A few weeks ago at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, five of the six writers responsible for the new HBO series Treme convened in the Royal Sonesta Hotel Ballroom for a panel discussion. David Simon and Eric Overmyer—the show’s co-creators, and for whose collaboration on The Wire the hype surrounding Treme can be attributed—sat down along with David Mills, best known for his work writing for E.R. and NYPD Blue, as well as two New Orleans writers who had never before their contributions to Treme worked in television: Lolis Eric Elie and Tom Piazza. (Writer George Pelecanos, who worked with Simon and Overmyer on The Wire as well as Treme, did not attend.)

Treme (“treh-MAY”) is named after a historic black neighborhood in New Orleans that is and always has been home to many of the city’s preeminent musicians. The show begins three months after Hurricane Katrina and follows a variety of story lines in which the city’s inhabitants—many of whom are based on real New Orleans personalities—try to put the city and their lives back together.

Nola.com television critic David Walker moderated a discussion that largely focused on the dynamic of the “writers’ room” and how the highly individual act of writing is translated into group form in the process of coming up with plots for TV shows. Afterwards, he opened up the floor to questions for the audience, and yours truly leveled one at the panelists that inspired the following sequence. Lolis Eric Elie and Tom Piazza are locally famous for their championship of New Orleans, but have never produced much that reached a national or international audience, as Treme undoubtedly will.

Sadly, less than a week after this panel, writer David Mills succumbed to a brain aneurism on the show’s set and died. The photo that accompanies this obituary was taken after the panel in question.

PEASANTS: For Lolis and Tom—What was the mental process like when you were approached to do the show, in terms of knowing that you would perhaps have the opportunity to present your hometown to a wider audience than you’ve had previously? What were some things about New Orleans that you knew you wanted to express?

Lolis Eric Elie: The thing that local folks say to me most often is, “Thank God they got you to keep them honest.” Well, these guys [David Simon and Eric Overmeyer] are doing this show because they’re attracted to the city as-is, not because they like the location and have taken the plot from somewhere else. So in that sense, they’re interested in the same kind of things that I’m interested in. I believe that the culture is the key to this place, and no matter how many corporations the mayor and the governor try to get to move here, no matter how many neighborhoods they destroy to build a new Charity Hospital instead of rebuilding the old Charity Hospital, no matter how many people’s houses they tear down to put up some stuff that’s of inferior quality—the real thing that makes this city and its people who we are is the culture. And so, in that sense, it was like joining the team that you want to join. I didn’t feel like I had to come in and say, “Yes, well, Eric, David, the thing y’all got wrong is …” And like a friend of mine says, what you really want to do is put yourself in a position where, when somebody’s critiquing your work, they’re making you sound more like yourself. So when we’re talking about this show, in some ways my hope is to not change it at all, but to make it more of what it already is.

Tom Piazza: Lolis and I, by virtue of living here—Lolis was bred and born in this briar patch and I came here of my own free will fifteen years ago—probably have a sense of certain little micronuances that have helped in some way, but mostly you just want to express the sense of life—that there’s no place else like this, there really isn’t. You want to express as much as possible the many ways in which the New Orleans sense of life plays itself out kaleidoscopically through all the people who live here. Many efforts have foundered to depict New Orleans in dramatic form because it’s a very easy place to caricature, because there are a number of specific things that you could say—[affecting announcer’s voice]:“New Orleans! Mardi Gras parade! Mardi Gras Indians! Jazz funerals! Muffulletas!”—that by themselves sort of signal “New Orleans,” but they don’t really embody New Orleans. What embodies New Orleans is the dialog among all these different elements. Our hope is that the show expresses all these different things in combination with each other, and because Treme casts its net so wide it has, I think, probably the best shot at getting at some of that essence of New Orleans.

David Mills: Could I add something to that? That specificity that Tom talks about is—ironically, when we intellectualize the show as a product—problematic. Because, when you talk about The Wire, it is very, very specific to Baltimore, yet, if it wasn’t about Baltimore, it would still exist as it is—it would be about Cleveland, for instance. Somewhere along the line I asked myself, “Well, what’s this all about?” And then I’ll say, “Well, if it wasn’t about New Orleans, what would it be about?” And it’s hard to put into words. But, specificity: That’s one of the reasons I’m very eager to see what the feedback will be, because I honestly don’t know whether it will work or not.

David Simon: There’s a lot of lines that only people here will get. And there are a lot of lines that will have a double-meaning for people here that won’t play elsewhere. Hopefully they’ll play generically elsewhere and they won’t bump anybody out of the show. It’s hard to write specifically for New Orleans and have everything translate perfectly. You guys are just not living in the same world.

Treme premiered last night on HBO. Check back for a complete transcript of the panel discussion on PEASANTS.


Crappy photos like this one that appear on PEASANTS are the doings of Nate, not the real photographer here, and will appear as infrequently as possible.

Advertisements