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The Frustrating Unlikeability of Treme

The music should be good. The storytelling should be great. Why is David Simon's show so damned hard to like?

Think of Treme, which wraps its second season this weekend, as the genius grant HBO gave David Simon for co-creating The Wire. Despite just-OK ratings — the Season 2 premiere beat VH1’s Audrina, but not Animal Planet’s River Monsters — it’s been picked up for a third season. But that seems to say less about HBO’s belief in Treme as a franchise and more about the network’s desire to keep a toe in the excellence business while producing lots of shows about boobs and impalement. I saw (this is a rough estimate) 147,000 promos for Game of Thrones before it premiered in April; one week later, the first second-season episode of Treme just showed up on my DVR, practically unheralded. I’ve seen the network make a bigger deal about the premiere of a new Robert Wuhl special. But Treme doesn’t need to be a hit; it survives because it burnishes HBO’s reputation as a serious-drama hub in ways that a hundred more escalatingly batshit seasons of True Blood couldn’t undo. Plus, David Simon recently declared that he and Ed Burns would get to work on a sixth season of The Wire if U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice would agree in return to “reconsider and address … our misguided, destructive and dehumanizing drug prohibition.” So it’s in HBO’s best interest to tell Simon (an artisanal grudge-farmer who spent the whole fifth season of The Wire taking revenge on the corporate-newspaper idiots who moved his cheese at the Baltimore Sun back in the ’90s) that they’d marry him all over again, just in case.

As an actual TV show, Treme has, from the beginning, been one weird river-monster. It’s simultaneously diffuse and didactic, seemingly as much the product of Simon’s legendary disinclination to accept network notes as his love for New Orleans or his outrage at the institutional negligence that almost killed it. Also, it wasn’t The Wire: Port of Call Crescent City, which for a lot of viewers was a deal-breaker. Season 2 introduced a few plotlines that felt vaguely Wire-esque, involving homicide investigations and city politics favor-trading. But they unfolded in the same unhurried, low-incident way every other story on Treme unfolds. Everything that happens is of equal importance because it happens in spite of the storm — a piano lesson, a murder, somebody having to go rent a hi-hat for their drummer. The Wire used the structure of the cop show to deliver a message about the decay of the American city and the insanity of the drug war. Treme behaves as if genre is a crutch, as if using twists and reveals and stakes-ratcheting cliffhangers to keep people interested would somehow cheapen what the show has to say about the resilience of the human spirit and the fierce, ornery native culture of New Orleans. You almost have to admire how stubbornly post-plot this show feels: In an era of viewer hyperentitlement, in which every TV show-runner has to answer to an army of bloggers ready to wish them into the cornfield at the first sign of subpar fan-service,1 it takes guts to demand patience. Or set a huge cast of characters who barely know each other adrift in a shaggy-dog narrative that’s forever pausing to watch a parade (like in this season’s high point, the Mardi Gras episode, which was basically a documentary short through which actors happened to wander) or groove on some live music down at the bar.

The music is controversial. I know at least one person who jukes the show’s pace by fast-forwarding all the songs, a bit of utilitarian sacrilege which cuts every episode down to a comparatively brisk 45 minutes or so. You can’t fault Simon and his cohorts for using their platform to put Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint in front of the American people, but in order to actually like these scenes, you have to like New Orleans music as much as Simon et al clearly do, even when it’s played by bands that sound like the Commitments. The show comes to life whenever there’s a second-line brass band onscreen, but the open-air rawness of the music in those scenes tends to make all the other performances seem mannered and tentative, especially when they involve actors pretending to play music. (One notable exception: Wendell Pierce, as hound-dog trombonist Antoine Baptiste, who always looks like he’s getting away with something anytime he picks up his horn. That’s mainly because that’s how Pierce always looks, but still.)

But the real problem is that when Treme‘s musician characters aren’t playing music, they’re talking about it. I like to think of myself as somebody who likes music a lot, and clearly the people writing Treme do, too. But whenever anybody on Treme talks about music, they make it sound like something I would hate. They use words like “chops” and refer to the guy who wrote “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as “Bobby Z,” and say things like “Modern jazz is a lonely road” and “Did you read that Down Beat review? Right as rain!” and describe music in which disparate genres mix and mingle by comparing the results to “gumbo,” all without even a smidge of irony. They talk like people reading liner notes out loud. During Season 2, whenever the show cut to Steve Earle Yoda-ing the earnest fiddle player Annie T. about the craft of songwriting — turns out some songs that seem to be about the weather are actually about love and being sad! — I wanted to beat myself deaf with a rolled-up back issue of Paste magazine.

It’s hard to write about music, fictionally or nonfictionally, without slipping into cliché or hyperbole or hipster-Mad Libs abstraction, which is why there are so few great rock ‘n’ roll novels and so many lousy record reviews, and why there hasn’t been a successful TV show about musicians since The Monkees (who didn’t talk about music much because they were too busy singing and/or being chased by spies who’d hidden microfilm in Davy Jones’ maracas.) But Treme‘s tendency to sashay right into these traps is frustrating, because you know Simon and his cohorts are capable of better. The Wire, which put a reporter’s-notebook premium on authentic dialogue, sometimes at the expense of clarity, would never have given lines this trite to its cops or its corner-boys. Music is a huge part of the argument Treme makes about the specialness of New Orleans culture, because you can’t taste food through your TV, so every time somebody makes an incredibly obvious statement about that specialness it undercuts the whole project.

