Tuesday 16th September 2014,
Televisual

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

Aymar Jean Christian April 26, 2010 uncategorized 23 Comments

Davis checks out a local stripper. Thanks to Racialicious for reposting this and to The Altantic and Watching Treme for linking. UPDATE: Lots of great comments with more information I didn’t know, in the comments section.

UPDATE (5/9): In the most recent episode, Davis got his butt kicked for saying n*gga in a bar, and his gay neighbors took him in off the street, despite his being awful to them. Soon after Davis took the speakers out of the window. I’m sorry for underestimating the writers!

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 neighborhood 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?

**Postscript: 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.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

23 Comments

  1. aaryn b. April 28, 2010 at 12:14 am

    This is really interesting but…I sort of have to disagree. I actually really like Davis. I agree with your assessment of him as the kind of guy so firm in his own views of the world that he would look down his nose at someone who likes Louis Armstrong. However, what I like about him and almost all of David Simon’s characters, is that he is so deeply flawed. We all have our contradictions and Davis is no different. He, like most humans, is a walking contradiction. Does he grate at times? Yes. Offend? Oh, hell yeah: That scene with “the gays” was teeth-grittingly uncomfortable. He was a straight up asshole, no question. But he is also endearing and passionate and deeply invested in that city. He is traumatized like all New Orleaneans in the first months after Katrina. My bet is that we will see Davis transform over time, become more and less of who he is. I think David Simon is just beginning to paint his picture. I would say you need to sit on that trigger finger and give it time. Simon’s characters and their stories are just unfolding.

    Now. If I could just get past the fact that Lester Freeman is dressing up in feathers…

  2. Aymar Jean Christian April 28, 2010 at 1:08 am

    Yes, the feathers! I need to start reading all the commentary going on about Treme; there are lots of explanations of the customs, locales, etc. that I’m just not getting. Watching this show’s like reading scholarly book: you have to look at the citations! Takes time.

    I hear you. Are we supposed to be reading Davis as an asshole who means well? I think we’re supposed to hate the white gays, but maybe I’m being overly sensitive. Regardless, I’m sure Davis is going to grow/contract. My only concern is that the show doesn’t seem to be self-critical, especially about Davis, and even Toni (Melissa Leo) and Creighton (John Goodman). It just seems like they’re so earnest and political, it’s almost camp, kind of unrealistic. Meanwhile we’ve already seen the dark sides of characters like Antonine (Wendell Pierce) and Albert (Lester Freamon), pretty explicitly.

    But I guess since we can actually debate it, there must be some kind of complexity going on that I’m just not getting. It’s so early anyway, as you say, no conclusions can be drawn.

  3. unscrambled April 28, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Ha! I was watching the latest episode last night with my partner, and was about mid show when he came on and I said–this guy irritates the crap out of me. I agree, I think we’re meant to like him (I think he is one of the characters that stands in for Simon’s views–they’ve been present in nearly everything he’s written), but crap, I just want to smack him. Not even for the hostility to the gays as gentrifiers (which, agreed, is boring), but his oblivious ownership of everything around him (Treme is His, his gf’s wine is His, etc.). Feh.

    Also, I was linked here after the Tyler Perry link, and am enojying reading along. I’m a (32 year old nontraditional) med student, but have always had televisionologist in mind as backup career.

  4. unscrambled April 28, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Just reposting to say that I think your work is awesome and important, and I hope the backup career thing doesn’t come off like dbag med student bullshit.

  5. Aymar Jean Christian April 28, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Not at all! I actually think television is one of those things that lots of people can be experts in. Watching is half the research!

    I’m glad I’m not the only one about Davis. Like I said, I’m waiting and seeing.

    Thanks for the super-kind compliment.

  6. Denise April 28, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    I saw the scene with the gay neighbors a little differently. I think the Davis character represents “that white guy” who thinks that he’s so special, so hip, so cool because he runs in Black circles, knows Black musicians, lives in a mostly Black neighborhood, that no other white person could possibly understand and appreciate Blackness the way that he does.

