Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Road Home: Treme Season Two

After two seasons Treme still does not elicit the passion and dedication that can be found among fans of The Wire. One common complaint heard about the show is that it is dull, that it takes forever for things to happen, and in place of events or plot we get long musical numbers. I don't agree with this criticism, but I do think that it gets to the central question of the show: what is it about? and what does it mean for something to happen? As innovative as The Wire was it was still at its core a police show, and as much as it troubled the narrative logic and politics of the typical police procedural, replacing the weekly convictions of Law and Order with bureaucracy and pointless investigations, it was still punctuated by the events of the police show, arrests, convictions, and murders. As Wendell Pierce, who plays Antoine Baptiste, has agued, Treme is as much about culture, how it is produced, sustained, and destroyed, as it is about New Orleans.

What then is an event at the level of culture? Of course the easy answer is the writing of a new song, the creation of a new sound, a new dish, or even a new youtube video. However, taking Pierce at his word we could say that all those things, all of that entertainment, is just a residual of culture. As Pierce states "Culture is the intersection of people and life itself." I think that this definition does a good job of describing the second season, of its events, which are about people negotiating this intersection, finding a place in this culture, coming home, as it were. 

Returning home is mentioned and referred to as a central problem in post Katrina New Orleans. In the first season we see the untouched housing projects left vacant, and the bureaucratic difficulties of returning home becomes the basis of Dj Davis and The Brassy Knoll's first song. However, aside from Janette Desautel, who spends much of the season in New York, the show doesn't directly deal with the tens of thousands who ended up dispersed across the nation. In its place we get a struggle to find a home, a place, in culture itself.

In Season Two this search is framed in terms of a quasi-Hegelian dialectic of recognition and misrecognition. Many of the characters start out striving for one place, for one position within culture, only to find themselves at home someplace else. In the case of Antoine and Davis the first place, the place that they would like to occupy, is fronting a band. Their desire is one for autonomy, success, and celebrity status. Davis and Antoine have spent years supporting others, Antoine as a capable back-up musician and Davis as a Dj and a somewhat less capable guitarist/lyricist. They both tire of this and place themselves front and center of a new band, Antoine Baptiste and the Soul Apostles and DJ Davis and the Brassy Knoll. Over the course of the season they begin to realize that they are not the bandleaders that they thought themselves to be; this is in part a reflection of the limitation of their talents, Antoine lacks the people skills to hold a band together and Davis just lacks the talent, but it also a realization of other concealed talents, Antoine reveals himself to be a reluctant teacher of the next generation and Davis is a better producer than a performer. These two intersecting and reflecting dialectics of misrecognition and recognition could be understood as a subtle counter-point to the general cultural idealization of star status, educating the audience as it educates Antoine and Davis in the quieter pleasures of teaching and cultivating talent in others. 

These intersecting plot lines reflect Treme's position within television. The television terrain is increasingly split between "High" shows, programs with high production costs and complex intersecting plots demanding full attention to the entire season, such as The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, that are generally broadcast on cable, and "Low" shows, reality based competition shows that air on broadcast television and basic cable, Top Chef, Dancing with the Stars, etc. The middle ground, as it were, is made up of dramas and sitcoms that increasingly seem like remnants of an earlier television era, a time before DVD box sets and the permeability of television and internet. It is thus possible to see this division as performing the work of classification and schematization outlined by Horkheimer and Adorno: the culture industry finds a place for everyone and puts everyone in their place. There is generally a class and generational split between these different aspects of television, this is at least the case at my university where the faculty discuss The Wire and the students discuss American Idol. What makes Treme interesting is that it takes up the material of the "low," cooking and music, presenting in a different light, one of tradition and gradual transformation, what is often presented in terms immediate success and status (America's next....), as entertainment (that residue of culture, to use Pierce's terms). Treme thus valorizes precisely what much of popular culture eclipses, the slow work of cultivating talent and creating cultural forms.

Treme is less successful of depicting the forces that work against cultural creation. Season two adds the character of Nelson Hidalgo, a Dallas businessmen who sees opportunity in New Orleans reconstruction, to depict the moneyed interests. While the character of Nelson adds a layer to the story, moving beyond the street to the structures of power, similar to the mayoral campaign of The Wire, he remains oddly opaque and frustrating. In the last episode Nelson's cousin confronts him with a question that is all too commonplace in the age of credit default swaps and financial crisis, he asks him "what do you do?"This  question and its underlying frustration seem to come out of nowhere, there is no hint of conflict between the two up to that point, perhaps reflects David Simon's own frustration of the forces of capitalist  speculation. Nelson's cousin's question, which opposes his world of real work, building roofs and working as bouncer, to the mercurial world of business deals, reflects in some sense the show's limit, what it cannot present.

No comments: