Sunday, May 22, 2011
Time for an intervention
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post concerns Treme and contains spoilers for tonight's episode, so if you haven't seen it yet, move along.
By Edward Copeland
I'm no Alan Richman, coming to pick on Treme. It's not something I particularly enjoy doing, especially since I've developed cyber-pseudorelationships with several involved with the show and I don't wish to hurt, anger or alienate them. If I weren't as great admirer of the show as I am, dating back to its first episode, and of co-creator David Simon, I wouldn't take on as time consuming a task as recapping each episode, especially now that I've become obsessed with trying to include as many explanatory extras as I can about real people, places and events. (I admit — Dave Walker's great Treme Explained column in The Times-Picayune started me down this path.) However, after tonight's episode "Slip Away," coming two weeks after "On Your Way Down," I have to admit I've become concerned, not about the essential quality of the show — the ensemble contains some of the best acting on television right now, the music is great and the writing, when allowed to flourish, is top notch. Like my favorite shows always have done, at its best, Treme finds the perfect mix of wrenching emotion, subtle humor and lowbrow comedy. What's bothering me is that "Slip Away" marks the second time this season that, aside from the exquisite pre-credit re-creation of Dinerral Shavers' funeral, the entire episode consists of scenes that are tiny in terms of length and that feature abrupt cuts in scenes to go somewhere else for a short time only to return to where they were when the scene they left could easily have been played as a whole. When this was happening in "On Your Way Down," I blamed the director, Simon Cellan Jones, because he also directed the first season episode, "Smoke My Peace Pipe," that functioned similarly as well as "The Emerald City" episode of Boardwalk Empire, which broke from its usual style with a bunch of these short scenes. I may have been wrong to blame Cellan Jones, since "Slip Away" is directed by Rob Bailey, though Bailey does manage more stylish touches even in this limiting format and its astounding number of brief scenes, "Slip Away" flows better overall except in specific instances. All the episodes structured like this have had different writers, directors and editors, so there's not an easy person to blame, so the answer has to lie at the top with the men who gave birth to Treme and ultimately oversee it — Simon and Eric Overmeyer. Why would they impose this on their own baby? I have one theory, but mainly I'm writing this because now that they've secured a third season, I hope they read this somehow and accept it as constructive criticism from one of Treme's biggest fans and boosters. I want them to consider my thoughts before filming season three so they don't make these missteps again and stop producing episodes such as this that seem designed for people with attention-deficit disorder.
1. Something seen by a viewer; a view or prospect.
2. The place where an action or event occurs: the scene of the crime.
3. The place in which the action of a play, movie, novel, or other narrative occurs; a setting.
4a. A subdivision of an act in a dramatic presentation in which the setting is fixed and the time continuous.
4b. A shot or series of shots in a movie constituting a unit of CONTINUOUS RELATED action.
I added the all caps to those two words in 4b definition of "scene" (there were a couple more meanings, but they weren't relevant to what I'm discussing) because it really underlines a couple of the problems I had with "Slip Away." There were several cases, such as when George Cotrell brings Albert his mail and Albert gets his news about the rejection of his Road Home application and when Janette goes to see Delmond perform at The Blue Note where, when, for no good reason, they break from those scenes for other ones (and remember, besides the opening, every scene was short in this episode. Depending whether you count the March Against Violence sequence as a montage that should count as a single scene, "Slip Away" had either 60 or 98 scenes in its 59 minute running time, which includes opening and ending credits). Then, we go right back to Albert and George in the one case and The Blue Note in the other. There's no reason why those two scenes could not be shown as a CONTINUOUS RELATED whole.
This especially was annoying in The Blue Note part (You can read my recap to read more specifically about it) because what it switches to is a scene of Davis and Simply Red attending an open mic night at Club Paradise. As the spoken word artist Gian Smith takes the stage and begins his piece and you start to absorb what he is saying, we cut back to The Blue Note. We start to settle in there again, actually getting what seems to be one of the few full music performances of the episode then once again we cut back to Club Fabulous, hearing the tail end of Smith's piece and the beginning of a rap artist before, you guessed it, it's back to The Blue Note again. Not only was this back-and-forth intercutting between The Blue Note and Club Fabulous annoying, pointless and placing the audience at risk for whiplash, even if they had let The Blue Note and Club Fabulous scenes run as whole pieces, I still can't see why we were wasting time with the Club Fabulous scenes in the first place. (I should not, I'm not one of those Treme watchers who complain about Steve Zahn and his Davis character. I enjoy both the actor and the part, just didn't get the long-term point of this scene, but perhaps it will make sense in future episodes. That said, neither scene should have been served in slices like that.)
