The New Orleans of cliché: Bourbon Street as the fog rolls in off the Mississippi, a lone jazzman blowing a plaintive tune on his sax; tourists in garish shirts walking through the French Quarter, drunk on syrupy frozen daiquiris and hurricanes, gawking at souvenir shop windows stuffed with voodoo dolls made in Taiwan and T-shirts reading “I got bourbon-faced on S–t Street”; nubile young women flashing their jiggling breasts as rowdy crowds on balconies shower down Mardi Gras beads. Notice how all the clichés, by the way, are French Quarter-focused?
Certainly there have been many heroic celluloid attempts to capture the “real” essence of this brilliant, mouldy city. Exhibit No. 1: The Big Easy. Dennis Quaid and his awful Cajun accent (by the way, no real Cajun would ever dare live in this town, never mind one who’s a cop) tracking Ellen Barkin through the humid streets filled with, you got it, fog, breasts, and Mardi Gras beads. Exhibit No. 2: Angel Heart and its spinning ceiling fans, wrought iron balconies, and, you got it, voodoo dolls. Exhibit No. 3: do we really need a No. 3? If so, here’s one: K-Ville, a short-lived post-Katrina television police drama that tried (it really did!) to break out of the cliché but only ended up being consumed by it. A crooked NOPD officer who wants to come clean? Come on! Police corruption in New Orleans is so prevalent that it is one of those rare but deserving clichés.
And so when I heard word that the next poor fool of a director/visionary/genius had decided to try capturing the “real” New Orleans, I did the clichéd groan. And when I heard that this fool of a director/visionary/genius was actually basing a central character on one of my very own real-life friends of almost 20 years, a friend who I fondly consider a wastrel, a musical hack, and a drug fiend whose band played at my wedding, I spat my frozen daiquiri/hurricane concoction straight over my proverbial wrought iron balcony and onto the young breasts below. What? Say again.
Other friends assured me, “No, really, this is going to be different. This is going to be it.” What did they mean, “it”? The last time someone would ever try to capture this city in a TV show? Did “it” refer to the Apocalypse? “No,” my friends assured me, “David Simon is making a show about New Orleans.”
David Simon. Writer and producer of such critically acclaimed TV fare as Homicide: Life on the Street, Generation Kill, and, as my friends gushed so hard I worried something vital might spill from their ears, HBO’s The Wire, a show so great, if you are to believe my friends, it makes The Sopranos look like, well, K-Ville.
I’m going to admit something now and just get it out of the way: I’d never watched The Wire. I admit this knowing that I have dropped severely in the estimation of my friends-in-the-know. I have done something unbelievable in not having ever seen a single episode of The Wire. My wife, Amanda, who writes for a living at home like me, who keeps the identical schedule as me, has somehow seen episodes of The Wire. And, of course, she gushes over it.
What do I hear so many of you say? Do I hear you daring to admit that you’ve never seen The Wire, either? A quick online exploration reveals that this series, while critically acclaimed to the point of nausea, was certainly not a record-breaker in terms of viewership for HBO, and certainly not a “hit” by normal TV viewing standards. So what does this mean? That TV can somehow be like literature? Critically acclaimed yet poorly visited? This can really exist in the dog-eat-dog world of popular television?
Hence the question: can someone capture New Orleans, the real New Orleans and not the hackneyed cliché of New Orleans, on film, and for TV? I was invited, as a member of the foreign press (never mind that this city has been my home for well over a decade, but hey, I am Canadian), to a private viewing of the pilot episode of Treme (which airs Sunday, April 11, at 10 pm ET/MT, on HBO Canada). I imagined a small theatre, a group of us in fedoras with our press cards tucked into hatbands, busily scribbling in the darkness of said theatre in a shorthand that shamefully, I’ve never learned.
Instead, five of us foreigners gathered in a hotel room of a nice place on the edge of the French Quarter, squeezed side by side into chairs in front of a rather small television as the very nice HBO representative slipped a DVD into the player and worried about dimming the lights and the appropriate volume. To my left sat a young woman working for a newspaper in Italy, to my right a handsome young Frenchman writing for Le Monde. The group also included a rather serious man from Sweden and a woman who I assumed was eastern European but who never introduced herself. I feared she spoke no English.
For the next 80 minutes, I sat entranced. Okay, maybe I wasn’t entranced for the first while as I tried to get used to the amazing Steve Zahn playing my wastrel friend and while I watched other real-life friends in bit parts, friends I’ve known forever, second-lining down a wrecked just-post-Katrina street. I was also pulled out of the show at times in my worry for my new foreign journalist friends on either side of me. How could they possibly understand what the men on the screen were saying in their New Orleans patois? Shouldn’t the nice HBO woman turn on the closed captioning for them?
But then it took me over, it being the David Simon magic that my hip friends talked about. I felt like I was watching an impeccably filmed home movie of this town that care truly has forgotten. Simon and company introduce us to the storylines of a number of people in this first episode that opens just a few months post-Katrina, New Orleans still a dirty toilet bowl with a scum ring running chest high around it. We’re introduced to a down-and-out white radio DJ, a black trombone player trying to get by on whatever gigs he can scrape up, a Mardi Gras Indian chief who’s returned against the wishes of his children, a white chef trying to get her restaurant back up, and John Goodman as a university professor who bellows to anyone who will listen about how the disaster was man-made and not a natural one.
There are other central characters, believe it or not, and all are introduced with a casual nod as the viewer is swept up into the complications of their world. And get this: not one French Quarter scene and no ridiculous Cajun accents! What impresses me most is that Simon breaks all the rules of formulaic and horrible TV. No car chases, no random violence yet—there wasn’t a single murder in New Orleans for months after Katrina—and certainly no ridiculous plot twists to make us groan out loud. Simon applies the rules of good fiction to his art, it appears: strong character development is key to good story. And we get plenty of that. By the time the 80 minutes were over, I felt like I’d just spent time with people who are going to become good friends in the not-too-distant future. And I felt like someone might very well be getting at least the musical and food-inspired parts of this town very right.
I talked with a number of the actors as well as Simon and co-writer Eric Overmyer. Every one of them seemed genuinely passionate about this city and the future of it. All spoke of New Orleans being a birthplace for so much that is the good America: music, food, cultural tradition. At one point, I almost felt like I’d entered the cult of the Crescent City with all the love flying around.
Certainly, one of the tenets of the show is to do everything possible to get the city right. This includes plenty of local musicians in small roles. And certainly there is a strong feel of this being a real insider’s show. None of the strange customs of New Orleans are explained, including the Mardi Gras Indians or second lines—large gatherings that wander through the streets fuelled by live brass band music and plenty of beer and weed. In fact, the opening episode is often so “insider” that I can’t help but wonder what strangers to this place might walk away with. When I expressed this concern to Simon and Overmyer at different times, both were casual with virtually the same answer: they trust their viewers, and their viewers like emotional payoff. Those who watch the series will absorb a lot of the great city of New Orleans over time. Sounds to me like the same experience of reading a good book.
When I asked David Simon if he thought this show might be a hit, he answered, smiling, “I haven’t had a hit yet, but HBO keeps giving me enough rope.” With that, I understood the man a little better, I think. Of course viewer numbers are important to him, but capturing some truth about this place seems to be his guiding principle. There’s a lot of excitement in town as the airing date fast approaches. And I think it’s a safe bet to say that a lot of us here will soon feel that finally, indeed, somebody got a little something right for once.
Author’s postscript: sadly, on March 30, 2010, David Mills, co-executive producer and a writer of Treme, died on set. This article is dedicated to the man and his work.