'Treme,' 'The Real World,' and the New New Orleans

Jimmy Malecki / MTV

Regardless of how you feel about David Simon’s New Orleans post-Katrina series Treme, you probably haven’t had many opportunities to talk about it. Unlike The Wire, Simon’s dramatic treatise on Baltimore, Treme hasn’t quite caught on to the point that you have to be prepared at parties to either discuss it intelligently or give some legitimate excuse—such as hysterical blindness—for not having seen it. I detailed my issues with the show in an earlier review, in which I zeroed in on the degree to which Simon’s obsession with place and microscopic detail crowds out the story rather than enhancing it, and how the more the program strives for authenticity, the less authentic it becomes. But I suspect the hushed public response to Treme has more to do with our low tolerance for shame. I’ve joked with friends who ask me what I think of the show that it’s the cable-drama version of being chided for not having donated to the Red Cross after Katrina. In Treme, characters will say, explicitly, that NEW ORLEANS MATTERS—in a way that may not break the fourth wall, but certainly chips away at it.

But now, having seen the premiere of The Real World: Return to New Orleans, which couldn’t be less like Treme, I wonder if there’s any serial approach to the new New Orleans that I would want to watch consistently. For its 24th season, MTV’s reality granddaddy ambles back to a city it already visited, back in its ninth season. But, obviously, it isn’t the same New Orleans it once was. There’s still a bit of a pallor, for such a colorful city, and the tragedy of Katrina is a wet blanket over the Mardi Gras frivolity that once characterized it. That’s no reason not to have eight self-absorbed kids see if it’s still a city in which they can thoroughly debauch themselves.

The setup is same as it ever was: good-looking kids with a thirst for Jose Cuervo and self-discovery move into a mansion and bounce off each other, angrily, sexually, and drunkenly. Recovery is allegedly the theme for the year, with one of the roommates trying to maintain after having gone to rehab for a painkiller addiction. There’s no better city in which to mount a show about recovery than New Orleans. “The city is coming back, and we’re hoping our cast members and the series can play a small role in the city’s rebirth,” says executive producer Jon Murray in a release for the show.

There are many episodes to go, but in the premiere it’s the city’s rebirth that’s playing the small role. Real World casts are always fairly cloistered; the roommates relax at the house, leaving only to go to dark places with music and liquor. Choosing a city has always been a kind of formality. But when the chosen city is New Orleans, the city’s recovery should play some part in it. Besides festooning the mansion with Mardi Gras beads and hanging saxophone chandeliers such that the décor is reminiscent of a Dali-esque chain restaurant, there isn’t much of the city in the mix. According to reports, the roommates will work in recovery activities during the series, but such an altruistic endeavor might have trouble finding its way into a final cut of a show known for hookups and squabbles. There’s reportedly a plotline this season in which a housemate has to go to the doctor for a throat infection after using a toothbrush his castmate urinated on and cleaned the toilet with. Clearly they had a lot more going on than the Katrina stuff.

Watching the Real World premiere nearly sent me rushing back into the arms of Treme. It seems there should be a serial approach to New Orleans that has gravity but doesn’t feel so heavy. I was one of the few who saw potential in Fox’s short-lived K-Ville, which was as much an old-fashioned run-and-gun cop show as a civic autopsy. There is lots to be mined from the suffering and triumphs of the rebuilding city, but the best post-Katrina portrayals so far have been in feature documentaries like Trouble the Water. They’re legitimately authentic and, more important, closed-ended, enough to provoke thought without becoming a weekly endurance test.

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