The Culture of "K-Ville"

"K-Ville," the New Orleans police series premiering tonight on FOX, opens with a close-up of a white man in his 30s trying very hard to keep his head above water in a confined space. The date -- Sept. 1, 2005 -- flashes, and the scene abruptly shifts outside, onto flooded roadways with dazed people seeking help, and not enough police to provide it.

"I had to shoot a dog," a New Orleans police officer tells his partner. "It was chewing on one of the bodies."

Moments later, the traumatized cop gets in his car and leaves, deserting his partner and his city.

Flash forward two years and Marlin Boulet (Anthony Anderson), the officer left by the side of the road, is still trying to hold things together in post-Katrina New Orleans. His wife and daughter moved to Atlanta. Most of his neighbors in the upper Ninth Ward have posted "for sale" signs. But Boulet is rooted.

His commitment is stressed early on, in a not-so-subtle scene, when Boulet catches a teenage boy digging up a cypress in his front yard for re-sale. "People gotta' landscape," the boy shrugs.

"A cypress tree, Taxodium distichum, my favorite tree," scolds Boulet, a round man who uses his deep voice for effect. "It used to grow throughout this city until the storm threw salt and chemicals all over it. So if I see you digging up another one I will personally bury you … Now how your mom and them doing?"

Neighborhood scenes like these, hinting at the real ties that hold New Orleans together during its rebuilding, are unfortunately few and far between in "K-Ville" (Mondays, 9 p.m. EST). One of the first pop-culture representations of the new New Orleans, "K-Ville" falls prey to the same impatience that has caused much of American media and culture to move on from the tragedy that consumed the city two years ago.

At best, invoking "Katrina" has become a quick way to allude sympathetically to the unresolved issues surrounding class and race in America. Or, as Chris Malone, an associate political science professor at Pace University, whose family goes back five generations in New Orleans, sees it, Katrina has become domestic shorthand for Social Darwinism, where poverty is blamed on the poor themselves and not on the structures and institutions that create poverty.

"When people saw what was happening in New Orleans," said Malone, "and they saw thousands of people sitting on the rooftops or at the Convention Center or the Superdome, the first question was, 'My god, how did they get there?' and, number two, 'Why didn't they get out?'"

The complexities of New Orleans' history and recovery, however, along with the persisting social fissures across the nation, rarely get the close attention they deserve.

"K-Ville," despite its limited vision, might be at least a starting point.

"What's so interesting about this is how quickly it's been able to be absorbed into American culture," said Syracuse University television and pop culture professor Robert Thompson, before viewing the pilot. "The idea that Katrina takes an American city and totally transforms it is a great idea -- forget just as a TV series -- the great American novel could be about post-Katrina New Orleans."

While "K-Ville" is groundbreaking for its timeliness, its set-up feels dated. Writer and executive producer Jonathan Lisco ("NYPD Blue," "The District") has put together a traditional buddy cop series, but fancier, with slick, 90-mile-per-hour car chases through the French Quarter and creative camera work.

At this early stage, most of the "K-Ville" characters feel like props, which is not uncommon for a pilot trying to introduce a lot upfront. Yet as any viewer who has followed coverage of New Orleans knows, the real stories are in the day-to-day details, and it remains unclear whether "K-Ville" will have the patience to let individual rebuilding stories unfold -- or the willingness to let New Orleans' rich cultural history and characters assume their deserved roles.

The Hollywood plotline in the first episode involves mercenary hit men and old city wealth -- a far cry from the street-level crime, much of it drug-related, that corrodes the city. (Caution: spoilers from tonight's episode ahead.) That the pilot also contains some of the most confrontational language about race and class you're likely to see on television this fall makes the flawed series more compelling than expected.

In the pilot episode, Christine DuBois, the daughter of a wealthy casino owner, simultaneously represents the empty rhetoric surrounding the reconstruction of New Orleans and the underlying prejudice that acts as the most persistent barrier to change.

The audience first meets DuBois, who is white, as the benevolent organizer of a community benefit: "We will rebuild the Ninth Ward and bring people home. Most importantly, we're going to bring back hope," she says from the stage. In the absence of any government official in this episode, and especially with what we learn later about her motives, she is a stand-in here for the doublespeak that has dominated most post-Katrina political commitments.

At the end of the episode, DuBois is exposed as attempting to decimate the Ninth Ward by purchasing homes on the cheap from desperate residents. Once she is cornered, her true feelings emerge, as she admits her desire for revenge for a violent crime against her brother:

"They took a tire iron to his head -- and for what? Eighty bucks? And now we're supposed to bring back that neighborhood? Rebuild their pathetic schools and their crappy houses? Why? So we can bring home all those people who don't value human life? That storm wasn't a disaster. Not for me and my brother. That storm was a cleansing."

Outside of Kanye West ("George Bush doesn't care about black people"), no one has been so explicit about the city's -- and the country's -- dirty little secret.

New Orleans resident Royce Osborn, a TV and documentary film writer and producer, said the sentiment of the storm as "a cleansing" is something he's heard before. It wasn't necessary for Fox to dress it up in some elaborate murder plot.

