David Simon Takes on Katrina
Posted by Christopher Moltisanti on May 15, 2010
If you want a dose of complex realism, you go to David Simon. As anyone who has seen an episode of The Wire understands, Simon does a brilliant job of escaping the conventions of good vs. evil, protagonist vs. antagonist and showcasing the labyrinth of urban society. So, when I heard about Treme, Simon’s new HBO series (created with Eric Overmyer), I thought that maybe, for the first time, we’d get a realistic and complex look at post-Katrina New Orleans. Since the storm, most media coverage (by news and sports media enamored with the Saints) has almost turned New Orleans into a stereotype, a fragment of nostalgia that makes viewers and journalists alike feel adequately sympathetic to the plight facing the people displaced by the hurricane without having to delve beneath the surface and see the unvarnished reality.
With Treme, Simon attempts to go beyond these simplistic portrayals, using a broad cast of characters and the best music on TV to deliver the best artistic rendering of post-Katrina New Orleans we’ve seen yet. While the show is undoubtedly entertaining and has its moments of transcendence, Simon falls into the trap of having too much sympathy. Before anyone freaks out, let me explain. Whereas The Wire muddled the lines between protagonist and antagonist by giving us intricate portrayals of criminals, the cops, the dysfunctional and corrupt bureaucracy, Treme is populated by a bunch of noble victims. Sure, they have their flaws, but Simon presents all of them sympathetically. The jealous Sonny is the closest thing we get to an unlikeable character, but his flaws are more Real World than The Wire. The rest, for all their differences and quirks, are fighting the good fight, according to Simon. They’re struggling against an uncaring bureaucracy and, of course, George W. Bush, seemingly the root of all evil according to Simon.
There are moments where this picture is complicated–for instance, when the police chief explains to Antoinette the challenges facing the undermanned police force–but, for the most part, Simon goes with the view that these are all helpless victims of an uncaring and distant government.
What the show really needs is a principle character who’s a criminal. Instead, for now, the criminals are faceless figures. For instance, we see the hand with the gun that shot up the parade, but nothing more. This could well change since the more criminal elements of pre-Katrina New Orleans are starting to move back into the city at this point in the series. But up to this point, the show suffers from a lack of character diversity. If Simon can give us a broader range of characters in his already large ensemble, Treme could become one of the best shows on TV. For now, though, it’s still a very good portrayal of the impact of Hurricane Katrina and an exhilarating celebration of America’s most unique city.