On Treme’s (Possibly Redeemable) Annoying Characters And Fraught Quest For “Musical Authenticity”


David Simon’s Treme is, as has been mentioned far and wide, clearly not going to be The Wire. Sure, it’s dealing with rampant corruption in a major American city and the frustration of human beings forced to deal with that corruption, doing so with an uncanny mix of fiction and verisimilitude. (Not to mention a few of the same actors–hey, Bunk! Hey, Lester! Look: a cameo from Slim Charles!) So wait, what actually differentiates Treme from The Wire, then? Or more specifically, from Wire predecessor The Corner?

In short, everything and nothing. The “nothing” is the familiar storytelling style–part James Agee, part Robert Penn Warren, part (as Simon is quick to tell you, ahem) Shakespeare–and the focus on a city as the lead character. Yet while it’s not clear if Simon aims to turn into HBO’s own Sufjan Stevens yet (in production: Wrigleyville?), the “everything” is jazz. Not just jazz, but Jazz (dig). Because while corruption and poverty are two of the driving narrative forces in this tale, and real-live New Orleanians feature in prominent roles, the most important causal agent in this production is that old canard that never seems to die, no matter how many times we stomp on its neck: musical authenticity.

The story starts a matter of months after Katrina, and the residents of Treme are faced with a unique but challenging opportunity: rebuilding an entire city. What to keep, what to reinvent? What does “real” New Orleans–a city that’s proudly represented its provincial culture to the rest of the world for a couple centuries–look like? How to balance the necessity of tourist money with the ickiness of performing daily life for gawking outsiders? Most importantly, does NPR have a say in this?

Not if Davis McAlary, played by an actually sort of restrained Steve Zahn, has anything to say about it. When he’s not annoying his gardening, classical-listening (read: bougie and inauthentically NPR-esque) neighbors by blasting Mystikal out his window, running down the street to catch the first post-flood second-line, or trying to retreive his consignment CDs back from a shuttered Tower Records, he’s bitching to his fellow DJ about the ignominy of being forced to play a pledge-drive CD with New Orleans’ greatest hits over the air.

After getting canned for the ultimate transgression of allowing Coco Robicheaux to sacrifice a chicken on-air–bringing the old Congo Square vibe to the gentrified “faux French market” that houses the radio station–Davis ends up working as a desk clerk at a Bourbon Street hotel, where he can’t resist sending a trio of good-natured Christian missionaries to catch Kermit Ruffins (real guy) and Antoine Batiste (fake guy) at Bullet’s Sports Bar in the Seventh Ward, instead of pointing them toward a safe tourist trap in the Quarter. Again: canned for keeping it real.

The early web buzz on the McAlary character wasn’t kind, painting him as an overzealous, broke, white record-store clerk. Sure, he’s got the best intentions in mind, but most viewers clearly would prefer a focus on the hard-luck, trombone-blowing womanizer Batiste, or even better, Delmond Lambreaux, who’s dead-set on reviving his Mardi Gras Chiefdom right there in Treme, no matter what his highfalutin, Lincoln Center-playing son wants. But I think we should give poor Davis a chance, and I get the vibe that Simon–who’s not afraid of redemption narratives for annoying characters (remember how much we all came to love Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski by The Wire‘s fourth season?)–does, too.

But street musician Sonny is another story. We see him for the first time early in the second episode with partner Annie, in duet on local standard “Careless Love.” Turns out his most enthusiastic audience members are those three missionary kids, who happen to be from Milwaukee, and who to Sonny are nothing but rubbernecking tragedy tourists, looking for the most “authentic” NOLA experience they can get. Annie tries diplomacy, but Sonny cuts into them, accusing the trio of not caring about the Lower Ninth before the hurricane, then sarcastically segueing into “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The Midwesterners dutifully clap along, and you sorta start hating Sonny. At least I did.

But that’s what Simon wants, I’m assuming. He’s walking a razor-thin line between presenting “the real” and didactically hammering it home, and so far he’s doing it exceedingly well, warts and all. Simon despises simple narratives the way Treme residents resent tourists, and he’s used the first two episodes of the show to castigate all outsiders, regardless of intention (John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette gets off an NPR broadside off in the first episode). McAlary might be annoying in his enthusiasm to rebuild his home culture in its own image, but Sonny is a straight-up dick. The stark passion necessary to recover from an epic tragedy takes on uncomfortable forms, and Simon’s not afraid to show them to us in all their uncomfortable passion.