Moving Pictures
Apr 15, 2010, 09:09AM

Talking Treme

This begins Splice’s ongoing round-robin conversation concerning all things Treme, David Simon’s new HBO series based in post-Katrina New Orleans. (Obvious: Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the show and are planning to—spoilers abound.)

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So, Andrew, having been a Balitmorean for the past several years now—you moved there just in the wake of The Wire—do you feel put out that David Simon and Co. have turned their sights elsewhere?

Of course, in this first episode, what we're getting is essentially one, long establishing shot, or series of establishing shots, orienting us as to where we are, who we're dealing with and even though I know we weren't supposed to feel as though it was the beginning of a season of The Wire, I did feel as though this first go-around definitely had that feel to it, that we were welcoming back these familiar, household faces? Is this just David Simon and Co. Does America's Poorest Cities?

One of the most interesting things I noticed about the show is the opening credit sequence. I don't know if you noticed, but all of the names are superimposed over walls that are covered in mold. Presumably, these are the walls of buildings in New Orleans that grew mold because of all the water damage and flooding during Katrina. The mold is all different colors and patterns, kind of beautiful in a way. My first thought was that mold isn't really something your mind jumps to when you think about Katrina, or natural disasters in general. You think of huge damage. You think of rioting. The Mold seems to bring the spectator down to "ground level", to the reality of the situation on the ground. In this way, I think, Simon is aesthetic-izing the mold, making it beautiful. Which leads me to my next question.

I found this first episode to be very visually pleasing. The colors Duke! The Colors! All popsicle advertisements aside (though it did look hot down there), I thought that the camera really knew what it was doing vs. the first season or so of The Wire, when they weren't so much concentrating on the style of the camera work because they were just trying to get the brute reality across; while they seem to be doing the same thing with Treme, that is, the brute reality thing, they're doing it more artfully, do you think that Treme runs the risk of making the aftermath of Katrina more beautiful than it should be?

Knowing you, you'll probably wanna talk about the soundtrack, which has me thinking that perhaps we should get Lloyd Cargo to link-up this conversation with some places where our readers can listen to the some of the artists they've been talking about and playing on the show?



Robert, I don't feel put out at all by Simon taking his creativity elsewhere. I wish him the best of luck (I think he's gotten off to a fantastic start), though from the random, anecdotal whispers I hear every so often there are plenty Baltimoreans that don't share my sentiments. (Can you imagine how many bridges the man probably burned down, especially considering the fourth and fifth seasons of The Wire?) I completely understand where you're coming from when you ask if we're getting a dose of "David Simon and Co. Does America's Poorest Cities"—it's good to be frank about the more basic tenets of Simon's aesthetic. But ultimately I think it's a reductive way of looking at the man and his work. He's first and foremost a metro reporter of the worn-shoe-sole variety, and he is also a brilliant storyteller. It's therefore not all that surprising that The Wire and Treme share that same lens: it's what he knows. I don't think the overlapping of basic subject matter—inner-city African-American culture, crime, drugs, chronic poverty—should take anything away from the experience.

I also noticed the art-like cinematography, specifically the opening credits superimposed over bare, near-abstracted walls covered in mold. What stuck out more to me, though, were the satellite images of Hurricane Katrina and on-the-ground footage of flooding. My initial thoughts are that the show centers on a neighborhood devastated by the hurricane; therefore, it'd be crass and insulting to ignore that fact in the opening credits. But it's difficult thinking of Katrina in the context of a TV show's opening credits. (Indeed, the fact that it didn't happen all that long ago has lead some to suggest Simon is overstepping.) It's important not to get too bogged down in the credits, since the other 80 minutes makes or breaks the show. When Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) walks into his home for the first time, the camera follows his feet as they sink into the inches-thick mud on the floor.

