Treme: Early Looks

Ideas and Issues Personal Writings Rebuild New Orleans

John-GoodmanNew Orleans Coming and going in New Orleans, five will get you ten, someone will say something or ask about what you think of Treme, the new David Simon show on HBO. Long local reference and reality check articles are written in the days after the broadcast by Keith Spera of the Times-Picayune who is obviously smitten to have found a backhanded reference to himself in the show where Kermit Ruffins, the trumpet player, and a star in the show, mistakes him for Elvis Costello. Don’t have HBO, it hardly matters, this is like a local Super Bowl game, packing restaurants and bars on Sunday nights for folks to watch.

First, please, please remember this is a TV show for goodness sakes and not a documentary! This is why non-New Orleanians maybe able to simply watch the show and decide better whether it’s good entertainment. Watching it around the post-Katrina stress folks is a different experience. There is scoffing when a guy opens an iron gate in East New Orleans to take a first look at his flooded house, because everyone knows no gates were still locked after the National Guard when house to house. And, that’s just an example. Don’t get me started – or anyone else around here – or there’s no end to it. Eventually, people will get over Katrina shock, which is still the collective malady here, and simply enjoy all of the local references, locations in the camera shots, and, frankly, the pure joy of having folks care about your hometown. That’s not possible in two shows, but, hey, eventually.

Second, I loved the Wire. I’ve been upbraid by friends and colleagues about this. Some organizers thought the Wire distorted Baltimore and hurt the work. Perhaps so, but it was great TV, bro. And, it got into things I cared about in a dramatic way including politics, race, urban decay and development, labor and unions, and so forth. I’m open minded about Treme looking at New Orleans through the music window rather than the cop shield. They didn’t have a choice. Cops have no credibility here. That show would have been a comedy. On this we’re all going to have to wait and see, but for now, I’m OK with it, frankly.

Thirdly, hope springs eternal, and I’ve seen some reasons for hope, because there were a couple of sucker punches with sharp critical content. It made me think maybe someone or somebody writing with the show is not just drinking the culture Kool-Aid, but maybe actually gets some of it.

I don’t mean the Spike Lee rantings from John Goodman about the flooding being a man-made, brought to you by the government disaster. Everybody is there 100%, so that’s almost a clique, no matter how painful. No, I mean the couple of hard slap backs at Tulane University and its hypocritical “leadership” in the city. A slap back at Tulane and it’s Times-Picayune loving cup award winning President, Scott Cowen, is something you won’t read about in the Spera puff piece or anywhere in the pages of the Picayune, but there it was in the second show not once but twice.

First, the Goodman character who obviously works for Tulane in the English department somewhere, was reading a letter which the camera carefully showed was written on Tulane stationery, and bemoaning the fact that Tulane was cutting out whole departments in engineering and other areas that would have been critical to the New Orleans recovery. Touche! In itself that might be a shot anyone could take because it was so obvious, but not long afterward in the show came the kill shot, when Goodman is talking to his daughter who desperately wants to come home to the city and go to school, because she hates Baton Rouge. Goodman starts talking about how Lutcher might be an option, which is the Uptowners’ favorite kid toy school, and drolling mentions that Tulane has essentially taken over Fortier High School – a public school! – as a place for the children of the University to go to school. His daughter asks where the Fortier kids, largely black, like the rest of the City’s public school system, will go? Goodman sorta shrugs. That’s sweet stuff! A little public accountability for a hushed up scandal of public misappropriation for me-first, you-never noblesse oblige Cowan and Tulane. ‘

I’m not saying that they went far enough. They didn’t bell the cow. They didn’t hit on the fact that Cowan bought the place for a million dollars so the university would have a captive charter from a cash strapped school district. They didn’t mention that Cowan was supposedly helping chair all of the committees about education recovery in the city, so all of this was self-dealing in the face of the City’s needs.

They didn’t have to really. Remember, this is TV. This isn’t a documentary.

But, if they are not bought, sold, and owned by the City’s power-and-cultural structure, then there might be some good that comes out of all of Treme, which brings “pride” back to New Orleans in the same way the players kept saying that there was finally “pride on Bourbon Street” for local musicians.

In the meantime the rest of the world can enjoy the characters played by Chief Montana’s daughter and Wendell Pierce talking about barbecue in ways that brought smiles to every New Orleanian’s face and will have everyone else in the planet wondering why they don’t live here. Eat your heart out, too!