New Orleans Saints
Is Treme too easy on the Big Easy?
Click here to read Troy Patterson's review of Treme.
To be sure, the street musicians don't come off so well in this scene, either. Sonny, the scruffy keyboard player, responds to the Wisconsites' ignorant request by sneering that a rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In"—which he identifies as "real New Or-leenz music"—will cost them 20 bucks, because "every cheesehead from Chowderland wants to hear 'Saints.' " Given the hints dropped in this first handful of episodes, it wouldn't surprise me if Sonny—who is forever bragging about all the people he saved during the hurricane—is eventually revealed to be a bloviating, lying carpetbagger. But that's precisely the point: The players on Team Big Easy—Sonny, trombone player Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters)—contain multitudes. Team Never Played a Brass Instrument is populated by over-the-top caricatures.
If Simon is aiming to persuade his audience that New Orleans is unique and worth preserving, he's going about it in a strange way. I'm assuming that the average Treme viewer is someone who isn't from New Orleans, was transfixed by Katrina and its immediate aftermath, and is curious about what's happened to the city since. In Treme's universe, the closest analogues to people of that ilk are the house-gutters from Wisconsin—folks who care about New Orleans even if they've never heard of a second line. When these characters get mocked, Simon is essentially mocking his audience.
What's most bothersome about the show's New Orleans vs. the world approach is that it creates a simplistic moral hierarchy for a complicated time and place. Treme's trombone players, human-rights lawyers, and plucky restaurant owners embody goodness. Those who don't feel the city's pull are mocked, raged against, or discounted. When Lambreaux's daughter urges her dad to stay out of New Orleans until the city shows more signs of life, we're clearly supposed to find her viewpoint unsympathetic. He can't live anywhere else, and she just doesn't understand.
After just three episodes, it's foolish to argue that Treme has traveled inexorably down a certain path. One promising sign is the depiction of Lambreaux's son Delmond, a trumpet player who's earned more renown in New York than New Orleans. When he suggests that other places "actually respect musicians," Delmond is not supposed to sound like an idiot—this, finally, is a criticism of New Orleans that's not easily laughed off.
Simon's passion for New Orleans is obvious, just as his devotion to Baltimore came through in The Wire. So far, the difference between the two series is that Treme is weighed down by its creator's reverence. It's fine if Simon wants to see the city through fleur-de-lis glasses—indeed, the show wouldn't exist if he didn't feel compelled to make the case for New Orleans. But Treme, perhaps because it wears its advocacy so openly, is occasionally lacking in subtlety. For all his love for the place, it would be a shame if Simon's veneration of New Orleans was the undoing of what could be a great television series.