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Televising the Post-Katrina City: _Treme_, Narrative, and Spatiality

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Televising the Post-Katrina City: _Treme_, Narrative, and Spatiality
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  Julia LeydaDepartment of English LiteratureSophia University j-leyda@sophia.ac.jpTelevising the Post-Katrina City: Treme , Narrative Complexity, and SpatialityGeographer Doreen Massey argues that, like our identities, which are createdthrough human relations rather than existing as fixed and essential, space is also relationaland produced through contacts and interactions. The relational space of New Orleans, the primary setting for HBO’s post -Katrina drama Treme , is made up of the people there and thesum of their connections with places outside the city — from schoolteachers to restaurantworkers to tourists from all over the US and the world. The spatialized web of connectionsthat the people of New Orleans create in their everyday lives — not only in physicalinteractions with other people riding the bus or walking down the street, but also throughpurchasing imported goods, watching satellite TV, communicating online, and so on — makesup the relational space of the city. The televised representation of the city in Treme alsocontributes to the production of the relational space of New Orleans, as it has viewers allover the US — including New Orleanians living in the city and those who have relocated,people who have visited the city, and those who have no personal link to the city at all — aswell as an active fan base in the UK, not to mention viewers around the world who watch iton DVD or by other, more shadowy means. Massey points out that “the very possibility of any ser ious recognition of multiplicityand heterogeneity itself depends on a recognition of spatiality, ” calling this heterogeneity akind of  “thrown -together- ness” (10 -11). Sharing space means encountering and co-existingwith others who have different stories and trajectories (12). The intricate web of relations  and interconnections comprising post-Katrina New Orleans presents a challenge to anyfictional representation, particularly a television series, which traditionally emphasizes asmall number of central characters in order to encourage viewer identification and engagement. “Thrown together” doesn’t exactly sound like a formula for a cohesivedramatic series. Yet this is one way to describe David Simon's HBO show Treme and itsnarrative representations of post-Katrina New Orleans, particularly given the ways in whichwhat media studies scholar Jason Mit tell has called “ narrative complexity ” in twenty-first-century television engenders sophisticated geographies of identity, power, and capital.Human geographers pay particular attention to how representations of spatiality canindicate the ways in which constellations of power-knowledge are inscribed in spaceand through which particular subject-positions are constituted and particularidentities fabricated. (Gregory 781)As Massey argues, these productions and performances of space are in constant flux, and Treme exemplifies this fluidity as it almost manically intercuts among its eleven characters,at times causing viewer indignation, and frustrating the urge to follow a few headlinecharacters. It is this complexity, with its emphasis on the ensemble cast, that makes theshow's narrative of post-Katrina New Orleans compelling. Treme , through its narrative complexity, encourages viewers to take in a long-formdrama that develops its characters and plotlines gradually, rather than in tidy, easilydigested episodes. Thus, like the disaster itself, the narrative is always ongoing, not finishedand resolved in each weekly installment. Mittell argues that this non-episodic narrative styleis one of the elements of a new narrative complexity in television since the 1990s. The show’s resistance to television’s traditionall y episodic form of storytelling actually makes itdifficult to follow when viewed in weekly intervals as it airs; it is much easier to comprehend  if viewers are able to watch several episodes back to back, for example, in DVR, video on-demand, or DVD viewing. Treme show-runner David Simon rejects the dominance of episode- centered commentary and reviewing: “ The measure that I care about is not the episodic. I just don’t care about evaluating these things by episodes. It’s like I’m building ahouse, and you’re telling me, ‘I really like the stairwell, but I don’t like the balustrade’” (Seitz “Hot Seat”). Simon’s show The Wire (2002-2008) was also famous for its anti-episodic, seriallong-form narrative structure, often likened to a novel in which individual chapters may notstand alone very well. As in a sprawling classic novel, some of the characters on Treme neverinteract, or do so only glancingly, and there is no single star playing a main character; rather, there are about eleven “main” characters sharing viewers’ attention each week. This ensures