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Treme: Life on the Banquette September 17, 2009

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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How to tell the story of New Orleans? That is the secret I have tried to unravel for the last several years, primarily through my blogs here and the old Wet Bank Guide. Since I folded Wet Bank Guide into Carry Me Home, I let others bandy about the stories of the day and vent their anger or parade their amusement while I look for those odd bits of life in New Orleans that I hope explain why we choose to live here.

An outsider’s view of New Orleans is sadly colored by the coverage of the aftermath of the Federal Flood, by ongoing corruption trials that refresh the long standing perception of corruption, and by a long string of horrible and exploitative films and television shows. Now one of dramatic television’s most prominent figures is attempting to fit the complex and terribly nuanced story of New Orleans onto film: David Simon, creator of the widely acclaimed television series “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets”.

For those of us who have suffered through the gumbo parties of “K-Ville” and Dennis Quaid’s insufferable Cajun accent in “The Big Easy” (and bog knows I could go on), this is a promising moment. David Simon is a former journalist whose book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” became “Homicide” the TV series, the spiritual father of the gritty and morally ambiguous cop noir television of today. He pulled no punches in his portrayal of Baltimore in “The Wire,” and one has to hope his talent as writer and producer will result in a compelling, faithful and savory portrayal of this city.

Simon and other members of his writing team for Treme told an SRO audience at Octavia Books in Uptown New Orleans last night it will not be an easy task. “Your nuances have nuances.” Having lived through writing and producing two television series set in his own hometown of Baltimore, he warned it “would not be perfect… We’re going to piss you off no matter how hard we try. It’s coming.”

But as series co-writer Lolis Elie, local newspaper columnist and producer of the acclaimed documentary film “Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” told the audience, “You won’t be embarrassed by the way we present the city”.

Part of the difficulty is the nature of dramatic television. Simon said it’s all “about life and death, ninety five percent of dramatic television. It’s cops and robbers because that’s life and death, it’s the emergency room (it’s never the proctologist’s office), its about lawyers and the guy in the dock who may go to prison for the rest of his life, so this sort of dramatic series may be a laughable enterprise. Don’t over hype this. Four years from now we’ll be saying we did a show in New Orleans and the guy behind the bar will say, ‘that’s great, now finish your drink and get out of here. It’s 2 a.m.’.”

The series’ first season will focus on the early months of the recovery, a period from November 2005 when people first became to come home in significant numbers and run through St. Joseph’s Day 2006. The storm and flood are not only an intrinsic part of the story line, but what made the telling of this story possible. ““It’s very hard to explain New Orleans on paper to anyone but Katrina gave a relevance to New Orleans and gave the ability to go in and talk about Mardi Gras Indians and not have their eyes glaze over,” Simon said.

Simon and “Wire” co-writer George Pelecanos (a part-time resident of New Orleans) count themselves among those irreversibly smitten by the city. He recounted how they would sit around “talking about our record collections and our time in New Orleans,” and the time they were given an radio show for an evening to spin their extensive collections of old New Orleans R&B records. Rounding out the writing team is novelist Tom Piazza, who also penned “Why New Orleans Matters” in the immediate aftermath of the flood. This does not look to be the sort of Hollywood effort Orleanians have lamented in the past.

Any film set in a city is going to draw the eyes of the hometown continuity team, ready to pounce on the details they get wrong (and Simon the New Orleans record collector pointed out that the term “gumbo party” appears in a song by Little Queenie and the Percolators). He reminded the audience that this is dramatic fiction based on the city and the events of year one after the event. “First, we get to make stuff up. [In “The Wire”]some of it happened, some of it could have happened or was rumored to have happened, and some of it plausibly could have happened.” He recounted the story of a scene in which they reversed the flow of traffic on a major Baltimore street in the Wire, and locals complained endlessly.

Simon and Elie also made clear the series would not be a clone of The Wire. “Remember the crime didn’t come back” in the time period of the first season, November 2005 through St. Joseph’s Day 2006. And Elie did promise that the important things would not be missed. ‘Remember all the help you got from your city council member, your governor, you congressperson. We’ll make sure they get the credit they deserve.”

One feature that will carry over from Simon and team’s prior efforts: a focus on character. Talking about the team writing process, one of the speakers (I didn’t catch which) spoke of discussions of the “the arc the characters will take” as a key focus. And authentic and interesting characters are what will carry the show, he suggested. In response to an audience question about Katrina fatigue, Simon replied that “people will care about new Orleans because they care about the characters.”

And privately after the Q&A, when a small crowd of New Orleans bloggers gathered to get books signed and thank Simon for giving a commencement speech at DePaul University dedicated in part to our deceased colleague Ashley Morris who was a professor there, he promised that one character would be based partially on Ashley.

The co-writers also spoke about “the writing room” and how team-written television works. Three are novelists, three journalists, but the film writing experience is “about as different from sitting in a room writing a novel as something could be.” According to Simon, “in a writing room bad ideas tend to get challenged. The arguments are what makes it great.”

What struck me was the repeated mention by several of the writers of the criticality of character in compelling film drama, a focus borne out by Simon’s prior work. My own option is that character and setting drive the story. if you get the characters nailed and them put them into an authentic setting then the characters will take you where the story needs to go, through the actions and interactions with each other and with the environment.

The two things we’ve all complained about in prior New Orleans shows was a complete failure to get the characters or the place right. Simon and Pelecanos have a strong track record of getting both right in Baltimore, and Elie and Piazza know this city as well as any living writers.

If Simon and his team can deliver the characters and the place, can through their characters and the nuances of the visual setting deliver what they have done for Baltimore, I hope that our long-standing complaint about the poor portrayal of the city will be laid to rest by “Treme”.