How ‘Real’ is Story: What Treme Taught Writers

Writers are the greatest of story tellers, if only for the fact that the tools they have at their disposal give them the ability to tell the greatest version of any story.

Especially when writing for a book, writers get use interplay between plot and story, the two main elements that advance a novel, and make it relevant to an audience.

David Simon, the man behind the books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner, along with television series’ The Wire, Generation Kill, and adaptation of The Corner, Simon has taken a long time to develop a craft revolving around the story, and is a master of explaining how elements of story affect, and influence the future plot.

It’s now several years later after his last television series, Treme.  And while the series did not hold the attention of a viewing audience very well, there is a lot of hope, and a lot of lessons learned from the series for writers.  This is why I write about it today; it offers a glimmer of hope to writers who want to be at their best.

Treme is a different kind of television series.  Writers of all kinds who have seen it generally come away with a strong appreciation for the show.  The reason for this can be summed up as follows:  it’s not about characters going from one premise to an ultimate truth.  It’s about characters existing in their world, after it’s been flipped upside down.  It’s about the human condition, almost exclusively.

The show takes place in New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  It follows over a dozen characters who come from varying walks of life, and represent different parts of the cultural backbone of New Orleans; music, cuisine, venues, and dance.  From traditional jazz musicians, to New Orleans Indians, to gourmet chefs, and everyone in between, the focus is on the people from the large art scene in New Orleans, as they rebuild their lives in a city set for major changes that ultimately interrupt their usual routines.

In a typical series, one would expect to see growing animosity between the protagonists and antagonists.  One would expect to find a clear bad guy, and a clear good guy.

But what this series showed was that in real life, we have profound effects on one another, without being an antagonist at all.  It should be noted that Simon did go out of his way to make banks, real estate investors, and law enforcement appear as incapable saboteurs, who’s only existence is designed to ruin the world.  Removing this portion from the show, and we would have witnessed the purest form of real-life story ever told in any medium.

With that said, the characters go through challenges, as could be expected.  They all have arcs in fact.  But, whereas most shows would have a grand ending for the varying characters, Treme leaves the characters more or less where they were before, perhaps with more refined direction, some even with what would be considered large life changes, but all in all, they are not “forever changed” as is common practice in works of fiction.  This is where Simon’s version of storytelling really went for something bold.  Taking art and placing it ever so close to life, and then making us watch those lives unfold.

My educated guess is that ten or twenty years from now, we’ll discover that Treme was far enough ahead of it’s time that there will be a renaissance in its honor, leading to a half a dozen shows trying to capture this uber-real feel.

For writers, it’s a vision of hope to tell stories about “real” people going through “real” dilemmas, which may be out of reach for their audience (making them interesting!), but because traditional media leaves us expanding into fantasy, even in “real” settings, we as writers get pushed further and further from being able to tell story in reality.  That is the unfortunate condition we live in, a constant pursuit of fantasy, at every turn.

While general viewing audiences may not be ready to experience this type of storytelling, what likely turned them off completely is an unfortunate sub-narrative that Simon likes to place within his work, and if you’ve heard him speak, you know where it comes from: his latent socialism.

This is why Simon is not a pure storyteller.  He instead will try hard to push a political agenda into his stories, even at risk of killing his project.  This is why The Wire died after five seasons, and why The Corner only got picked up for a brief six episode miniseries, rather than a larger multi-season telling.  Try as Simon might, people generally don’t enjoy his political views as told through character’s story and experiences.  Maybe he should option his work in Russia.

This is also why people involved in storytelling should avoid taking political views to one extreme or another.  You ultimately alienate one half of your potential audience, and then don’t challenge the other half of the audience, leaving both tuning out your screams for whatever.

Simon would have you believe that New Orleans was a political story in post-Katrina life, but as we place distance between that event and the present, we find more and more that politics had less to do with the fall out of New Orleans, and more so to do with individuals and their views of New Orleans being a ‘post-apocalyptic world.’

For writers, the idea of telling a story that focuses on typical people trying to keep their lives together is romantic, if for nothing else, it allows writers to stop trying to re-invent the ‘kill or be killed’ concept of most storytelling.

