Big Easy, or Treme, after John McWhorter

John McWhorter writes:

A main message from this sultry pageant of a show is that New Orleans is an occult matter that you can never truly “get” unless you’re a native or pretty close to it. The perky, hopelessly “white” tourists from Wisconsin with their nasal voices, the ones who get schooled by the street musician, can be taken as stand-ins for the viewer. Which makes the whole enterprise strangely unwelcoming. … What’s especially challenging is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t quality: criticize New Orleans, or even don’t pay quite enough attention, and you’re a chump—but praise it and you’re probably doing it wrong.

I had a similar reaction to certain scenes in the first few episodes:  an idealization of New Orleans that deflated the show’s narrative power; an indulgent, tinny self-righteousness in spots.  But don’t sell Simon and his writers short.  Not yet.  They’re playing long ball.

Those false notes are deliberate bait that draw you in.  And then the writers start to hit you with complications: the “authentic” busker turns out to be telling tall tales about saving flood victims; the stereotypical gentrifying gay couple – (gardening!) -  turn out not to be colonizers but native New Orleanians who know as much about their neighborhood as the authenticity-obsessed fool/truth-teller Davis McAlary;  just when you think the NOLAs are stoic saints, thugs shoot up the first post-flood second line; tribalism threatens to divide the Mardi Gras Indians; questions of authenticity and progress – functional music in the parade bands, or the more abstract modern Jazz? -  plague the musicians.  How does the food and the music of the provinces measure up against the (rootless?) cosmopolitanism of New York?  This show takes culture seriously.  What in the culture is truly useful in a time of need, of catastrophe?   What part of the culture will the characters choose to live and survive by?  What’s real? What’s not? What works?  What doesn’t?  What saves?

Let me ask this:  what other American television show is even coming close to examining questions like these?  We are 4 6 episodes into the first season.  This should be the show that a deeply thoughtful conservative like McWhorter prays for, one in which “blacks” are depicted in all of their infinite hues and individual selves without any – any! – of the reductive linguistic, behavioral, or sartorial trappings of contemporary pop culture.  That in itself is a whopping triumph.  “American culture is incontestably mulatto,” wrote the great essayist Albert Murray.  That’s what this show is about. I would think McWhorter would be ecstatic, instead he is cranky.

I remember watching “The Wire” in its first season and thought it was pretty bad.  It struggled with similar false notes.  It patted itself on the back.  And then it developed into the most substantial television program that’s ever been broadcast.  As jazz musicians from New Orleans like to say, goading one another on the bandstand, “Take your time, now.  Take your time.”