Why Do I Hate Steve Zahn’s Davis in ‘Treme’?

by Guest Contributor Aymar Jean Christian, originally published at Televisual


HBO’s Treme is growing into an intricate and well-written show! While it lacks the political pizazz of The Wire, it makes up for it by giving us characters we instantly care about — or at least I care about. I think it might yet be a great drama, despite my reservations!

But I have one problem: Davis McAlary (played by Steve Zahn). I hate this guy. I realized why this week.

GET THOSE GENTRIFYING GAYS!

First, let me recount a situation from the last episode, which made me realize my feelings.

Davis has been blasting music from his apartment window into his neighbors’ house, mostly jazz and hip hop. This week, the gay yuppie neighbors confront him about it. “Why are you being so nasty about this? You have a problem with gay people?” Davis says no, he loves gays (see, we’re supposed to like Davis). Why does Davis hate the guppies? It’s a really original argument**: “You moved into the Treme. You tear the place up. You put in your birdcage, your flower gardens and you don’ t have a fucking clue as to where the fuck you are living.”

See, the gays are sill gentrifiers who want to “historically preserve” homes but don’t know anything about the neighborhood whose property rates their raising! “It’s called gentrification. This is the Treme dude! The most musically important black neighborhood in America,” says Davis, as he starts listing artists that lived in the block. He asks the gays: “did you know that?”

“I know all about the Treme,” older gay insists. Wait, is this a different breed of gentrifying gay?

But Davis keeps on listing artists. Finally the gay person rattles off the name of a jazz great too. See, the guppies grew up in New Orleans. “We’re as much New Orleans as you are.” Nuance?

Caught off guard, Davis goes on to accuse the gays of complaining to the cops about his stereo and other music in the ‘hood being too loud.

The gays says they’re innocent: “We have never once called the cops,” the older gay says, believably — and inexplicably — I think.

Davis goes on, he doesn’t believe them. “You live in the Treme. Gotta deal with that shit.”

DAVIS IS A SELF-RIGHTEOUS OAF

Several things in this scene make it clear to me that Davis is not a guy I like. First, Davis can’t find room in his head to see if someone else might actually know something about the “real” Treme — only he knows the artists, the locations. To Davis, the world is clear: there are evil white gentrifiers who call the police on you and know nothing about “authentic” music and there is everyone else (note how his critique isn’t a broader one; it’s cultural). Yet look at it from the gays perspective. Now, far be it for me to defend gentrifying gays; I won’t. But look. They just moved into the neighborhood; they clearly know and love the culture. They even tolerate their obnoxious neighbor who, instead of asking them if they want to hang out, blasts loud music into their home for hours on end. Think about it. Davis has been doing this for days, maybe weeks, and the guppies said nothing and didn’t even call the cops (I’d have called on day 2). When they confront him, they’re told to “deal with it,” instead of, say, getting invited to be friends, to meet people in the neighborhood, and learn more about the culture. Davis is an asshole.

Does David Simon want us to hate Davis? I actually don’t think so. We’re supposed to like Davis. He’s best friends with black people. He says things like “I want my city back” after telling the National Guard to go back to Fallujah (I never said I disagreed with his politics). He knows all about the music of the Treme, the heart of the show. Sure, he eerily fawns over the stripper that moves into the neighborhood and is generally unreliable as lover/boyfriend to Janette. But he’s a lovable oaf; he means well.

I don’t know if he means well. To me, Davis is self-important and self-righteous, so wrapped up in his own perception of authenticity — of community, music, politics — that he can’t let people in. He hasn’t let me in. I find him grating. He’s like those people who dismiss Lady Gaga as Britney Spears 2.0 because she’s popular. He’s the kind of person who’d call you ignorant for liking, say, Louis Armstrong because that clearly means you know nothing about jazz.

AUTHENTICITY SOOTHES, BUT BORES

I’m not the first critic to point out Davis’ love of authenticity. It’s obvious. Davis points to a larger issue: how long will Treme coast on its love affair with portraying an “authentic” community and the authentic Treme?

In Treme, everybody knows everybody’s name, which I suppose is believable enough. The professors are liberal and speak as if quoting Harper’s from memory. The local lawyer always works pro bono and carries around at least two briefcases at a time, almost always — seriously, doesn’t Melissa Leo have a car she can leave some files in?! Tourists are mindless (of course, they usually are).

Then of course, there is the music. Out of all of the arts, music is perhaps the most susceptible to authenticity’s love spell. The art world got off that boat around 1950 with the death of painting. Even the most indie filmmakers are well aware their “lo-fi” aesthetics are less authentic than a fabrication necessitated by lack of funds.

But music — especially those with counterculture legacies: rock, rap and jazz — is very resistant. This isn’t always a bad thing. Authenticity in music has, for example, made it much easier for gay singers to come out than Hollywood actors. On Treme, listening to what I presume is authentic music is a generally pleasurable experience. I’m not a music aficionado, of any genre (that’s why this blog is called Televisual!), but I’m still having fun, though I’m not sure how much I’m learning.

In long run, though, authenticity bores more than it excites. For those within its boundaries — because authenticity is always about exclusion — its very soothing. For the rest of us, well, it’s just a parade.

Some might say I’m being hard on Treme. It’s only been three episodes of what is supposed to be a slowly developing story. Truth. In a few weeks, all my concerns might be allayed. The Wire, though, is the elephant in the room. On The Wire, authenticity was largely unnecessary. We knew “the system” was the problem, but the characters were still complex: they were flawed, self-evidently so. They had no claims to righteousness, and if they tried, they were soon shown otherwise. That’s the stuff of good drama.

On Treme, Davis is the leader of the authenticity parade. He’s so invested in policing it, it’s gotten him fired from two jobs and has now inflicted his harangue on what seem like friendly and well-seeming, if yuppish, neighbors. Right now, Davis’ parade is lush and involving, showcasing an intriguing cast of performers struggling through adversity and oppression, but how much longer before it gets dull?

**Can we please start acknowledging that, yes, gays gentrify, but so do black people, straight people, young people, old people, and that this is actually a complex process involving multiple effects of capitalism and not just ignorant people looking to destroy communities? The scary gentrifying white gays, which I last saw in the fabulous film Quincenera, are becoming a little boring.