Please “Treme,” I Beg You--Get Over Yourself

by John McWhorter | May 7, 2010

On Wednesday, TNR senior editor Ruth Franklin explored the way authenticity is played with in David Simon’s new HBO show, “Treme.” Here, John McWhorter offers his own, markedly different opinion on the subject.

People can get irritating about their authenticity. These days, off the top of my head, I think about the folks who want Chinese signs in nonsensical English to be maintained because the twisted language can be seen as genuinely “Chinese.” Or I think about the anti-gay minister who’s spreading the homophobic word in Uganda because he’s marked that aspect of the culture there as “authentic” for his own devilish purposes.

I hate to say that I also think of HBO’s new series “Treme,” which is mesmerizing in its ways (I intend to keep watching) but leaves you beaten over the head every week about just how vibrantly real New Orleans is. Realer than where you live. Realer, really, than you.

Even if you think you love the place, “Treme” is determined to show you otherwise. The surly street musician (who is just visiting himself, from Amsterdam) tartly informs tourists that it’s tacky to request “When the Saints Go Marching In”—that tune isn’t “real New Orleans,” apparently. In fact if you listen to any music on Bourbon Street, there are those who will tell you you’re not experiencing—again—the real thing. And if you live in the neighborhood the show is named after, Treme, the last thing you have any right to do is ask for quiet even in the wee hours, because, as Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary character says, “This is the Treme, dude!” and the noise is what makes it real.

There’s also the young black jazzman who is “from New Orleans but doesn’t play New Orleans” and lives in New York. He is on his way, one senses after episodes so far, to getting back in touch with his “roots.” We last met him unable to quite get cozy at a tony black party attended by the likes of Stanley Crouch and Nelson George (both of whom do a nice, easy job acting—it’s such fun to see non-actors pull this sort of thing off compared to, say, Jesse Jackson’s cameo on an episode of A Different World back in the day), where his girlfriend seems to find septuagenarian McCoy Tyner hotter than him (a great left hand is part of the attraction, apparently.)

A main message from this sultry pageant of a show is that New Orleans is an occult matter that you can never truly “get” unless you’re a native or pretty close to it. The perky, hopelessly “white” tourists from Wisconsin with their nasal voices, the ones who get schooled by the street musician, can be taken as stand-ins for the viewer. Which makes the whole enterprise strangely unwelcoming.

Sure, one could ask why it has to be welcoming, but that’s a less effective comeback when we are being told again and again how much we are supposed to love and admire New Orleans. If we have anything to say except that New Orleans is the heart of the United States, then John Goodman will try to hurl us into the Gulf, or at least tell us, as he did in a great but disturbing sequence last Sunday, to perform a certain action upon his gonads.

What’s especially challenging is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t quality: criticize New Orleans, or even don’t pay quite enough attention, and you’re a chump—but praise it and you’re probably doing it wrong. “Treme” is like a park with a sign that says “Welcome” followed by a long list of “Do Not”’s.

A key scene occurs when a “Katrina Tour” bus barges through the destroyed neighborhood occupied by Clarke Peters’s character, who is, as was his Lester Freamon on “The Wire,” a wise, committed, saintly figure who somehow never gets cloying. He and his friends are in the middle of a musical New Orleans-style funeral ceremony for a friend recently found dead in his garage, and when the bus stops, they angrily tell it to move on.

Interesting—for one, the driver and passengers presumably couldn’t know that what was happening was a funeral. Plus, what we are supposed to register, more generally, is disgust that there would be Katrina “tours” of this kind in the first place. That’s a sentiment I registered spontaneously like anyone else—but wait: Technically, wasn’t the idea in 2005 and 2006 that America was “turning a blind eye” to the damage that Katrina caused? Who criticized Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke for exploiting or sensationalizing the hurricane’s aftermath? If the answer is that the documentary was intended to stimulate people to help, then what’s to say that Katrina tours had no such effect either? Presumably actually being on site would be as affecting an experience as watching the same scenes on a DVD.

It’s almost as if “Treme” were making New Orleans into a kind of stage musical. And not always in a good way. Of course it’s a deeply musical town. But when Wendell Pierce’s Antoine character breaks out into song in a waiting room and an onlooker starts beating out time, the theatrical nature of the whole “Treme” presentation stands out in sharp relief—reminiscent of the queer moment in Eminem’s 8 Mile when a woman broke into a rap and was seconded by bystanders in a scene depicting real life rather than a performance.