The biggest problem when Treme produces one of these "clip shows" is that the music gets slighted — and that's one of the aspects that sets Treme apart from every other drama on TV and one of the reasons it's so unique. I'm no musical expert, but when they play enough of a song, I can usually figure out what it is by doing a search for the lyrics, even taking into account the liberties singers take. In "Slip Away," when Antoine starts to sing at GiGi's, he gets a whole two lines out before we cut to a scene of LaDonna and her family in Baton Rouge. Fortunately, even based on just those two lines, I was able to determine that the song was, of all things, "Slip Away," the song that gives this episode its title. After Baton Rouge, we return to GiGi's and get to hear Wendell Pierce. who is in the middle of singing the rest of the song, but why couldn't we get it all in one bite? Are we playing Name That Tune? (I can name the tune in four notes…) For the non-musical scenes, are we supposed to say, "I can guess that story development in four paragraphs of dialogue or in 30 seconds of air time?" I only discovered this through research. Real music aficionados might put it together as they watch, but for the average viewer, this likely will fly by too fast for them to catch all those subtleties. Besides, the subject of the song is adultery. Antoine and LaDonna might have had their brief tryst last season, but no cheating is going on in this scenario. Did they feel it was important to cut into the middle of the song to hear LaDonna tell her mother the bar can run itself? Maybe I could see that if chaos at GiGi's were to follow, but it doesn't. What was the point?
Another problem with "Slip Away" may just be extreme use of creative license, but it could be poor assemblage of this many short scenes. The timeline really gets screwy. Treme always has to work around that since it incorporates real events into its story, but there's no rhyme or reason to the ordering of the scenes in "Slip Away." It's often hard to tell just what the hell day it is supposed to be. We begin with Dinerral Shavers' funeral, which the program we see Antoine reading says is Jan. 4, 2007. I'm sure creative license was behind the decision to have Shavers killed on Christmas 2006 when he was slain on Dec. 28, 2006, in real life. Later, we see Lt. Colson watch the news that the cops known as The Danziger 7 turned themselves in, but that took place on Jan. 2, 2007. When Sofia stays out late, it would appear to be that same day of the school assembly, the first scene after the funeral. Colson goes out that night to two crime scenes, one before Sofia comes home after 10 p.m.. and the other being the real, well-publicized murder of filmmaker Helen Hill which took place on Jan. 4, 2007, except it happened around 5:30 a.m. which means it would have occurred before Shavers' funeral. The episode ends with the March Against Violence that took place Jan. 11, 2007, but it sure doesn't seem as if the episode spans a week. Granted, most viewers aren't going to be fact checking episodes but the ordering of these short scenes are disorienting enough on its own and I imagine people who live in New Orleans or are familiar with the events and watch the show will note the time discrepancies.
These microscenes don't serve the actors well either, since it's hard to really get involved in a scene and your character when you are handed a scene that lasts less than a minute, though in "Slip Away" Melissa Leo, amazingly, does wonders in a 40 second scene as does Clarke Peters in the short one with the city inspector, though I didn't time it. I did time the scenes when I wrote about this problem in "On Your Way Down," which really undermined what should have been a harrowing and powerful episode since it contained LaDonna's rape, but it kept cutting away from the aftermath of it in the ER to show us Sonny bits that we just didn't care about. Here, in case you didn't see my "On Your Way Down" recap, are, in ascending order the running times of that episode's scenes: 0:22, 0:23, 0:27, 0:31, 0:31, 0:35, 0:35, 0:36, 0:36, 0:38, 0:40, 0:40, 0:41, 0:41, 0:43, 0:47, 0:51, 0:53, 0:53, 0:55, 0:57, 1:03, 1:04, 1:05, 1:05, 1:06, 1:13, 1:17, 1:20, 1:21, 1:21, 1:23, 1:26, 1:34, 1:45, 1:53, 1:57, 2:01, 2:03, 2:18, 2:21, 2:30, 3:01). It's worth noting that in my recap there were three other quick scenes that I grouped together that totaled 1:30. Now, quick scenes as a rule aren't always a negative. For example, one of the 31 second scenes in the "On Your Way Down" episode presents a perfect example of one when Antoine shows up for his job interview at the school, gets out of the cab, sees the kids running everywhere, including bumping into him, and he retreats back into the cab and leaves, That's a great short scene, but when the whole episode has scenes that are short, and not for comic sight gags, it undermines one that is. In "Slip Away," the few scenes I timed were worse. Sofia has two scenes, one where she's riding the elevator to get on the ferry and one on the ferry. The first lasts 12 seconds, the second 16 seconds. It took me longer to type that than it did to view it.
