Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Works and Days: Remarks on the First Season of Treme

Comparisons between Treme and The Wire are inevitable. Unlike Generation Kill, which seems more and more like a side project, Treme has the same sprawling story line, the same focus on an American city, and even some of the same actors as The Wire

The differences are just as striking. In the first show, Baltimore generally functioned as a generic mid size city, albeit one that David Simon knew well: the focus was on the “war on drugs” and its devastating effects, elements of local culture from “lake trout” to the Baltimore accent functioned as markers of authenticity. In contrast to this, Treme is very much about New Orleans, about its cultural, geographical, and historical specificity. There is also the difference of tone, the first show was bleak, tragic even, in its outlook. While the second has preserved much of Simon’s skepticism of American government and capital, illustrated by the massive failure of every institution that became synonymous with Katrina, it has moments of pure joy, culinary and musical, the likes of which are never seen on television. Television can give you Dancing with the Stars or Cake Boss, but rarely has so much screen time been dedicated to the awkward joy of a drunken night of dancing or the simple pleasure of washing down hot sauce with beer. 

The main difference between the shows has to do with the occupations of the characters of the shows. Simon has been quoted as saying that the show is about musicians, which itself is fairly unprecedented in television. Cops, doctors, lawyers, and spaceship captains are all television staples, but musicians are rare in the world of television. Simon repeatedly claimed that The Wire was about institutions, about the police, schools, and city hall. Even the underground economy of drugs proved to be more institutional than it would first appear, with its own rules and its ability to trample over individuals. It is the latter aspect that pretty much defines institutions for Simon and is the basis for his tragic sensibility. As Simon argues, “The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason…In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed.” In contrast to this tragic vision, Treme is mostly about people who are outsiders, who function outside of institutions, at least official ones. The police, politicians, and reporters are still there, but they have become part of the background. What has moved to the foreground are musicians, “Indian chiefs,” chefs, and professors, all of whom are not so much outside of institutions, but outside of those institutions that are central in deciding the fate of post-Katrina New Orleans. We might argue that they are outside of institutions, but central to culture. 

Their status as outsiders become foregrounded as they all struggle with the shows central theme, rebuilding New Orleans. Left outside, they have no choice but to invent new strategies for action, for changing the world. Well mostly new, anyway, the “Indian Chief” Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) engages in the time-honored strategy of a one manned occupation to draw attention to the projects which have been left empty, keeping his people from returning. His political act is contrasted with the professor, Creighton Bernette (played by John Goodman) who turns to the relatively new technology of youtube to record a series of angry denunciations of the nation’s indifference to his city’s plight. A third character, a radio dj named Davis Mcalary (Steve Zahn) records a EP mocking the ruling class, and runs a parody of a political campaign, all theatrics, What links these people, besides their love for New Orleans, is they are all “immaterial laborers,” producers of knowledge, culture, and taste. This is true of many of the characters of the show, from the buskers to the cook, all of whom produce culture. This reflects the modern situation of America as much as it does the particular history of New Orleans, a city rich with cultural history that has been relegated to convention destination. 

In The Wire political economy figured in the narrative in two ways: first, in the drug trade, which I have written about elsewhere, and secondly in “juking the stats.” The latter refers to the ubiquitous tendency to make the numbers, statistics, the standard by which everything from police patrols to schools are evaluated. Once this happens, once the numbers count, then there is a tendency to make the institutions produce the numbers, the numbers become a goal not a measure, testing leads to teaching to the test and so on. This inverted world, where numbers count more than what they are supposed to measure is The Wire’s version of neoliberalism. What Treme offers in its place is a generalized precariousness, the precariousness of New Orleans as a city on the brink, but also the precariousness of labor in general, creative or otherwise. The characters in Treme are constantly moving from gig to gig, turning every friendship into a network, into a possible connection. This is the clearest in the case of Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) who travels the city on a scam and a smile. Over the course of the season we get to see Antoine enjoy his freedom (perhaps too much), but we are also reminded of the exposure of this vulnerability: how the slightest brush with the police can turn to violence and an injury means hours waiting for indifferent care from an emergency room. 

Precarity and creativity might unify the characters on the show, but they are divided by race and class. The show takes place after the flood, but a flashback in the last episode (a cinematic technique The Wire never indulged in) reminds us as much as the people of New Orleans are unified by culture and crisis, race and class decided who made it to high ground and who faced high water.

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