At times watching the show—show indeed, often—is like being at Memphis, the stage musical about the rise of rock ‘n’ roll currently running in New York, which trots out segregation and interracial romance in the Jim Crow South as good old-fashioned plot devices. I suppose there had to come a time when a musical that operates on the level of a cruise ship show could toss off references to Montgomery and lynching, but there’s a trivialization in it, inevitable when anything is harnessed to formula.

“Treme” falls into this to a certain extent; there is a fill-in-the-blanks quality in putting the characters through their paces that almost never felt as self-conscious in The Wire. Which character will be denied flood coverage because his policy was only for hurricanes? Which character will do an angry riff about light-skinned creoles looking down on darker ones? What local term will be tossed off in tonight’s episode that will send bloggers to Wikipedia (second line in the premiere, lagniappe last Sunday)?

I know that we are to process all of this with a backdrop of the misfortunes that New Orleans has suffered. Any place that has been through Katrina should be allowed to strut a bit as well as to shout its indignation to the heavens in a way that would be less acceptable from, say, Portland, Oregon. The oil spill last week will only add to the miseries. Our awareness of the city’s inept administration (of which the show gives only indirect views—this is no “The Wire Goes to New Orleans”) is something we can’t help but bring into our response to what the characters are going through.

Okay, but acting out gets old from anyone. In his YouTube rant, Goodman savagely disses San Francisco as an “overpriced cesspool with hills” when, let’s face it, that’s a pretty “cultural” city too, and has suffered its share of natural disasters. Part of the reason this scene gets by is, actually, Goodman’s obesity­—it takes the edge off that he is “cute” and a beloved personage. The same scene delivered by Edward Norton would be less charming.

Let’s also talk about Portland. Another character says people there clap on beats one and three. Really? I’m sure more than a few thoroughly cosmopolitan, Obama-voting white people in Portland, as proud of their “reality” and their bond with black culture and its music as New Orleans folk are, would take umbrage at that.

The Goodman and Zahn characters are given to asserting how much more culture New Orleans has than other American cities. We all know what they mean, on a certain level. I’ve been to New Orleans a few times and certainly had a fuller experience in all ways than the two weekends I spent in Pittsburgh. Although I suppose I did not have a “real” experience according to the standards of Simon and the “Treme” characters, as I did not spend a night getting seriously trashed with a gold-toothed old (black) local, or at least I don’t recall it. And although I did spend some time outside of the French Quarter, I highly suspect it wasn’t for quite long enough, or in just the right way, in terms of the “reality” we are concerned with.

And one might ask: How, precisely, do people in Minneapolis have “less culture” than people in New Orleans? To a tribesman from New Guinea, Minnesotans would appear to have a “culture” indeed, and I’m not sure they would process New Orleans as “more cultural.” (Maybe more fun, but that’s different, isn’t it?) Why are the drinks and culinary traditions of Baltimore less “cultural” than the ones in New Orleans?

What the show means by this is two things. One is that New Orleans is more unique, more unlike other parts of the country than Minneapolis or Baltimore are. Okay, we all accept that.

Two is that New Orleans is vibrantly (and differently) black compared to even cities with large black populations. Okay, we all get that too. Funerals among black people in Cincinnati typically involve neither African-style clapping and chanting nor musical parades through community streets. Black people in North Philadelphia did not, until recently, speak a transplanted Caribbean Creole language in private as they used to in Louisiana. And maybe the “Treme” notion that New Orleans “is America” comes from the fact that culture is so much about whites joining in with that black culture, to the extent of being the culture along with the blacks. The iconic character of the show could be, along those lines, not Wendell Pierce’s salty, feckless jazzman but the Amsterdammer’s girlfriend Annie—the lovely, racially indeterminate jazz violinist (sorry, “fiddler”). Not apparently white or black, playing violin but in jazz style, and young with major promise, she’s almost an icon of what we all like to think America is all about, especially today.

In other words, she’s the character who most seems to summon Barack Obama—and it’s what makes “Treme” seem shrill. Mr. Simon, we get it.

What’s really wonderful about New Orleans is a spirit that dovetails exactly with where the modern Blue American head is. This is not 1987, which gave us the premiere of Frank’s Place, a “dramedy” about a black man who moves from the North to New Orleans and learns about the culture, with its black-white synergy presented as weird and novel. It was as steeped in music as “Treme” (to the point that there has been no DVD release because of the expense of the music rights), well-written, and yet couldn’t even manage a full season’s run.

The fact that “Treme” has already been renewed and is getting so much attention is a sign that its creators can let up on the proselytizing and score-settling. It’d be interesting if after these growing pains, “Treme” settled into being a show about some interesting people in an interesting city. Perhaps, especially after Katrina, there are Americans who think of themselves as better than New Orleans. But how many of them are watching “Treme”?

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