a certain restlessness in the narrative, as the show parcels out several minute-longscenes to multiple characters in each episode.The narrative complexity in this anti-episodic narrative form pushes the Treme  viewer into sometimes uncomfortable positions, producing a sense of fatigue, helplessness,and an inability to control where the narrative will focus next among the extensiveensemble cast. That frustration echoes the feelings many New Orleanians recall from thesecond phase of the post-Katrina experience: after the first twelve months or so, theadrenaline wore off, as blogger Ray Shea explains. For New Orleanians, the second half of 2006 and beginning of 2007 was a dark time, as the crime in the city skyrocketed far beyondthe means of the decimated police force and still-traumatized residents. The third episodeof season two, “On Your Way Down , ” represents that zeitgeist most brutally in the rape of one character, but also in the smaller, annoying inconveniences the other characters face atthe same time: burglaries, bureaucracy, drug busts, career setbacks, all show a city full of people who are, at this moment, losing hope, beaten down by circumstances beyond their  control. The viewer experiences a sense of disorientation and frustration related to both theform and the content of this episode, which Myles McNutt points out “ capture[s] theconstant struggle New Orleans residents face as they try to find their bearings in their ever- changing city.”  I argue in this paper that Treme constitutes an attempt to portray the city of NewOrleans as a relational space, in particular through its emphasis on multiple characters andcomplex social networks. The challenge to viewers inherent in the complex narrative andanti-episodic structure comes to the fore particularly in the discussions and reviews of therape episode, as some feel alienated by the narrative form and yearn for a more traditional,less diffuse mode of storytelling.I want to focus on a particular event in season two that highlights some of the waysthat Treme ’s emphasis on complexity and relationality made viewers uncomfortable — therape of a sympathetic character — in order to examine more closely how its online viewingcommunity collectively experience trauma and reach consensus around the show’s meanings. The second season of  Treme finds that fragile hopes for recovery have, for many New Orleanians, given way to a nightmarish “new normal”: a way of life marked by frustration, exhaustion, dread, and despair. The show in season two portrays the myriaddifficulties of this period in its multiple plotlines and characters, but it also develops thecharacter of LaDonna Batiste-Williams, within the nexus of her familial and communityrelationships, as a synecdoche for the city after Katrina. Her place in the relational web of social interactions never takes over center stage, yet the intensity of her suffering duringthis season produces a kind of sore spot in the narrative, one that we don’t revisit easily but nonetheless can’t stop worrying about as we watc h the other threads and plotlines.  In season one, LaDonna embodies the survivor spirit of the city: feisty, passionate, independent, and still working at Gigi’s, the neighborhood bar she inherited from her father.LaDonna struggles to find out what happened to her brother, DayMo, and finally finds hisbody in one of dozens of refrigerated trucks that make up an improvised morgue filled withunidentified bodies, even months after Katrina. Throughout season one, she is devoted tostaying in the city at least part-time, even though her family move to Baton Rouge, a 90-minute drive away, with its functioning schools, businesses, and first responders. LaDonna stays strong for her mother and her kids, and at DayMo’s funeral at the end of the season,her rigid face and hollow eyes hint at the price of that stoicism. But in season two, LaDonna’s character no longer represents the tenacity and strength of the city during itsinitial post-Katrina phase; now she finds herself shattered by a vicious physical and sexualassault, which renders her incapacitated for much of the season. LaDonna’s character, as many online comments point out, had already dealt withsome of the most agonizing consequences of Katrina — her house was destroyed, herbrother died in police custody and then his records and his very body were lost in thesystem, her husband and sons moved out of town, and she deals with the constant low-levelaggravation of dishonest repairmen, legal bureaucracy, inadequate infrastructure, and so on.So when this episode shows her seeming utterly defeated by the assault, it personalizes thehorror of the crime wave layered on top of all the other traumas that followed Katrina. RayShea explains: Treme had to show something horrendous … happening to somebody we care about.Something bad enough that it would make them afraid to stay in the city, that itwould make their family want them to move, that would make it hard for them to
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