The Season 2 storyline about trumpet player Delmond Lambreaux managed to combine two of America’s most enduring indigenous art forms — jazz and annoying people by talking about how important jazz is. Delmond (Rob Brown) doesn’t really have a personality; he’s a handsome mouthpiece through which Treme editorializes about this country’s deplorable lack of interest in Jelly Roll Morton. Like the parallel storyline in which ex-restaurateur Jenette (Kim Dickens) bounces unfulfilledly through a series of positions in the kitchens of famous New York chefs such as Eric Ripert and David Chang, his arc served a larger thematic purpose. It was about how it’s easier to stick up for a place like New Orleans and its culture when you don’t have to put your money where your mouth is by actually living there and dealing with its day-to-day realities.2 Delmond’s prickly about his home town’s traditions because he can’t connect with his father, who as the Big Chief of a Mardi Gras krewe is a living avatar of those traditions. It’s a great subtext, but as drama it played out like deleted scenes from a Wynton Marsalis biopic that even Spike Lee wouldn’t sit through.

In one midseason episode, Jill, Delmond’s long-suffering Village Voice reporter girlfriend — another walking plot device, introduced to symbolize the degree to which outsiders don’t “get” New Orleans and to give Delmond somebody to cheat on the way he cheats on New Orleans with New York — enters his apartment to find him feverishly pawing through his record collection. “You done wrecked this place with your nonsense,” she says, sensibly enough, but he doesn’t listen. He’s at the turntable, looking like Richard Dreyfuss about to sculpt a Devil’s Tower replica out of mashed potatoes. He’s dreaming up a new sound. “I’m hearin’ something,” he says. “It’s old, it’s mean, it’s got mud all over it.” Later, onstage at the Blue Note, Delmond announces that he’s going to try something a little different, then plays a rendition of Morton’s “Rock My Soul to the Milneberg Joys” that might as well be Woody Allen tootling the clarinet at Michael’s Pub for how mean and muddy it doesn’t sound. Jazz, baby! Have we mentioned that it is a lonely road?

Ironically, this season’s least irritating music-centric subplot centered on Treme‘s most irritating regular: Davis McAlary, the voluble DJ/buffoon played by Steve Zahn. When John Goodman’s character drowned himself at the end of Season 1, I couldn’t have been the only one who wished the river had taken Zahn instead, and having Davis attempt to conquer the local “bounce music” scene by starting a political jazz-funk-rap fusion band called DJ Davis and the Brassy Knoll seemed like the dumbest possible way for the show to make up for basically ignoring New Orleans rap entirely during its first year. Seriously — Lil Wayne, who calls himself the best rapper alive and is basically not wrong, is from New Orleans, but in Season 1, the only people who listened to his music were strippers. Meanwhile the show went out of its way to honor every other kind of indigenous New Orleans music-maker, giving speaking parts to local legends who couldn’t act their way out of a sack of beignets. Even London’s own Elvis Costello, who at this point is the closest thing the NPR-uppermiddlebrowist aesthetic has to a dancing fuzzy mascot , got a cameo. It felt like rockism, or at least rootsism, by omission.

Season 2 addressed that blind spot, putting Juvenile onscreen and giving actual lines to “sissy bounce” artists Katey Red and Big Freedia. And the Brassy Knoll storyline became a smart, sharp satire of white-hipster-dork carpetbagging. Like his run for mayor last season, Davis’ new band is both a sincere act of protest and a craven self-promotional stunt. They’re also pretty terrible, when we finally see them play — a slightly more agitproppy version of every horn-section-assisted party band that’s ever flaked the funk. Possibly realizing that he rhymes about as well as Steve Earle acts, Davis recruits a cred-enhancing young rapper, Lil Calliope (played by Altonio “Ace B” Jackson, an actual MC who grew up in the city’s Magnolia projects) as his co-frontman. When he gives Calliope a stack of CDs by “political” artists as homework — Public Enemy, the Clash’s London Calling, Woody Guthrie — while yammering about “righteous empowerment” and Joe Strummer being a “flawed vessel,” it’s a rare example of intentionally funny Treme music-talk. Davis is supposed to sound silly, not to mention presumptuous — chances are a New Orleans project kid who lived through Katrina can locate his angry bone just fine without an assist from Woody Guthrie. In one brief scene, the show deftly skewered the way well-intentioned white music snobs discount the political import of hip-hop that fails to remind them of their own radical role models.

Anyway, Lil Calliope isn’t interested in emulating Guthrie; as of the third-to-last episode of the season, he’s cut a content-light “club banger” single on the side and appears to be on his way to eclipsing his would-be mentor entirely. It wasn’t exactly a twist, but it was satisfying. And in a weird way, Davis’ comeuppance was a more realistic portrayal of how music works in life than anything else we’ve seen on this music-obsessed show thus far. Because, sure, sometimes musicians really are sages and culture martyrs and revolutionaries and self-sacrificing keepers of historically important flames — but sometimes they’re oblivious soul-patched narcissists who can’t quite manage to make art as good as their intentions. A flawed vessel like this show should sympathize.

Alex Pappademas writes about teen wolves, movie directors, and other pop culture ephemera for The New York Times Magazine. Follow him on twitter at @pappademas.

Filed Under: Celebrities, David Simon, HBO, Music, Series, TV

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

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