"It would have been more interesting to show the more subtle ways that it is being done," said Osborn, citing, for example, the demolition of public housing that wasn't severely affected by the storm and the lack of a concerted effort to bring back blacks who were flown or bussed to other cities.

"It's such a "Barnaby Jones"/"Columbo" type of situation, when in fact we have this giant wave of street crime," added Osborn. "If all we had to worry about was some white woman trying to get revenge."

Indeed, institutional and governmental biases reflected on "K-Ville" remain in the margins, which may be frustrating to viewers expecting a more focused critique. "Fix everything my ass," reads graffiti on a flooded home. It's interesting scenery, but it's not yet absorbed into the show's texture.

Anderson's performance as the dedicated police officer is noteworthy, as is that of his former partner, Charlie Pratt (Derek Webster), who is trying to get back on the force but may not be around for long. Both are black men who bear the burden of representation, made much larger here by their good cop/bad cop roles -- during and post-Katrina.

Boulet's new partner, Trevor Cobb (Cole Hauser), comes with his own redemption story. But like the rest of the episode, it's compromised by believability: His felony criminal record was erased with the storm, and after joining the Army and serving in Afghanistan, he's back in uniform to help rebuild his city. That's his face we see in the opening scene, struggling to stay alive in his flooded jail cell.

The pilot was available online for a brief period earlier this month, and it drew mixed reviews from local residents, many of whom applauded setting the show in New Orleans but cringed at some of the creative liberties taken. "Who wrote this episode, FEMA?" wrote one commenter on the Nola.com message boards.

"It was decent, but did they have to give the cop a criminal record," wrote another. "There goes the NOPD recruiting Campaign."

For the record, the NOPD would have known the criminal-turned-cop had a felony record -- and no, he would not have been hired. "K-Ville" producers gained permission to use the official NOPD logo after giving assurances to the department that police corruption, which NOPD has previously struggled with, would not be a focal point, and just as important, the police would be portrayed as having acted bravely during and post-Katrina.

Marlon DeFillo, assistant chief for NOPD bureau of investigations, said he isn't too bothered by the glamorization and inaccuracies, though he would have preferred a more realistic representation of day-to-day life on the force and community policing. "Of course I understand this is TV, and you've got to make things interesting for people to watch," he told me. "My biggest concern is the image of the police department."

Robin Roberts, a professor of English and women's and gender studies at Louisiana State University, said that as a science fiction television critic, she doesn't expect accurate representations from fictional shows.

"But I do worry about the potentially damaging aspects of depicting New Orleans as an out-of-control frontier town," added Roberts. "There's an enormous difference between exploiting disaster and the notoriety of post-disaster New Orleans to sell a television show, and conveying the heart and soul of a vibrant city."

The short-lived CBS series "Frank's Place," about a restaurant in New Orleans in the late 1980s, did a good job of the latter, she said.

"I think TV writers and producers have the responsibility at least of not adding to the burdens the city already has," added Roberts. "Post-levee failure New Orleans has appeal; people are still interested in the city and aware of its uniqueness, so I think the show has a commercially appealing setting. If it addresses issues of race and class, as 'Frank's Place' did, then 'K-Ville' may do more than merely exploit the dramatic possibilities of a post-disaster city."

There's no reason for New Orleans to be relegated to being the background for only "somber, hyper-realistic" sorts of stories, said Syracuse's Thompson. Though it likely would be impossible, he added, to set a drama in New Orleans without at least acknowledging Katrina.

Osborn, who is working on a new documentary, "Walking to New Orleans," about recovery of black cultural traditions, including Mardi Gras Indians and their status and influence, said any representation must include the city's people in their full cultural context.

Many of New Orleans' artists and musicians haven't been able to return, he said, and those who have find it more expensive and more restrictive, with the city cracking down on smaller clubs. But there are still days when one can walk around with a brass band and join people dancing in the street, said Osborn, and that's a sort of freedom that's unique to New Orleans.

Malone, the Pace professor, said last year's New Orleans narrative was of a city trying to get itself "off the mat." It found its hook in the return of the New Orleans Saints to the Superdome and the team's magical 2006-2007 season.

The recovery narrative is also evident in advertisements, such as a Visa television commercial that debuted Sept. 6 during the NFL season kickoff game. It features New Orleans Saints fans using their Visa cards to buy everything they need to watch the game, backed by Louis Armstrong singing "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Malone said it's easy to dismiss the commercial as propaganda for consumer culture, but it deserves some credit for capturing the New Orleans attitude of laissez le bon temps rouler -- "let the good times roll."

"I can appreciate it for half of what one aspect of New Orleans culture is," he said. "But how do you celebrate that without making it into 'spend, spend, spend,' which is where it becomes flat and kind of one-dimensional?"

That may very well be the great cultural hope: the ability of television shows, films and other cultural expressions to reveal the city's multiple dimensions, its weaknesses and its strengths -- and, through those representations, offer some perspective on the recovery.

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