It’s also a lesson about establishing and maintaining an audience – stay out of politics.  Especially as writers of fiction, it’s not our place to tell people what to think about a given issue.  If they are consuming fiction, they most likely are not looking for that.  And even if they are, they probably need some story elements of fantasy involved, because a story about real people with real problems, over a backdrop of political ideology will undoubtedly wear out the audience.

Treme made that all too clear, despite its major triumphs.

Mass Transit in Seattle: The Greatest Example in Modern Times of Government Corruption

Many transit systems in the US are born out of the same weird “conglomerate” government approach.

Without getting into the same legal drivel they would like to hide behind, the basic idea is as follows:  municipal governments in a concentrated area reach a conclusion that mass transit is something they need to pursue together.  In order do that, they need plans, operations, and administration that is centralized.  But, local governments, when merely sharing a land border, have many different laws and governance between each other, how do they streamline efforts so they are not affected by a litany of differences?  In comes the idea of quasi-government:  Local governments sign agreements to financially support a centralized body that is not governed by them directly, and is not elected by citizens.  Instead, they appoint people to the board of this organization, and their job is to formulate the organization.

Now, the idea of centralizing such an effort makes sense.  It’s most efficient, makes the mission specific, and of course, unburdens their government  bodies from more layers of bureaucracy.

There is a couple of serious problems with this:  the main point is that this is an organization that acts like a government, by proposing and lobbying for taxes, and because they are the chosen experts in their field, it’s hard for the governments they lobby for tax funding to argue with their logic.  But even beyond this simple conundrum, there’s the issue of taxpayers not being able to scrutinize those that are controlling their tax dollars, their infrastructure, and their potentially their lifestyle.

This is wrong.  Our Constitution says it’s wrong (Taxation without Representation), all State’s have laws, or their own constitutions that outlaw the practice, and yet this idea of public mass transit becoming a sort-of/kind-of government agency, with no real oversight is being born around the country, because it fixes jurisdictional issues, centralizes services, and makes the project actually ‘work,’ when evaluating results.

Washington, DC, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the State of Maryland have done this with Metro.  The entire Dallas Metroplex has done it with DART.  San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, San Jose, and every other city in the Bay Area did it with BART.

These highly regional models work in areas where they answer highly regional problems.  Congestion, a lack of land to re-work to efficiency, and layers of planning, that complicate land use.

But where sea and air ports are controlled by State agencies, somehow no one thought that public transit on a mass scale should also be a State issue.

Some would say that the highly concentrated areas of population represent a certain set of problems the rest of the State doesn’t have, and that they shouldn’t be laying the same burden down.  Logically it makes sense.  If the ranch land doesn’t need a train, why should pay for one?

However, what is happening with Sound Transit hits on a whole new level.  They are arguing for State taxes, and city taxes, and county taxes, and on it goes.  They can’t get what they want in this jurisdiction, so they find it somewhere else.  Cost overruns, meh the tax payers will bank roll it.  If that’s not enough, they absolutely do not take no for an answer.

Recently, it came to light that Sound Transit willingly misled the Washington State Senate, on a tax bill that authorized $15 billion to be earmarked for Sound Transit.  What they didn’t discuss in the bill, and what was not clear, was that Sound Transit had not put an expiration date on the tax bill.  So, when time came to close down the funding, they argued there was no expiration, and ended up collecting $54 billion.

This would literally be criminal, for any other entity to deceive government in this manner, and yet, no charges have been filed.  Why is the State government being taken to task by a regional government?  This would literally not happen in any other relationship, and yet, when we look at history, public transportation organizations, like Sound Transit, use language as a weapon when going after tax funding.  They are their own maker, and thus, have a duty to protect themselves.  If they appropriately positioned in State government, we know this wouldn’t happen, because they would have a chain of command to explain themselves, or their funding could be halted immediately.

The fact is that quasi-government doesn’t work, and that’s why our forefathers outlawed it.  They faced similar groups in their day, but they were known as something else, “tax collectors.”

That’s not to say that tax collection is wrong, because it’s not.  However, the tax collectors they dealt with were people empowered to extort money out of common people, keeping a percentage for themselves, and passing the rest on to the King.

This is the problem with quasi-government.  No matter how it’s structured, no matter how it’s “monitored,” it will always find a way around, for it’s own version of survival.

Mass transit is a needed function in our society – it should be housed directly in State government.