orleans Tourist Board. Certainly the show is premised on the idea that New Orleans represents something unique and priceless in American culture, and it therefore goes out of its way to prove this to us. But given that the city does indeed possess precisely those qualities, it seems unfair to attack the show for foregrounding, for example, the nobility of Albert Lambreaux’s Mardi Gras Indians, or the joyous excellence of the music of Kermit Ruffin: after all, the writers also emphasise the return of the city’s corrosive drug culture through the story of the only averagely talented street singer, Sonny (the break-down of his musical and romantic relationship with the fiddle player Annie is an instance in which the band acts as a metaphor for destruction rather than construction); furthermore, the quality of New Orleans housing is throughout the show on shame-faced display. The show doesn’t pretend that New Orleans is perfect (though when students in search of the ‘real’ New Orleans are sent by Davis to the scuzziest jazz dive in the city the scene is admittedly played for laughs). Rather, Treme is posited as an argument against the notion that New Orleans is rotten to the core.

There is more to write about this show – I haven’t addressed, for instance, Khandi Alexander’s breath-taking fierceness in the role of LaDonna Batiste-Williams, Antoine’s ex-wife, whose brother was lost in the storm (the whole season is worth the sight in its final episode of LaDonna dancing the second line); nor have I looked at its odd storytelling structure, in which there is barely any plot to speak of and many characters never even meet (which many cannot abide). But at the show’s core is this question of culture, of heritage and creation. When his daughter professes enthusiasm for the Endymion Mardi Gras parade, Creighton huffs that it is, “Like everything else in America – cheap, mass-produced and made in China.” Despite this, his wife scolds him for “waxing nostalgic for the knights of Momus”. This enthusiasm exists “because you’re not from here,” she says. “When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” The meaning, the relevance, and the continued existence of cultural product are Treme‘s key considerations – and in New Orleans, Simon has one of the last non-homogenised localised American traditions with which to negotiate his agendas. Here’s to season two.

McNulty’s Progress: On The Uniqueness of “The Wire”

Ed Burns, David Simon and George Pelecanos
Ed Burns, David Simon and George Pelecanos

I’ve just finished watching the fifth season of David Simon’s epic of urban decay, The Wire. This is of course the series’ final run of episodes. What to say about this canonical work of American fiction which has not already been said? How to frame the show in such a way that what I write is both fresh and not off on some critical tangent? Impossible, of course; but for starters, as the final episode faded to black, I felt a greater sense of if not loss then something close to it than I did as the credits rolled for the last time on Angel, or Deadwood or The West Wing. The completeness of the statement made by The Wire by the time of its closing moments was such a wonder that, perversely, it could only make the viewer wish for more.

Adam Roberts, an obvious fan of the show, wrote recently that both The Wire and Deadwood are a “representation of a whole believably interconnected and functioning town,” and this is obviously spot-on. But what strikes me most about The Wire is that this representation developed throughout the show. In Deadwood, each season was more an evolution of – a variation upon – the season before. The Wire, as Roberts said right here on this blog just the other day, begins at one level of that town and slowly builds upwards and outwards. That is, its representation is not complete until the final seconds of the show; in Deadwood, smaller though its town is, there is a strong sense of what the show is doing very early on. In The Wire, the argument is built more slowly.

Now, I’ve written before that it may well be that I prefer Deadwood to The Wire – that aesthetically it is a show which suits me better. The Wire may well be too determinist – certainly its final season at times feels to be straining to screw its characters over, rather than than letting the Fates have them as they will. This may be a function of season five’s last minute cut from 13 to 10 episodes (well, 9 and a feature length finale), but nevertheless Deadwood tended to focus more on personal choice than systemic will, and that appeals to me (as does the stylized language). Yet the strength of the finale of David Milch’s show was its inevitability, the extent to which the viewer simultaneously expected something different but knew what the town’s fate must be; in The Wire, no less subtly, the viewer knows the system is rotten to the core, but time and again the show seeks to add more nuance to that lesson. Deadwood‘s thesis was relatively simple; The Wire, on the other hand, is as multi-faceted as the American city.

If both shows focused on the evils of corporatisation, The Wire did more than merely depict the process. Season Five rounded the series off by the simple flourish of asking – and showing – why the bankrupt system is not represented, analysed or even questioned anywhere else. Newspapers are shown to be carried by currents at total odds with depicting the broken society; politics is shown as the relentless effort to hide from the people the consequences and causes of collapse; police work, as always, is a tool of triage only. All the characters seem to be struggling against the great unacknowledged weight; even Omar, usually the most clear-sighted of Baltimore’s inhabitants, is lost to blind fury and vengeance – leg broken, he is a pale shadow of his old self. The stick-up artist who replaces him – the betrayed Stanfield solder Mikey – is motivated less by Omar’s alternative moral code so much as mere survival. In this sense, the show’s run takes us from bad to worse: Stanfield is a more corrosive force than Avon Barksdale; Commissioner Burrell, a vain but competent officer, is succeeded by Stan Valchek, a man without even professional ability; only Bubbles, the show’s sympathetic addict, is given anything close to a happy ending – and that an ambivalent one. This slow build to collapse inverts the televisual form more surely than anything else The Wire ever did.