That's not pretty; it’s visceral and upsetting. When he walks into a room and his face breaks into open despair, you don't see what's in the room itself. He picks up an old picture from a desk, but we're left to assume the rest of the room held something deeper. I think that's a good example that Simon isn't going to milk every bit of creative juice from this kind of scene. The approach is patient and, most importantly, character driven. We're watching Lambreaux's face, not what he's looking at. Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) has this recurring line throughout the episode: "Don't ask me about my house." We hear it a lot because that's what small talk consisted of at that time. The implications are all there—so many were left with no home at all—without any subsequent imagery.

As for the music, we certainly need to bring Cargo aboard, but HBO sort of beat us to it. They list the episodes' songs here, complete with convenient links to the iTunes store.

What I want to start getting into is this: Simon's aesthetic is decidedly not flashy, in the sense that The Godfather isn't "flashy." It's almost conservative in nature how character- and plot-driven his work can be (for a candied version of this style, see here: http://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/treme-s-competition). If you agree, is that a result of ubiquitous high-end production values, glib/ironic dialogue and, generally, a lot of bad television? I'm wondering if Simon's work is so good because it's unique or because it's simply better television that most of what's out there. Many people like to describe The Sopranos as a high-water mark of television; did The Wire achieve that status in the same fashion, or is Simon clearing his own path?



It's funny that you think of Simon sort of fleeing Baltimore (like the way that New Caanan, Connecticut, must have felt about Rick Moody when The Ice Storm came out) after the kind of civic wounds he exposed (re: Baltimore Public Schools and The Sun) in The Wire. I remember some time ago, I was listening to this really great interview with now-Governor of Maryland/then-Mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, and he said, (I'm paraphrasing here) something along the lines of, "All of these people from the tourism industry and all of the Deans at all of the colleges and universities in Baltimore asked me to revoke The Wire's shooting permit because of the negative impressions it gave people about Baltimore; but if I did that, then Baltimore would become known as the city that denied Art. Baltimore is what it is and it’s gone through a lot of good changes over the past decade and hopefully, one day the Art would come to reflect those changes."

Sure, Simon must have made some people really angry (managing editor of the Sun?) but he also made the whole city incredibly proud. I don't mean to suggest that Simon thinks of himself as the Great White Hope or anything like that, going to these places and filming what he's filming. Rather, I think that Simon sees himself as a champion of the unseen, the marginalized, and it’s because of this subject that in a way, his production values, the aesthetic, has to be incredibly high so as not to "overstep" as you say, he's being really careful not to be some kind of Bleeding Heart on this whole poverty/drugs/inner-city thing. From the beginning, he wanted to show what it's like to be alive in a hugely un- or misrepresented part of the American populace.
As for the whole "too soon" aspect of Treme, I don't think its really too soon at all, in the way that, say, taking a cruise ship to Haiti would be "too soon," because it's trying to be a part of that "continued effort" we always hear politicians talking about. That he's even there to begin with, paying people, putting the costs associated with shooting on location back into that location, as opposed to say, if he went down there to shoot a Real Housewives of New Orleans County that totally denied the various social antagonisms that the city is obviously still dealing with at the moment.

I'm really glad you brought up Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), who is an old favorite of Simon's, at least since The Corner, and who played Detective Lester Freeman on The Wire, you know, the older guy, always working on those model houses that he supposedly sold for more than he was making as a detective? Its funny, a friend remarked to me recently that out of all the characters on The Wire, he disliked the cops the most (by which I think he meant the Detectives; Jimmy McNulty, Kima Greggs, Herc, Carver and Freeman, not the more peripheral ones) and I think my friend is right. I didn't really like Clarke Peters on The Wire very much at all. Now, "formulaic" would be the last thing I would call Simon or The Wire but Peters’ character on The Wire was formulaic, in that, if you go back and watch the show he serves this "well, to recap what we've found out so far" role that is played more overtly on network TV dramas by the "lab scenes."

