There are few things in TV harder than writing about a specific location, especially after that place has suffered a cataclysmic event. So it is with HBO’s Treme and the Hurricane Katrina disaster. But it’s unusual for the show’s creator David Simon (The Wire) to write an open letter to the New Orleans community addressing its trepidations about how it will be portrayed. “If we are true to ourselves as dramatists, we will cheat and lie and pile one fraud upon the next, given that with every scene, we make fictional characters say and do things that were never said and done,” Simon says. “And yet, if we are respectful of the historical reality of post-Katrina New Orleans, there are facts that must be referenced accurately as well. Some things, you just don’t make up.” It’s an interesting TV topic of discussion. (This appeared first in the Times-Picayune.):
In the first episode of “Treme,” to be broadcast tonight on HBO, a character will reach into her purse and produce an apple-flavored Hubig’s pie. She will do this in late November 2005. With the rest of her dessert menu no longer available, the character, a local chef, will then serve the local delicacy to a patron of her restaurant.
We offer this bit of information freely, as Exhibit A in what will surely become a long list of cited inaccuracies, anachronisms and equivocations through which New Orleanians reassure themselves that not only is our little drama a fiction, but that those who have perpetrated this fiction are indifferent to facts, chronologies, historical possibilities.
True, the Hubig’s bakery in the Marigny did not reopen until February 2006, and true therefore, any such pastry found in a woman’s purse should by rights be a pre-Katrina artifact and therefore unsuitable for anyone’s dessert.
But what you fact-grounded literalists clearly fail to understand is that the pie in Janette DeSautel’s purse is a Magic Hubig’s. Much in the manner of certain loaves and fishes in the New Testament, or several days worth of sacramental oil in the Old, this Hubig’s somehow survives months of post-Katrina tumult and remains tasty and intact for our small, winking moment of light comedy. We know this because we, the writers, imbued the pie with its special powers. We created it. We stuck it in the purse — or more precisely, the propmaster did. We left it there, waiting for its special moment.
And here’s the thing: It won’t end with one chunk of pie.
We have trespassed throughout our narrative. And soon enough, the true nature of our many slights and affronts, our intentional frauds and unthinking miscalculations will be subject to the judgment of you whom we have trespassed against.
This is altogether right. Our television drama is taking liberties with a profound, unforgettable period in this city’s history. It depicts day-to-day life in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, referencing certain real events, real people and places, real cultural reference points known to many, if not most of those who call this city home.
That we will be held to certain standards by New Orleanians goes with the territory. Beginning tonight, you are the ultimate arbiters — the only ones we really care about — on the question of whether our storytelling alchemy has managed to make anything precious or worthy from the baser elements of fact.
Your sensibilities matter to us because we have tried to be honest with that extraordinary time — not journalistically true, but thematically so. We have depicted certain things that happened, and others that didn’t happen, and then still others that didn’t happen but truly should have happened.
This is a nice way of saying we have lied.
Why? Why not depict a precise truth, down to the very Hubig’s?
Well, Pablo Picasso famously said that art is the lie that shows us the truth. Such might be the case of a celebrated artist claiming more for himself and his work than he ought, or perhaps, this Picasso fella was on to something.
By referencing what is real, or historical, a fictional narrative can speak in a powerful, full-throated way to the problems and issues of our time. And a wholly imagined tale, set amid the intricate and accurate details of a real place and time, can resonate with readers in profound ways. In short, drama is its own argument.
Much of our previous work in this regard was set in Baltimore, where we took pains to incorporate many people, places and events that existed and occurred, and where we made equal efforts to imagine a good deal that never happened.
With “The Wire, ” we tried our best to be responsible, of course — to choose carefully where we would cheat and where we would not.
In a given episode of “The Wire, ” if we wrote that the police department, for example, was cooking the stats — an accusation that goes to the heart of that institution’s credibility — we did so only after being provided with ample evidence that this was, in fact, the case.
On the other hand, if we laid dead homicide detectives out on the green felt of a pool table for drunken wakes in an Irish bar, we did so knowing that such a thing never happened — although, frankly, upon imagining and filming such ceremonial rites, we came to believe that it damn well ought to be the tradition in Baltimore.
If we are true to ourselves as dramatists, we will cheat and lie and pile one fraud upon the next, given that with every scene, we make fictional characters say and do things that were never said and done. And yet, if we are respectful of the historical reality of post-Katrina New Orleans, there are facts that must be referenced accurately as well. Some things, you just don’t make up.
Admittedly, it’s delicate. And we are likely to be at our best in those instances in which we are entirely aware of our deceits, just as we are likely to fail when we proceed in ignorance of the facts. Technically speaking, when we cheat and know it, we are “taking creative liberties, ” and when we cheat and don’t know it, we are “screwing up.”
But “Treme” is drama, and therefore artifice. It is not journalism. It is not documentary. It is a fictional representation set in a real time and place, replete with moments of inside humor, local celebrity and galloping, unrestrained meta. At moments, if we do our jobs correctly, it may feel real.
Even then, it is important to understand that the writers, directors, cast and crew are not in any way trying to supplant the historical record, or, for that matter, the personal memories and experiences of real New Orleanians. To the extent actual individuals have inspired or informed a character or a moment, we acknowledge that these characters are nonetheless make-believe. Real folks are entitled to real lives, and to have those lives considered distinct from any and all moments in a television drama.
In Baltimore, most sensible viewers figured all of the above out by episode three, though admittedly, a few politicians and high-ranking police commanders struggled with the concept until the very end. No doubt, it may take at least a few episodes of “Treme” for all of us to figure each other out, and in the event the drama lasts no more than a season, any confusion will scarcely matter.
But going forward, unless otherwise instructed, our suggested rule for watching “Treme,” should you choose to watch, is to assume in every instance that someone, somewhere sat in a room and made all of this mess up.
Except for the band that is seen playing good, live music in a Bourbon Street strip joint in episode two. That is, of course, a Magical Strip Joint, of no fixed address.
David Simon, New Orleans, April 2010