What Does TV Say about Reality: Deconstructing HBO’s “Treme”

Ideas and Issues
Professor Vicki Mayer on Treme

New Orleans    The HBO show, Treme, another auteur urban tour from David Simon following the wildly acclaimed Wire, may not have found mass appeal out there in viewerlandia, but in New Orleans literally everyone has an opinion, all of which made for a fascinating evening with Tulane media and communications professor Vicki Mayer as part of the Fair Grinds Dialogue series.  It was fascinating to listen to the Mayer’s presentation but also to hear the discussion.  People in New Orleans watch Treme for so many different and highly personal reasons that if this were an Occupy general assembly, the dialogue would never end, because quite simply “the personal is the perspective” for many here.

Mayer was able to color in parts of the picture that locals couldn’t imagine especially the enthusiasm and interest by scholars around the world.  After an astute opening comment on the way the film industry in New Orleans is “colonizing” the city and contributing to the “privatization of public space” (amen!), Mayer said there were three main points to the scholarly interest in Treme:

  • As multiply layered art with various tropes and themes of such significant interest to film auteurs that HBO could afford to run the show to advance its partnership with Simon as a “loss leader” despite slimmer ratings because the later box sets and long term sales would be good.
  • Scholars see the show as one of a smaller group of television offerings that tries to “speak about social ills in society, especially the post-Katrina, post-crisis society.”  My own view is that the show does this very poorly, but that doesn’t take away from Professor Mayer’s point that there are damn few that even bother, so it’s worth a good look.  The concept of “private mobilization” that emerged as part of this story was interesting.  There is agreement between those at the dialogue and scholars that the occasional intersections with New Orleans culture are important and interesting, regardless of whether or not the show makes this a tourist film and musical minstrel show of “Disneyland on the Mississippi.”
  • Perhaps most interestingly, Professor Mayer shared that many looked at the show as an allegory for the “prototypical neoliberal city” where “citizens take care of the city” develop as local entrepreneurs who are in “training for how to be a good citizen.”  The subliminal message of the show in some ways, Mayer said, is that citizens “can’t count on the city to do anything.”  Wow – right on! I knew I resented this part of the show, but was grateful to Mayer for putting a name to it!

This being New Orleans, there was a lot of discussion about how poorly the show dealt with women, power, and race and how they worked in reality as opposed to in Simon’s Treme.  One dialogue participant told a story of being an extra in a Treme neighborhood joint she frequented and being asked along with others to leave during the filming, because the club scene wasn’t “black enough.”  At the same time person after person at Fair Grinds told how the show “spoke” to them because of a street here or a restaurant there or something that was still a “marker” of home, particularly for many now recently returning from the New Orleans diaspora after Katrina.

There was also a hearty discussion not often heard in New Orleans about whether the burgeoning film industry is “paying back” to the city.  The huge tax credits that are writing off 1/3 or more of film costs are the most lucrative for the industry in the US now, but here there was criticism and mourning about how little was being done to train and develop long term jobs in the industry and deepen the skills and connections for a film industry in the Crescent City for the future.

Perhaps that point deepens the theme of the neo-liberal, global city.  Industry comes here in a race to the bottom for wages and work, and never sets root so they can easily flee to the next place in the future without leaving any skills or infrastructure.  Best that Treme not talk about power, because there should be popular and political accountability at the city and state level in Louisiana about who could have allowed the city and its citizens to be exploited once again as if we are little more than a third world Jamaica without a beach and a China of little labor standards and migrant, transient workers.