Dave Walker has an interview with Mari Kornhauser, the writer of "Slip Away," posted online at the Times-Picayune site and he writes that "Many viewers and critics have observed the same thing as Kornhauser: Treme is unlike anything TV’s ever seen before, as dense as Robert Altman at his most uncompromising, a novelistic fiction set in a very real place and time told around many of its very real people." In the article, Kornhauser says, “This show is going to be looked upon as a new way of storytelling.” They've proved that almost from the start, but I hope these "clip shows" isn't what she's referring to or what they are aiming for, especially since three out of the five episodes this season so far have been as good or better than anything in the first with classic longer moments such as Lt. Colson's "Let Bourbon Street be Bourbon Street," Mr. Breau telling Toni about the runaround he's received about his son's death, Janette's takedown of the Alan Richman article, Enrico Brulard's "Listen to your fish," the great montages of Antoine recruiting for his band and how everyone spends Thanksgiving, and Davis' horror at the after-dinner chat with his family and Annie enjoying it, all in "Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky"; and Antoine trying to talk the band director into not hiring him in one long tracking shot; Toni's various interviews with an eyewitness and cops about Robideaux's, each one adding details and changing the picture, Davis pitching Aunt Mimi to back his record label, the documentary filmmaker at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, Janette's finale at Brulard's, June Yamagishi's amazing tryout, Antoine's band debut, the heartbreak of what's not being said when Sofia tells her mom about a teacher's suicide and Albert and Delmond's Christmas dinner, all in "Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get the Blues?"
Which brings us to the big question: Why is this happening? I know HBO isn't as ratings obsessed as commercial networks; they exist for subscriptions, buzz, awards and DVD sales. The Wire never was a blockbuster and the Emmys snubbed it for the most part, but HBO stuck by it for five seasons, even if it shorted the final one in terms of episodes. Some people haven't become attuned to the rhythms of Treme, which I think would be infinitely easier to watch casually than The Wire where you couldn't look away or miss an episode or you'd get lost. Treme is nowhere near as demanding, but you hear some people whine that "it's slow" or that it has "too much music," sentiments I think couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, especially in the case of "On Your Way Down," having nothing but quick scenes slowed the pacing of that episode to a crawl as opposed to the two best episodes so far this year — "Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky" and "Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get the Blues?" — which mixed up the length of scenes and had great pacing as a result. "Slip Away" played slightly better than "On Your Way Down" because of nice visual touches and the pre-credit re-creation of Dinerral Shavers' funeral, which ran about 4:30 and got you prepared for another great episode, a feeling that dissipated as the episode went on. What I remembered though is that both David Simon and Eric Overmyer worked on the same quality network program where the executive meddling undermined its greatness. They both started as writers and eventually got producing titles.
As far as I've heard, HBO gives their shows pretty free rein, so I can't imagine network executives are placing some kind of pressure on the Treme creative team to try to "quicken the pace." The thought that enters my mind is that when Simon became a full-time participant on Homicide: Life on the Street, it was in the fourth season when NBC really forced ratings ploys and dumb casting changes on that once great show to try to boost ratings. Overmyer arrived as a writer that same year. Homicide originally sprang from the nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets that Simon wrote when he was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun. In an interview with Mary Alice Blackwell for The Daily Progress about The Wire, Simon described Homicide as "a remarkable drama" but said it didn't really reflect the book. The series started not reflecting that remarkable drama it once was either when NBC started interfering with its essence and showrunner Tom Fontana was far too willing to try to appease the suits at the network.
Basically a series that was great for two seasons and most of a third, compromised itself again and again again. The first time actually occurred after the first two seasons, when the cast was deemed too "average looking" without enough sex appeal and they were forced to dump Jon Polito who played Det. Steve Crosetti, the Lincoln conspiracy nut. To compound the error, NBC aired the excellent third season episode "Crosetti" explaining that his character killed himself out of order so Crosetti was referred to as being dead before viewers saw the episode that killed him off. NBC did that a lot to that show, airing shows out of order. There was a storyline where they found asbestos in the building they worked out of, so the squad relocated to a different building temporarily. NBC aired episodes with the squad n a new building without explanation before the reason was given and then aired ones that had them in the old building prior to the problem then back to the temporary one again.
The third season, while still top notch for the most part, was also when they tried to sex things up, adding Isabella Hofmann as the lieutenant for the night shift who was having a secret affair with the unhappily married day shift detective Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin). They also started tossing in showier plots such as serial killers and having three of the detectives shot. Early on, the detectives discussed how rare it was for people in homicide to be hurt in the line of duty. By the end of the show's run (including the reunion movie), Richard Belzer's Munch was about the only detective who hadn't been shot, killed or somehow injured in the line of duty in that squad. Ugh — I just had a flashback to Junior Bunk opening fire in the squad room and Callie Thorne whining about being shot in the toe. (Notably, when Simon made The Wire, in the entire five seasons, only Sonja Sohn's Kima Greggs was shot in the line of duty — and she was undercover at the time.)
The fourth season — when Simon joined the writing staff full time (He had co-written the exquisite second season episode "Bop Gun" with the late, great David Mills) — really started the series downfall with more stunt-type stories and cating changes. They lost Baldwin and, in a bigger blow, Ned Beatty. They added the more telegenic Reed Diamond and Michelle Forbes as the new medical examiner so the two could have a steamy fling. They had a dopey episode about a spree killer (who turned out to be twins) and tried to float the red herring that one of his victims could be the daughter of Lt. Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). They fell for multi-part episodes, such as one involving a sniper, and they took the show's finest asset, Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton, whose gift was his verbosity and gave him a season-ending stroke so that when the next season began, while Braugher's acting was superb, they took away Frank's magic. It did have a fun episode called "Full Moon" about a murder at a motel inhabited by eccentrics that Overmyer wrote.
The fourth season also introduced a character who was good in small doses, but eventually helped weaken the show more, even after his character was dead. That was Erik Todd Dellums as smooth drug kingpin Luther Mahoney. Eventually, the squad and the show became obsessed with Mahoney and Diamond's character Det. Mike Kellerman eventually killed him in cold blood and that dominated the show as Meldric (Clark Johnson) and another of the later cast additions, Det. Terri Stivers (Toni Stivers) hemmed and hawed about their guilt for witnessing it and Luther's sister sought revenge. NBC also finally made them force out Melissa Leo to get "younger and sexier" cast members. They did hostage situations, more multi-part shows, crossovers with Law & Order and way too much Jon Seda as Detective Falsone (It practically became The Falsone Show). When Braugher left at the end of season six, I went with him.
Miraculously, even after all the nonsense, Homicide still managed to pull off a great episode now and then in those later years such as "Subway," "Full Court Press" and "Finnegan's Wake," all from the sixth season. Simon provided the story for the latter two and David Mills wrote "Finnegan's Wake." For the most part, it never equaled those first three seasons. Could those experiences with NBC have scarred Simon and Overmyer somehow? I just don't understand why one of the best and most unique dramas on television would willingly do this to itself. Is it a purposeful attempt to alienate more casual viewers? Surely not, since Simon's vision never wavered on The Wire. I don't know what the rest of season two holds, but season three is a blank slate, so please spare us the clip shows and keep Treme as the layered, fascinating, one-of-a-kind show I love.
Labels: Altman, Awards, Boardwalk Empire, Books, Braugher, Clarke Peters, David Simon, HBO, Homicide, Law and Order, Melissa Leo, N. Beatty, Nonfiction, Overmyer, Television, The Wire, Treme, Wendell Pierce, Zahn