The basic function of the "lab scene" and Lester Freeman is basically there for older audience members that a.) might have forgotten plot elements from earlier in the show or b.) need technological devices explained to them that are integral to certain plot points. If you go back, and not I'm saying Peters wasn't good in the role of Lester Freeman, he was always explaining how something worked; the law, GPS, financial records, cell-phones, etc. He played a very passive role and this passivity got to be boring after a while; it was like every time you saw Peters on screen you were like, "Yep, he's going to explain something to us to now." It got very old.

I really liked his performance in this first episode though. He plays an Indian Chief (I'm not quite sure what that is) who is returning home after the storm. I thought that there was something harder about his face in this than in The Wire. I hope that Simon lets him be freer in Treme to explore his range. It's also interesting to note that Simon gave him the tagline of the show, "Won't bow. Don't know how," which Peters utters in that wonderful scene when he puts the feathered regalia back on. I want to know what you have to say about that phrase and what it means.

Also, in the first 80 minutes, certain threads were introduced that I think are going to appear again and again throughout the show. They are a.) the "don't talk to me about my house thread, b.) the Shakespeare thread (in the beginning characters quote loosely from the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet, "I thumb my nose at you," etc.), and c.) the whole taxicab-fare-bartering that goes on with Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce).

I think that you mean that David Simon's aesthetic is not flashy in that it's not cheap; he doesn't use many jump cuts, or expensive looking fades, or star-fades for that matter. It doesn't have that really hectic, handheld, hyper real style that shows like The Shield use. It is character driven and it is plot driven and that observation of yours, that we get to see Peter's face and not what he's looking at, is incredibly apt. As for whether or not it’s good because it is sort of absolutely good, or relatively good in terms of, I think you mean Network TV, or so much bad television; I think the answer is a little of both. Although, Network TV, has gotten incredibly smarter and more intelligent when you start to look at shows like Lost or CSI in comparison to what most of USA Network Television looked like in the 90s. Everyone thought we were just going to keep getting stupider and that turned out not to be the case; a trend that HBO actually help to steer in its current direction as networks started to take more and more cues from the success the subscription provider was having at that time.

You open up a can of worms with The Wire vs. The Sopranos talk, which I think are more alike than they are different, but here's how they're different: The Sopranos was, at its base, a mostly epistemological question, that is, the show was concerned with exploring how we know what we know ("what ever happened to that Chechen in the woods?"), in terms of identity, our place in late-capitalism, etc. The Wire, and I think that Treme will go this way too, is essentially an ontological inquiry into what there is ("follow the money", etc). Here's how HBO is different from Network TV and how it acquires that "stranger than fiction" vibe to it: To use an analogy, think of HBO and Network TV as two competing sculptors.

Network TV sets out to build a show by taking little bits of clay off of a huge block of clay and uses them to build a statue of what it wants to portray; HBO, on the other hand, it sees this huge block of clay and begins to pare it down (the clay being the narrative raw material, you might say) and finds the contours already existent in the block, so it chips little pieces of the block away to expose an already existing form, except that before, it existed in the block of clay's totality. It's as though Simon is taking the whole of New Orleans, all of the characters and the stories, and putting it through a sieve and using the most interesting parts of what is caught in the mesh. This is what makes his, and HBO's stuff feel so authentic, at least as far as The Sopranos. If NBC used this system for, say, The Office, we would have had a show that was about Scranton, primarily, and how Scranton, PA, works, its mechanisms, its textures, its moods, and Michael Scott would have been a peripheral character in an ensemble cast, and we wouldn't have even gotten around to him being the main character until like, the third season of the show. It’s a great question and I think it's one that we should keep talking about as this goes on.


  • Very enjoyable back and forth about David Simon's Treme. I haven't seen it yet, but loved The Corner and The Wire (especially the second season). One point about network tv, even the rare smart shows. They're hobbled by the American puritanism of not allowing "real" language on, say, CSI. Hearing people speak like they do in everyday life is a big advantage for HBO, FX and other cable stations. Rescue Me or Weeds, both good shows, couldn't be shown on CBS, which is silly, especially when you consider the fare offered on BBC.

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