On June 20, HBO's Treme will wind up its first season, 10-episode run with an episode titled "I'll Fly Away," and from both local and national reviews, it seems creator David Simon's vision of post-Katrina New Orleans life has proved — at last — that it's possible to capture the city accurately on film. We've all cringed at New Orleans-set shows with depictions of "gumbo parties" and characters with accents that alternate between fake-Carolina and fake-Cajun with not a Y'at in earshot. Not that there aren't liberties taken in Treme to move the story forward, but overall the events, settings and characters ring true, and for the most part, have been well-received by local viewers.
For many characters, development on Treme started in an obvious place: reality. DJ/musician Davis McAlary, writer Creighton Bernette, defense attorney Toni Bernette, Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux and his son Delmond, and chef Janette Desautel have, to a certain extent, real-life counterparts in locals Davis Rogan, Ashley Morris, Mary Howell, Donald Harrison Sr. and Jr., and Susan Spicer. Rogan, Howell, Harrison, Jr., Spicer and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins (who plays himself) also serve as consultants, But, as Treme staff writer Lolis Eric Elie warns, "You have to be careful about the use of the word 'based.' The show really is contemporary historical fiction. These people become starting points for the construction of our characters."
Elie, a writer and filmmaker whose work includes the 2008 documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, and fellow writer Tom Piazza (City of Refuge, Why New Orleans Matters and others) help Simon keep the action and the characters true to life. "(Just) as important as fictional characters based on real folks," Elie says, "we have these real folks who make consistent appearances."
Musicians figure prominently in Treme — Allen Toussaint, Deacon John, Dr. John, John Boutte, Elvis Costello, Paul Sanchez, Tom McDermott, the Andrews musical family, Coco Robicheaux, the Pfister Sisters and Bob French have all appeared, playing themselves or characters much like themselves. Other New Orleanians, including Jacques Morial and John Besh, have played themselves, while familiar faces from the New Orleans theater scene (Becky Allen, Carl Walker, Bob Edes Jr., Maureen Brennan) have been cast as well, turning Treme-viewing into a trainspotting exercise of a spot-the-local variety.
Rogan wears several hats. "I'm a consultant in terms of the music scene, the music business and community radio," he says. "The character is named after me. I co-wrote episode seven, songs I've recorded and performed have been used in the show, I've written songs for the show, I have a recurring cameo part and I'm the piano coach."
Davis McAlary and Davis Rogan part ways in several aspects: "He comes from money, he's politically naive, and he certainly can't dance or play piano as well as I can. But, I mean, it's Steve Zahn," Rogan says of his counterpart. "He's a great actor with amazing comedic timing." Of the show's hitting its marks as a realistic depiction of the city, Rogan says, "Consider where the bar is in accurately portraying New Orleans, which falls somewhere around 25 percent. Treme's not perfect, and perfection is impossible. But no one's ever reached 85 to 95 percent, which is where I would put it. In my opinion, the last really good, accurate portrayal of New Orleans was (Elia) Kazan's Panic in the Streets from 1950."
Kermit Ruffins says the fictional Kermit doesn't stray too far from the real one: "When I read the script, I looked over my shoulder," Ruffins says. "See if somebody been followin' me." He met Simon about five years ago and Ruffins says they had been talking about doing the show for at least three or four years. "When he called me and said it was going to happen, it was so exciting. I never had so much fun in my life."
Ruffins loves Treme and believes it's having an impact on the city, particularly the music community. "People were always asking me, when are you going to get this old jazz back in the mainstream?" he says. "I always answered with, 'Put it on TV every day.' Now it's happening. It's helping so many musicians in the city, and the city in general. People all over the world can see that we're still swingin' out here, that New Orleans is alive and kicking."
Spicer, the chef/owner of the restaurants Bayona and Mondo, reviewed Treme scripts with an eye for the restaurant and food business, but she says she also looked at "Janette's scenes with other people, how she interacted with them. I was trying to remember how things were after the storm. Every single thing you did in your personal life was a hassle. Trying to find a grocery store, trying to find a laundromat — the challenges of things we took so much for granted. Every conversation you had involved your contractor or your insurance company, and they've reflected that, talking about her house." (On the show, Janette responds to a query about her house with a weary smile and the statement "Don't ask me about my f—ing house.")
