What the movies and TV always get wrong about New Orleans.

What we're watching.
Sept. 21 2007 2:17 PM

Let's Eat Some Gumbo on My Fan Boat

What the movies and TV always get wrong about New Orleans.

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Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser in K-ville.
Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser in K-ville

I've yet to see a TV show or movie set in New Orleans that evokes the place I grew up in. As a kid, I got used to seeing Hollywood depict the city as a tidy fusion of the French Quarter and a smoky, fetid swamp. I watched the basketball movie Blue Chips and wondered why Nick Nolte had to take a fan boat to go on a scouting trip to the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers —the rough equivalent of hiring a bush pilot to go from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Wouldn't it have been faster if he took the bridge?

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

After the storm, that compressed, Bourbon Street-and-cypress-trees geographic footprint started to look like prophesy. As the waters rose and turned most of the city into a giant swamp, the Quarter—New Orleans' original settlement—stayed dry. Even so, the old movie-land template was broken. Everyone who turned on the news and saw the chaos outside the Superdome learned what the movies and TV had never cared to reveal. The Big Easy isn't just a collection of landmarks, quirky customs, and funny accents. It's a place where people live.

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Judging by the first episode of K-Ville (Fox, Mondays at 9 p.m. ET), there will be a lot more humanity in post-Katrina television. As the show opens, police officer Marlin Boulet (Anthony Anderson) screams as his partner runs off in the chaotic hours after the levees broke. The action flashes forward two years, and Boulet still looks stricken. He loves the city and vows to stick it out, but his neighborhood is still mostly abandoned, his wife and daughter are set on moving to Atlanta, and his weasel of a partner wants back on the force. The key to Anderson's moving performance is the range of emotion in his eyes, which flicker between scared and angry, frantic and steadfast.

What's perplexing about K-Ville is that a show that gets the big things right manages to get all the small things wrong. How can such a spot-on, post-Katrina character study still be so beholden to the same worn-out New Orleans iconography we've seen dozens of times before? This is a show that pays attention to residential, non-tourist-trafficked neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East that never would've seen the screen a decade ago. It's also a show where there's a po' boy on every plate and a trombone player on every porch. The plot of the first episode is timely and compelling (a shady developer buys up land in the Ninth Ward) and laughably hackneyed (the daughter of old-money casino owner Rex DuBois arranges to have a local jazz chanteuse murdered). When Boulet's head starts swimming, he confesses to his new partner, "I need some gumbo. Gumbo, man—it's what I do when I need to think!" And someone get that man some Mardi Gras beads, stat!

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