Friday, July 8, 2011

Literature, Television, and the Genius of David Simon

Critics like comparing television writer-producer David Simon to Charles Dickens; they marvel at the way Simon serializes his stories across multiple episode arcs. They love to call his characters “Dickensian.” But Simon is in a class by himself, a man who creates and writes shows that offer social commentary and cultural criticism as well as intriguing and compelling stories. Calling him the second coming of Charles Dickens is meant as a complement, but it is unnecessary. David Simon is a unique genius who makes television dramas that should be classified as literature, pure and simple. His latest effort, HBO’s Treme, continues this tradition.

Treme is set in a neighborhood of New Orleans circa 2005, a culturally rich and diverse place nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The first season of episodes took place only a few months after the disaster. The recently completed second season found the characters more than a year on and still struggling with the effects of the storm. Simon and his producing partner Eric Overmyer created a cast of characters from every walk of life in the city who are interesting to watch, but the show is truly rooted in the music and culture of New Orleans. The camera lingers on the beautiful decadence, the gothic squalor of the city. They construct visual feasts of graveyards, Mardi Gras celebrations, second line parades, homes and businesses filled with mold, and piles of muddy rubble. When a young boy blowing a trumpet wanders through the detritus of the lost city in the second season opener, we see the glimmer in the muck, the ray of hope in a storm of trouble. The show is transcendent in a way no American television production has ever been, at once native and elemental yet heartfelt and incendiary.

As with previous Simon productions like The Wire (also HBO, 2002-2008), the stories unfold slowly. Scenes sometimes have no dialogue. The writers do not pander to their audience—one must listen closely and pay attention. The writing is nuanced and subtle, but viewer beware. Events can transpire in a gut-wrenching moment, as when a street musician played by the legendary Steve Earle is gunned down by a mugger. Or, in the first season when community leader, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (played by Clarke Peters) discovers the decomposing body of a close friend under an overturned boat in a shed.

Simon makes it clear that this show will not fall back on stereotypical television tropes—cops, lawyers, or doctors—although, Treme characters include a lawyer, and this season, a deeply troubled cop. Story lines carry over an entire season, and characters come and go, relocating to other cities and even to the grave, but always remaining connected to New Orleans. One such example is novelist Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman, who commits suicide at the close of season one after the audience has followed his journey through rage and impotence over the fate of his beloved city. The suicide itself could easily be missed—he stands smoking at the rail of a ferry boat, the camera pans away and back, and Goodman is gone—but the emotional fallout for his wife and daughter permeates the entire second season. Goodman only appears in a dream sequence during a single episode in season two.

Bernette’s wife and daughter are portrayed radiantly by Melissa Leo and India Ennenga. Leo does work worthy of Greek tragedy—subtle, quiet, inevitable and yet forceful, conveying a range of emotions in eyes of dark uncertainty, feeling her way through the anger and sadness. She must deal with her husband’s act of abandonment and fight for her clients as a civil rights lawyer and police watchdog. But Simon is true to his word about those tropes. Toni Bernette is the moral voice in the wilderness of civic corruption, less bombastic than Goodman’s character, but Leo plays Toni razor sharp and resilient. Her husband may have given up, but she will not.

Wendell Pierce and Steve Zahn play loveable shlubs who work the music scene. Pierce’s character is the womanizing trombone player Antoine Batiste, an imperfect man who struggles, often comically, to make ends meet. His stories this season as he mentors young musicians as a music teacher have been especially good. Zahn’s zany D.J. Davis McAlary can be annoying and profound in the same scene. I found his character tiresome last season, but Zahn found his grounding with the character this year, giving us much to love and empathize with in this frustrated musician.

Treme’s cast is a large and talented ensemble: Kim Dickens as a struggling chef; Khandi Alexander as a bar owner, and this season, a victim of a violent and brutal crime; Rob Brown as a trumpeter trying to balance his New Orleans roots with his New York jazz sensibilities; Lucia Micarelli as the beautiful and sad violinist; and Michiel Huisman as the troubled Sonny. This season, Simon added David Morse and Jon Seda to the cast. Morse is the aforementioned police officer sickened by the negligent corruption of the NOPD. Seda comes to town a modern-day carpetbagger looking to score on the misery and destruction of the hurricane aftermath.

In some episodes, music runs through nearly every scene, and all kinds of famous and not-so-famous New Orleans musicians make cameos and even guest starring stints. The stories pulse with the music, from live performances to radio, CDs, background and foreground score. It is clear that music and New Orleans are synonymous, the blood and tissue of the larger body. The soundtrack for this show is epic, and the music is alive and organic. In Treme, music and storytelling are inseparable.

That a show of this complexity and nuance would struggle for viewers is to be expected. HBO is a premium channel, which excludes many customers right from the start. That Treme is so different from basic cable and network shows might also put some people off. But HBO should be applauded for keeping Treme on the air. Quality television, like good literature, sometimes takes time to find an audience. Indeed, Simon had his doubts that Treme would be picked up for a third season. He wrote the second season finale as a possible final episode for the series if HBO did not come through with a renewal. They did, as cast and crew were wrapping the last episode. So we can anticipate a return to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras.

Of course, Simon probably takes uncertainty in stride. His previous shows, all excellent, were not ratings blockbusters. Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC 1993-1999) led a constantly threatened existence; The Corner (HBO, 2000) was critically acclaimed; The Wire had a small but loyal following; and Generation Kill (HBO, 2008), a nonfiction miniseries, utilized many of the hallmarks of fictional storytelling. Simon has made a career out of turning journalism, much of it his from the time when he was a reporter in Baltimore, into quality television literature. He proves the adage that great storytelling can be journalism or fiction, as long as it is interesting and compelling.

With any luck, Treme will be with us for many more seasons. In this series, Simon celebrates the rich decay, sordid beauty, and grotesque poetry of an eccentric city and its denizens. New Orleans has a resilient and intriguing culture, a people unbowed by tragedy who continue to sing songs and blow trumpets in the mossy swamp of a graveyard we call life and all that jazz.

Here's "Oye, Isabel" by The Iguanas featured in the second season finale of Treme.

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