“Treme,” HBO’s new series from- the-art masquerading as television dynamic that is David Simon and company was of course my new favorite television series even before it was a series. I was a rabid fan of “The Wire,” a gripping crime drama created by Simon, a former news reporter turned television bard, as well as his first foray into television “Homicide: Life on the Streets.”(Incidentally, I have a six-degrees connection to Simon as I was in a play with a guy who was in a play with Andre Braugher who played Det. Frank Pembleton on the much loved series.)
But with Treme, Simon leaves the torrid streets of crime behind for a more genteel look at everyday lives in post-Katrina New Orleans. Or so I thought. When Treme began it had the usual Simon traits – realism in dialogue, music that not only compliments but defines entire segments, a gritty urban setting and of course some of my favorite television actors. It seemed a true departure for Simon et. al., a dive into the quirky-side of life instead of its underbelly and then – well, someone stole Lester’s tools.
To be honest it was actually Albert’s tools that got stolen. Albert is a character in Treme played by Clark Peters. Partly because of Simon’s writing and mostly because of Peters’ acting you get a sense that Albert is a stubborn man, decidedly determined to restore the cultural and familial practices washed away by a tidal wave of water and wayward political backwash. In short, he’s a man to be reckoned with. And when, after leaving his construction tools at a client’s home, he returns to find the tools gone, well there’s something in his demeanor that suggests he’s not just pissed about the missing the money. He tells one guy, “The money is not a problem. I just don’t like being punked.) Later in the episode Albert finds the “punk,” who stole his tool, a crack head if I ever saw one, trying to rip the electrical wiring out of a house. He commenced to whupping his butt in a manner that is both frightening and understandable in its violence. This beat down illicits a Tweet from a viewer that says “Don’t steal Lester’s tools.”
This comment is in reference to Peters other character “Lester,” in Simon’s “The Wire.” The fact that a blogger commented that someone tweeted him while watching the episode, “Don’t Steal Lester’s tools,” shows you how Simon’s fan base often finds it impossible to divorce the characters in his shows from the actors who play them. Clark Peters will always be Lester to me. Now he’s just Lester in New Orleans. Some television pundits may say this crossover confusion is a death knell to a television series writer but for me it’s a testament to Simon’s ability to create long-lasting and believable characters and match them up with worthy actors. Lester of course was nowhere near as violent as Albert has since portrayed. In fact, Albert has a sort of street sensibility that I often thought Lester could use more of.
What I admire most about Simon is his ability to create characters that are not characters at all but people I know or have known. The fact that people identify Lester with Albert is not just a trick of casting. It’s because we know people like Lester and Albert in our daily lives and they exist everywhere in New Orleans, Baltimore and even down the street from us. Though Simon and company are often lauded for their unflinching look at race, politics, crime and poverty, I say they just tap into a vein that most television writers tend to ignore or are ignorant of – people like to see themselves on T.V., or at least people they can identify with. But to do that you have to make it less caricature and more character. And the greatest achievement in television to me is when you can watch a show as if looking at a mirror instead of a projector.