Spicer thinks the show has been great so far, though Janette's character and Spicer's life part ways more often than they meet. "My personal life is extremely different and I've been a lot luckier in the restaurant business than poor chef Janette," she says. "(Actor) Kim Dickens is doing a great job; she was a really good choice. She's got the edginess of a young, hungry chef."
As far as her family and friends' reaction to the show, Spicer says, "Most people say 'I didn't know you cursed that much. You really have a sailor mouth.'"
Looming large over the cast of characters is John Goodman's portrayal of Creighton Bernette, a professor of English at Tulane University, whose first appearance was standing by the Industrial Canal, ranting at a British journalist who didn't get that the flood was a man-made disaster. Viewers in the know immediately recognized the influence of real-life blogger Ashley Morris.
Morris, who died suddenly in 2008, was the strongest voice among a chorus of New Orleans activists who took to the Internet following Hurricane Katrina. A computer science professor and member of the satirical Krewe du Vieux, Morris loved New Orleans so much he commuted to his job at DePaul University in Chicago while raising his family in Uptown New Orleans. Morris' friend and fellow blogger Mark Folse says he likes how the writers used Morris' anger and developed a narrative around it. "Someone had to say this was an engineering disaster," Folse says. "Using Creighton's anger to install that was brilliant."
"I've seen people say how [Goodman's portrayal] was all over the top, but it's not," says Ray Shea, another close friend and fellow blogger. "If he got spun up about something, he would almost be frothing-at-the-mouth mad, and then he'd stop and he'd stare at you with these wide eyes. If you didn't know him, you'd think, 'Oh my God, he's gonna cut me or something.'"
The rant that made Bernette a local celebrity on the show was a profanity-laced, epic video blog post. For the most part, it was taken from a real-life blog post Morris made on Nov. 27, 2005, which became known as "FYYFF" (Google it) and even inspired a line of T-shirts. (Morris' blog is still available at ashleymorris.typepad.com.)
Morris' wife, Hana, still lives Uptown with their three children, Rey d'Orleans, Annabel and Katerina. "David Simon asked me in the spring of last year if he could use the blog," she says. "I told him 'Of course. Ashley would probably consider it the biggest achievement of his life.'" She called back Simon close to the date of the show's premiere, concerned at exactly how much this character was to be her late husband: "He told me it was based partially on Ashley and partially on a film archivist who lost all of his footage in Katrina."
It's that realism in the characters that drives the story in a realistic way, Piazza says. "As far as characters located in a recognizable social, economic, historical or geographical situation, part of the rules of the game is that you want all of the details to be true. Otherwise, what's the point?" he says.
Piazza also notes the importance of conveying a sense of place: "In New Orleans, the way the city is put together is part of the culture," he says. "You can't have viable second lines in a city where people live in skyscrapers."
Melissa Leo plays Creighton Burnette's wife Toni, an attorney, who is based loosely on New Orleans attorney Mary Howell — who happens to be Piazza's real-life wife. Toni's storylines parallel Howell's practice to a certain extent, but Howell says the character's quest to find an Orleans Parish prisoner lost in the system is a composite. "The criminal justice system had collapsed," Howell says of post-Katrina New Orleans. "Thousands of people, literally, were spread out over the state. No one could locate them; families couldn't find their loved ones. There were some amazing lawyers post-Katrina, mainly criminal defense lawyers, from all around the state, who really stepped up."
On the show, jailed musicians depend on Toni's legal assistance. "There are parts that are very familiar, pre-and post-Katrina," Howell says. "I've represented street musicians for over 30 years now. I've spent more time in Municipal Court representing musicians and getting their instruments back and trying to make sure they can continue to play."
"This is not just telling our story to us," Howell says. For non-natives, "I think it's hard to convey the trauma of a whole community while attempting to show our resiliency. People may think, 'They can't really be all that traumatized if they're still laughing and having fun and playing music.' Well, that's the way we deal with trauma. It's literally people laughing through their tears."
Of the lessons to be learned through the show, Howell says, "Whatever your sorrows, your loss and your grief are, somebody's got it worse than you do. And it's not going to be this way forever."