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A character not listed in TV dramas: The city itself

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"This is a city that is essential in the American psyche," he told reporters in January, prior to the show's launch. "It is the best and worst in American culture, as well as the birthplace of its most iconic export: jazz. African rhythm and the pentatonic scale meeting European instrumentation and arrangement comes from about 12 square blocks in New Orleans," he says. "And yet," he adds, "the nation witnessed the city's near-destruction."

"It's coming back on its own terms as best as it can with a lot of concern from some quarters but a lot of indifference from much of the country," he says. "The Wire" implied what was at stake in the American city, he says, but "Treme" is actually "an examination of what it is, what living as disparate and different people compacted into an urban area can offer."

Cities can play the heavy in lighter fare as well. New York was a sparring partner in the observational humor of "Seinfeld," and an elusive lover in the HBO romantic comedy "Sex and the City," says Mr. Thompson. No television city has wielded a stronger psychic presence than the fictional Mayberry, N.C., in "The Andy Griffith Show," he says. "That embodiment of all our values in postwar America spoke to all of us; it was palpable and overwhelmed everything, even Barney Fife."

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