The Wire Box SetThe show’s progression from the first season’s depiction of the basic problem of policing the modern American city, through to the second’s exposition of how an under-class is created, and beyond to the system’s resistance to change, its self-destructive construction of its citizens, and finally its own pathological blindness to itself, is what lends The Wire‘s five seasons such power. On an episode-by-episode basis, the writing and acting is stellar, of course; the surety and intensity of its analysis is pungent and informed, naturally; it is a brilliantly shot, superbly realised artifact. But, most importantly, as an arc and an argument it is always moving, and always growing. Not in the sense that it alters its formula or its cast  (though it does), but in the thorough expansiveness and endless applicability of its vision of the world. What raises The Wire above almost all television and indeed many novels is its intellectual facility, the way in which its structure informs and develops its central proposition. It is hard to think of many works of fiction which so seriously apply themselves to sustained inquiry in this way.

None of which is very fresh framing. But as the screen went to black, that’s what came to me. In other words: all the pieces mattered.

More Punishment In Store

"Citizens better die postulating than touch indecent ink..."
"Citizens better die postulating than touch indecent ink..."

I’ve recently been rewatching the final season of David Milch’s HBO Western, Deadwood. It’s been some time since I first saw it, and if anything it is better than I remembered. Back then, I wrote in another place that the season “corrects every pretty story we’ve ever heard about the American west.” This is still true: at the close of its 12 episodes, the characters go out not in a blaze of Gunsmoke glory, but with a morally compromised whimper. But, equally, it is about far more – as Milch himself discusses at academic length in this series of videos (there is particular Deadwood content – including a section about its cancellation – in the linked video).

When artworks reach a certain level, choosing between them becomes largely a matter of personal taste, but for this critic Deadwood is easily a competitor with The Wire in the quality stakes. At times, its less deterministic, perhaps more humane, aspect edge out even David Simon’s cop show, which is famously also about far more than its chosen genre.

All of which makes it a pity that two recent pieces about the decade-long renaissance at HBO rather brush Deadwood aside: Sam Delaney in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph gave it barely a mention, whilst a few weeks ago James Bradley in The Australian called Deadwood’s pivotal character, Al Swearengen, “a sort of low-rent Tony Soprano.” Deadwood never garnered the attention of David Chase’s mob drama, of even of Rome or Six Feet Under; critics are committed, it would seem, to continuing that under-appreciation in the show’s afterlife.

Delaney’s piece suggests that Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm was “home to probably the most obscene language ever heard on television.” One begins to suspect that Delaney hasn’t even seen Deadwood, which was infamous for its profanity. This no doubt put off many, and yet perversely the dialogue of Deadwood must be some of the finest written for television, so rich that at times it tends towards verse. This style is undoubtedly an acquired taste, and a very obvious affectation, yet Milch makes language integral to the show’s thematic concerns. In one memorable scene from the show’s first season, the spineless toady EB Farnum waxes Shakespearian whilst scrubbing a bloodstain, the remains of a contract murder, from the floor of a room in his hotel. Farnum’s soliloquy simultaneously burrows to the heart of the character’s sense of self-importance and thwarted superiority, whilst beginning to explore the nexus of power relationships with which the show is ultimately concerned. Deadwood is about the formation of a society, and about the human pull between individual and community. Its vernacular profanity represents the chaos and crime of the unfettered private agent; its dense, complex verbiage the organising, ordering instincts of human society.

It may be that in this manner Deadwood was overly diffuse, lacking the cast iron certainty of purpose of The Wire. Certainly some commentators would argue the show lost its way after its first season. Yet this very diffuseness is to my mind part of its brilliance. It does not seek to pretend that life is a system, even whilst it may contain them. Richard T Kelly, whose own post first drew my attention to Bradley’s piece, and whose sprawling social fiction Crusaders shares some concerns with Deadwood, is worried for the poor old novel; his own, however, leaves laudable gaps of light between its plotlines – like Deadwood, it knows that life does not always fit together easily. The Wire is at times too hung up on its thesis; Deadwood always leaves room for a countervailing breeze.

“Some goddamn point a man’s due to stop arguing with his-self and feeling twice the goddamn fool he knows he is ’cause he can’t be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime and fucking it up.” Wild Bill Hickock’s first season lament is at the heart of the show. It is about working towards an unattainable perfection; giving up that effort, rather than failure, is seen as the unconsionable action. Deadwood is undoubtedly a theatrical piece, flying in the face of the prevailing fad for naturalism, but it remains a shame that a show with such a message continues to be overlooked.