Apr 23, 2011

How to watch Treme

Scene: A busload of people come up the New Orleans street and see a circle of men on a corner, singing. The bus driver asks, what's going on here? Please, he's told, leave us alone. Please go away. He is made ashamed of wanting to watch, ashamed of his own curiousity, and leaves.

Scene: A journalist asks a question. It's probably a stupid question, but to be fair, he's asking it because it's been asked and he doesn't know the answer, so it's an honest question, at least. He does want an answer. The local gets spittle-flecked angry, and tries to destroy the journalist's camera.

Scene: Three kids have come from Wisconsin to help after Katrina. They're asked, what do you know about the real New Oreleans. They say, nothing, really, we just wanted to help. Then they're ridiculed.

Surely some number of viewers of David Simon's Treme were from Wisconsin and felt the unnecessary dis of that scene. Same with the people who flocked to the city to do what they could with their time and their money to help after the levees broke and the president did his fly-by. According to the show, your compassion was met with ridicule. Also, if you didn't rush to the aid of the flooded city, you should be ashamed.

And if you've ever gone to visit New Oreleans, this show says you're an imbecile. And if you haven't, you're a cretin.

Every time the viewers are represented on the screen, they're basically bashed. Best I can tell, Treme is the first show in the history of shows that doesn't want to be watched.

I'm a fan of Simon's, though, to be honest, so much of what he does is so good that when I think he messes up or is off or wrong it makes me mad in a way that, say, a lesser work's stupidity never does. Sometimes I'm more like a really devoted detractor. But ... I really want to like Treme, but, damn, it's really hard to watch a show that insults you for watching it or not watching it and won't give you any space in its fictional world from which to view.

It wasn't the multiple story lines or the long arcs or even all the things left unexplained -- I like that stuff -- but that style can be formidable and inhospitable and then (and this was the problem) the episodes seem to have built into them this message: go away, you're not welcome here.

But then if you do, you're still derided and insulted then too.

Just for comparison: In CSI. the forensics experts are constantly explaining forensics to each other. If any crime scene investigator had to have as much explained to him or her as is explained in any given episode, he or she would be demoted that day, or worse, eviscerated and humiliated on the witness stand during a tough cross examination. It's being explained for the viewer, though, not the people in the show. It's exposition.

It's an attempt to give you a place in the story, a space to see the story from. You are able, from that structural space, to try on or try out that world. Granted, CSI and shows like that insistently assume and communicate that the viewers are stupid and never learn, so that gets old, but still, that's a really good example of how, traditionally, viewers are invited into what they're viewing.

This is the stupid version, of course, which Simon is reacting to, I think, but it doesn't have to be so poorly done, and the model itself, of giving the viewer a way to be guided through the strange world, of saying, "stand here, out of the way, and watch," or, "trust this character, he'll explain things," is not stupid. After all, this is no-less than Dante's structure, which has served as the model for almost all crime fiction. The readers follow Dante as he follows Virgil (and then later Beatrice) through a strange landscape where we and he would never make it alone. We follow Watson follow Sherlock Holmes. We follow the narrative-I Phillip Marlowe in Chandler's The Big Sleep as he follows the main-character Phillip Marlowe around mean street Los Angeles. Etc. Etc.

I know Simon knows this, and he's managed to communicate to viewers how they should view the show in the past. In Generation Kill, which, granted, was based on someone else's work, but still, there was the journalist Evan Wright acting as guide. In the first season of Homicide: Life on the Streets, it was the character Tim Bayliss. In The Wire, it's more complicated and subtle, but part of what made it amazing was how there were this built-in explanations that worked to show the viewer how this world worked -- that did the job of exposition -- but didn't feel foreign to the world. E.g., the corner-world as explained through chess.

Or ... almost any scene works like this. Mr. Nugget, Omar in the courtroom, every time Freeman opens his mouth. The whole show is structured so the viewer gets to be the camera and it all unfolds as we ride along.

For example:

I'm sure other Simon fans will disagree, but it doesn't seem to me like Treme does that. I really want to watch this show, and probably will try again with the second season that starts Sunday night, but I'm fighting with the show that doesn't feel like it wants to be watched. I mean, if the show has to be explained to people who live in New Orleans even, then how inhospitable is it?

This show hasn't given me a way into this world. Instead it seems intent on forcing me out.