A drawing a day: TV criticism and all that jazz (Treme)
The drawing: Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste in Treme.
“An astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era.” Someday, David Simon’s ego will recover from the brutal assault of relentless praise. Meanwhile the creator of The Wire is making Treme, whose third season has just started in the US (here end of the month).
We watched the 60 hours of The Wire over several months on DVD, wondering what the ancient father-in-law made of all the rape and murder and the damage done. Often we had no idea what the characters were speaking, in their strange, sometimes muffled junkie patois, though we always got the picture (rather like an opaque Shakespearean text made lucid by speech and motion). It was a sweetbitter relief to turn to Treme, set in post-Katrina N’Orleans, awash with sodden heartbreak and redemptive passion.
The critics have not all put up the “10″ card for Treme. Of the first season the astute Nancy Franklin wrote in the New Yorker:
The characters in the show are ambivalent about outsiders, and if you’re at all sensitive to that you feel intrusive, rude—almost a colonialist—for appreciating what you see and hear in “Treme.” The series virtually prohibits you from loving it, while asking you to value it.
Snap! Over coffee this morning a friend said that “Treme almost defies you to like it, it’s so itself [so self-contained]. The narrative is so broken. Musical segments that don’t progress the story. Characters everywhere. I really love it.” And indeed, one of the great things in Treme is that they show whole passages of music — not fragments but all that jazz, you get to have the entire song.
But here is Franklin’s successor at the NYer, Emily Nussbaum, in her not quite encomium of season 3:
… other plots about broken institutions—corrupt funding for post-Katrina construction, the crimes of the New Orleans Police Department—are so muted that it can be hard to tell what’s going on. I admire the restraint of the series, its refusal to pander; I share its politics. But admiration isn’t always the same as enjoyment.
Many other notes from her, like: “it’s disappointing to see other characters curdle into decency. I felt a shameful ping of excitement when a character went off the wagon, if only because I sensed HBO-brand strippers and blow on the horizon.”
And I kinda think, this is why I need to read criticism after I’ve seen the show, read the novel, heard the record. For all the wit and style of the writing it just obstructs what I will be seeing. There is a straining in there — having to make the professional inventment in a work that one doesn’t quite like, the critic may end up picking and holding the faults against the work, for making the critic waste her time.Whereas what she might really want to say is: Just don’t read/watch/hear this.
If I intend to read a book, see a film etc, I (almost) never read the review or blurb before; I enjoy the revelatory benefits of being a low-information audience. Most of all though, when we fall in love with a show, a series, we forgive them their trespasses as we forgive those we love. And then those faults become the defining boundaries of their character. That unperfection becomes part of the shape that we recognise and love despite. And which flaws then become our private possessions — we can own this show because we can accept its shortcomings, we have paid the price.
The drawing above is of the wonderful Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste, trombone player and a charming, bad man. His trail of wreckage is a result of pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. He is a big child, ie a muso. As his ex-wife, the splendid LaDonna says: ““I married a goddam musician. Ain’t no way to make that shit right.”
Look at their faces in the poster: they’ll tell you everything you need to know to turn you on.