Part of the trouble with introducing the wider world to New Orleans in general and Treme in particular is that is that the show insists on its audience viewing the city from a specific viewpoint, and it’s almost certainly not the perspective that would be most comfortable for everyone involved. Last week’s solemn, joyous funeral procession left the show on a positive note, but this second episode offered an important corrective to that insider’s view of the city.
Shows often provide a figure inside the fiction to represent the viewer’s perspective, especially at the beginnings of complex shows like Treme that can prove daunting to navigate. Last week’s episode gave us just an inkling of that structure with Albert’s son Delmond, but “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront” threw in three wholesome tourists from Wisconsin to help cover what for Treme is clearly some difficult terrain. In their first scene, the three cheerful tourists explain that they’re visiting with their church group to help rebuild houses in the Ninth Ward and get rebuffed by a street musician named Sonny, who clearly resents what he perceives to be ignorant condescension. The tourists are then caught up in an odd, unexpected discussion about “When the Saints Come Marching In” after requesting that the next song be “authentic,” they end up at an out-of-the-way dive bar called Bullets at Davis’ recommendation, and are last seen wandering the streets in search of good hangover food.
Their journey through the city looks pretty straightforward – even a little cliché – on the surface. They show up with no prior knowledge of New Orleans, ready to pity the poor people whose homes were destroyed, and then end after being indoctrinated into the city’s party scene, complete with a guy with a ruby embedded on his gold tooth acting as their guide. They do what we do as an audience, beginning with our preconceived and probably pitying notions of the loss and devastation in New Orleans, and journeying through experiences of the real city until we too emerge intoxicated and overcome. But a lot of their little parable signals that things are much more complicated than a simple voyage from innocence to experience.
When Davis offers them a place off the beaten track, we know this will spell doom for someone involved, but the implication is that these teenagers will be unable to handle themselves in an unsafe neighborhood and get into some serious trouble. Instead, the tourists emerge from their trip to the real New Orleans thrilled by their new familiarity, and it’s Davis, the consummate New Orleans insider, who gets screwed by this little adventure. By sending these unwitting church group members somewhere other than touristy Bourbon Street, Davis violates the barrier between Bourbon Street and the rest of the city (which Antoine also struggles to navigate), and gets fired from his hotel job. Still, the loss isn’t that great – it was obvious from the beginning that Davis’ position at the hotel would never work in the long term, and he’s mostly annoyed that he has to find a different place to eat breakfast (after offering his preferred destination to the hungover teens).
That complicated little discussion about “When the Saints Come Marching In” proves more problematic. The tourists request an “authentic” song, and, disgusted at their ignorance, Sonny offers up “Saints.” They agree, but he quickly amends that “Saints” costs $20 extra, and they begin to haggle about whether they have to pay for a song they didn’t actually request. The debate is resolved as the Sonny’s partner promises they won’t have to pay if they don’t like it, and they launch into a hip-hop, mainstreamed, beat-boxed version of the song. There are so many tricky nuances going on here that it’s not at all easy to pick out the irony from the sincerity. Yes, the tourists are ignorant and overly condescending, which Sonny resents, but they’re also volunteers who are ultimately well intentioned. In his desire to rip off these well-meaning teenagers, Sonny deliberately twists their request for authenticity into something heavily ironic, laughing at their ignorance and at ours as well. Just to be sure we understand, Treme then shifts to a scene with Davis at the radio station, and a lovely, full brass version of “When the Saints Come Marching In” plays in the background, completely unmarked. “Did you catch that?” asks Treme. “This is the real version, and you need to be able to tell the difference.”
But however important our knowledge and powers of discernment may be for the show, its gaze does not excuse Sonny’s response. As becomes clear later in the episode, these kids are capable of learning the real city, and to brush off their requests for honesty devalues a real desire for truth and undercuts their sincere attempts to help.
Treme’s going to refuse to let us be the tourists who don’t know anything other than Bourbon Street, but it’s also going to turn a careful eye back onto the city it lovingly depicts. Albert Lambreaux’s startling violence, the police department’s incompetence, and Creighton Bernette’s description of the city as a zero-sum game are all a part of this careful balancing act. Treme will not let us off the hook as viewers, but it won’t be letting New Orleans off the hook either.