Monday, December 03, 2012

Insiders and Outsiders: Season Three of Treme

Season Three of Treme is perhaps the season in which the show final came into its own, developing its own particular narrative structure. Sadly it will also be the last full season of the show. Comparisons with The Wire are still unavoidable, but at least at this point they suggest a real difference--a different idea--and not just the relation of lauded original to failed copy. David Simon initially suggested that the difference between these shows was one of positive and negative. As Simon states, Treme is in part an argument for the city.

This assertion sets the two shows apart as positive and negative, dystopia and utopia, despite the fact that Simon is quick to qualify this distinction. Post Katrina New Orleans is hardly any one's idea of an urban ideal, despite the second lines and sezeracs. As I have suggested earlier the real point of contrast between these two shows is not located on the axiological axis of good and bad but on the institutional axis of inside and outside. The Wire was a show about the inner functioning of everything from a drug cartel to city hall, its central motif was that of the wiretap which was an allegory for the show itself. Treme deals with the same institutions, with everything from city hall to the police, but it does so primarily from the perspectives of the outside, the "little people" who are affected by these institutions. Treme's most powerful illustration of this in the third season is the city's decision to close the housing projects. We see this from the outside, from the protestors who arrive too late and are pepper sprayed by the police. Treme is the city seen from the perspective of those who are excluded. This difference is in part due to the different basis of each show. The Wire was about the "war on drugs, Treme is about post-Katrina New Orleans: in the first events are generic, in the latter they are specific. Thus while the former can give us the inner working of a fictional mayors office, the later can only show news footage of Mayor Ray Nagin's office. The attention to real events rather than general dynamics forces the show into a position of observation. 

Treme's  strength is how much it makes this position of exteriority its central theme. If The Wire was in part about the destructive, ultimately tragic relation between the institution and the individual, then Treme continues this but inverts it, examining the possibilities and limits of the outside. Season Three strengthens this by showing the temptations of the inside, of the possibility of gaining money, power, and influence by becoming an insider. In this season four characters, all outsiders of a sort, either new to New Orleans or displaced from it, are given a chance to become insiders. Annie is offered a record contract, Janette is offered her own restaurant, Nelson is offered a chance to work on a new proposed jazz center, as is Delmond (and to a lesser extent Albert). 
These four intersecting narratives raise the question as to how much is gained or lost in gaining money, power and influence. Nowhere is this more striking than with Janette, whose chance to open her own restaurant becomes a kind of alienation. In the end even her name, her image, and her recipes no longer belong to her. The other characters struggle with a similar sense of loss, of the cost of money fame and power. Some, like Delmond and Albert, opt out, choosing tradition and integrity over money. While others, like Nelson Hildago, find the exchange of individuality for wealth to be a bargain.

The destruction of "selling out" is countered in this season by the ideal of the outsider. LP Everett, whose real life reporting provides some of the factual basis of Season Three, is not only from out of town, but as he repeatedly stresses, "is into metal," placing him outside of the musical traditions of the show. (Although it does make possible a brief cameo of Goatwhore). He is able to leverage his position as outsider to eventually uncover the truth about massive police brutality, that is overlooked or taken for granted by others.

Simon idealizes this position of the outsider. His most celebrated character, Omar Little from The Wire, is more or less a distillation of every rebel, lone gunslinger, and hardened noir character from the cultural memory of decades. It is possible to see Treme as continuing this theme, replacing the lone gunslinger with the intrepid reporter, and, more importantly continuing the identification of institution as alienation and corruption.

Two things interrupt this easy identification. First, there is Davis McAlary. Davis is this show's McNulty, a man who constantly rages against the machine, rebelling against his radio station, New Orleans politics, everything. As the old saying goes, however, "first time as tragedy, second as farce," Davis' rebellions are often comic rather than tragic. More importantly, Davis can only function in between the space of institution and rebellion. This is illustrated in Season Three by Davis' ironic success. After spending much of the year working on an opera, an epic of soul and blues that would tell the story of New Orleans post-Katrina, an opera that fails to find backers or performers, Davis has success with his "I quit" song, a song detailing his frustrations with the music business. Davis success reveals a kind of dialectic of the rebel, who continually needs something to rebel against. Treme's real success in overcoming the dualism between individual and institution comes not so much in Davis tragicomedy of rebellion, but in gesturing towards something like a community of outsiders, in the suggestion that the real New Orleans, the real city, is always that which exceeds its institutional reproduction. The second to last episode of the season offers its most utopian image, as most of the show's characters gather in a benefit for LaDonna's destroyed bar, a benefit which pits them against their various professional interests as chefs and musicians.

This perspective is summed up by Big Chief Albert Lambreaux when he severs his ties to the lucrative jazz center, "Money didn't make New Orleans, not the New Orleans I know, anyway. And money alone ain't going to save it." This statement is as central to the logic of Treme as Lester Freamon's (also played by Clarke Peters) assertion in The Wire, "You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money... and you don't know where the fuck is going to take you." In the first case the city is defined as that which exists outside of investment and institutionalization, while in the second it is money which ties together in a dense logic of corruption the various institutions of the city. 

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