In the third episode of “Treme,” David Simon’s new HBO series about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a group of Mardi Gras Indians are holding a memorial ceremony for one of their members, whose badly decomposed remains were just discovered in a shed behind his house. As they sing and chant, a large white bus marked “Katrina Tour” rolls into the street and stops in front of them. The driver rolls down his window; all we see of the passengers is their flashbulbs. “Drive away from here, sir!” the Indians shout. The driver at first is defensive: “People want to see what happened.” Then his tone changes. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
When art is created out of catastrophe, where do we draw the line between inspiration and exploitation? The question, implicit in this scene and throughout the first few episodes, will no doubt be fundamental to “Treme,” which begins three months after the storm hit and depicts an assortment of the city’s residents—a slacker DJ, a trombone player, a Mardi Gras Indian chief, an upscale chef, a dive bar owner—as they struggle to rebuild their lives. (One of the first shots of the gorgeous opening credits is a satellite view of the hurricane’s swirl.) Over and over, we see tensions rise between well-meaning people who want to help out—from Midwestern church-group volunteers to the musicians playing a benefit at Lincoln Center—and the locals, grimly scornful of outsiders and their mispronunciations. (“This storm—everybody wants a taste,” a musician’s agent tells him.) In one scene, Davis, the DJ, learns that the wealthy new neighbors at whom he has been blasting music out of his windows (to protest their “gentrification” of his neighborhood) are, like him, born-and-bred New Orleanians. In another, we see Delmond, a trumpet player who lives in New York, ignore a cell phone call from his father, the Indian chief who has found the corpse of his friend. Delmond was home for a few days to help his father clean up, but has no interest in carrying on the Indian traditions. Yet the call interrupts him mid-rehearsal (for the above-mentioned benefit) of the song “Indian Red,” a traditional hymn that happens to be the same song the Indians are singing at the end of the episode when the tour bus rolls up. “Some of the gangs ain’t gonna like me singing ‘Indian Red’ anyway because this is their most sacred song,” the singer announces in the studio. “But we gonna do this with the most love and respect that we can for the tradition.”
As these scenes demonstrate, Simon is exquisitely sensitive to the signifiers of insiderness and outsiderness that separate the authentic from the fake, the native from the poseur. This was evident in “The Wire,” his previous endeavor, a police-procedural-turned-panorama of urban decay in America. But for “The Wire,” Simon was the native, a veteran of The Baltimore Sun and a longtime city resident (though as a Baltimore native myself, I have to mention that he grew up in the DC suburbs) who came by his bona fides naturally. There was never any question, of course, that “The Wire” was a fictional TV show set in a fictional city, though one that bore a strong resemblance to its model and used a generous helping of actual events as plot points, such as the implosion of the housing project towers or the contested campaign that resulted in the surprise election of a white mayor. But even—or especially—for me as a Baltimorean, the line between the fictional Baltimore and the real Baltimore was hard to draw; and as the series progressed, the Baltimore of “The Wire” became even more real to me than the city where I grew up—a testament to Simon’s compulsive attention to detail, but also to the fullness of his imagination.
In New Orleans, Simon is the outsider. Anecdotes of his obsessive desire to get it right have abounded in the news coverage of “Treme,” from the blogger who noticed that Simon borrowed a split-second shot of a street sign from an amateur video of the actual first second-line parade after Katrina to the open letter that Simon published in the Times-Picayune the day of the show’s premiere. Simon noted that the first episode prominently features a pie from Hubig’s bakery, which is an anachronism, since the bakery did not reopen until several months after the scene in the show is meant to take place. “Any such pastry … should by rights be a pre-Katrina artifact and therefore unsuitable for anyone’s dessert,” Simon wrote. But the pie, he continues, is a “Magic Hubig’s,” which “somehow survives months of post-Katrina tumult and remains tasty and intact for our small, winking moment of light comedy. We know this because we, the writers, imbued the pie with its special powers. We created it.”
In a few lines, Simon presents a convincing, carefully worked through defense of the value of fictional art set in real times. “Why not depict a precise truth, down to the very Hubig’s?” Simon asks. And he answers: “By referencing what is real, or historical, a fictional narrative can speak in a powerful, full-throated way to the problems and issues of our time. And a wholly imagined tale, set amid the intricate and accurate details of a real place and time, can resonate with readers in profound ways.” Note that little slip—if it was indeed a slip. Simon calls his audience “readers.” And what he has created—with “The Wire” and now with “Treme”—is a kind of novel in TV form. It became a cliché to describe “The Wire” as “novelistic,” but in fact the forms have a lot in common, far more so than the novel and film. The sheer length of the TV series allows it to take place in something like novelistic time, unspooling its plot and building its elaborate structure in relative leisure. And by creating shows that reward sustained attention and repeated re-viewings, Simon teaches us to watch television in a way that is very similar to close reading. If the adjective hadn’t been so abused during “The Wire,” I might even call Simon’s shows Dickensian—for the scope of their ambition, but also because the TV drama has become our century’s answer to the serialized novel. It’s often been lamented that we no longer anticipate books with the fervor of the legendary crowds at New York Harbor awaiting the fate of Little Nell. But the communal excitement that greets each new episode of a David Simon series is the closest to it I’ve ever seen.
Simon’s “Treme”—a place where music plays in nearly every scene, where a voodoo priest sacrifices a chicken in a radio studio, where a Tulane professor throws a condescending cameraman’s microphone into the river—isn’t the real New Orleans. If it were, we’d all be disaster tourists. But people not only “want to see what happened,” they need to see what happened: the mold, the bodies, the negligence, the corruption. New Orleans, as a character says early on, has always been “a city that lives in the imagination of the world.” “Treme” makes that imagined city real.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.