    Of course, the only real difference between him and other gentrifiers is that he thinks that he’s okay because he loves him some Black folks and lives in faux poverty, but I think that the show and Simon are gradually showing us this. He was wrong about his neighbors (who I don’t think we’re supposed to hate), and I wouldn’t be shocked if it turned out that it was one of his older Black neighbors who couldn’t stand hearing that racket who called the cops on him. He points out in his silly song that white strippers moving into Treme does count as gentrification, but, of course, they’re strippers, so it’s okay. I think that Simon is aware that many people won’t like the character, but I’ve always liked that he doesn’t seem to judge his characters, just shows the reality of their flaws alongside their goodness.

    I’ve been living in New Orleans for almost 3 years now, so I don’t know how reported this has been outside of the city, but Davis is based on a real DJ here who, from what I’ve heard, is just as irritating as the character (and apparently even more of a slob). Creighton is based on a local blogger who has passed away who was a professor (at a different school), but was most definitely that political. I’ve met a couple of lawyers who are just as overworked and exhausted as Melissa Leo’s character.

    I also came here with the Tyler Perry link, and wish that I’d found this site forever ago!

  7. Jean Louise May 2, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    These comments are awesome- I love reading each and every one; and is proof positive that people still want to know about the mysterious city that care forgot.

    For this topic- the character Davis is being x rayed. Steve Zahn’s character is loosely based on a real life New Orleanian – DJ Davis and – the real life Davis wrote that “Strippers” song which Zahn plays for the Kenny G looking friend in Right Time Wrong Place episode. I have alot of love for the character- I know many a NOLA native that is just like Zahn’s character and as grating as they can be in real life they are ambassadors to the city and will give you their last dollar to buy you a Cafe au Lait.

    I have also read that some of ya’ll commenting on here say the show plays like you need a “yat” dictionary or play book to follow along. I do agree that the show is very overwhelming and saturating of the many amazing customs, phrases and authenticity. If you have never been to New Orleans- please, watch this show for its value- entertainment value. It is a tv show and I will be the first to say it is the richest and most authentic depiction of a city I have ever seen. I am no longer living in the beloved Cresent City but it lives in me everyday- and I think that ain’t a bad thing.

  8. James May 12, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Come on we ALL know somebody like Davis, but they are OUR Davis. Davis is supposed to be OUR Davis. He’s full of shit but we love the smell. I think Simon is setting up Davis’ character for a catharsis to represent the entire show and city. In this last episode Davis realized how shallow and full of shit he was, that his whole foundation of himself was built on shoddy ground and his whole conception of who he is was shattered. Now he has to rebuild himself….much like the City of New Orleans.

  9. Aymar Jean Christian May 12, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Well said! I think you’re right that his arc is obviously not over, and he’ll grow — or maybe he won’t grow and will continue to be full of it! After all, McNulty didn’t really change *too* much throughout The Wire. He grew up a bit, but of course only after basically resigning himself to be fired from the police.

    I’m starting to look forward to where the character is headed.

  10. Dane Henas May 14, 2010 at 12:11 am

    I will from now on be fast-forwarding whenever Steve Zahn is in a scene….he’s friggin’ awful!

  11. djdavisfan May 22, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Davis is based on a real person, Davis Rogan. He was a DJ @ WWOZ who got fired, but in the 1990s. He also is a great new orleans musician who fronted a band called “ALL THAT.”

    He ran for state house of representatives. Listen to his ideas in the 2001 album ALL THAT the family album….a Live record, on the song “DJ Davis in the House.”

    Most of this Steve Zahn character is based on lots of true events, just not in the right time line.

    ALL THAT is playing tonight 5/22/10 at the Maple Leaf Bar in new orleans.

  12. Aymar Jean Christian May 22, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I’m quite aware of that now. Still, a TV show should stand on its own, even if viewers don’t know it’s based on real events, if it is to be called art. Plenty of movies are “based on a true story,” but not all of them are good — in fact, most of those are not.

    That being, I’m mostly over my problems with Davis. As a “type” of person, he’s not my type, but he’s serving the narrative just fine.

  13. Veronica June 7, 2010 at 1:24 am

    I can’t sit through this show. The New Orleans love makes me cringe. And I actually love New Orleans, but this show is overly sentimental.

  14. Eysteinn June 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    I always read Davis as the comic relief in the show. Forgive me, but I suspect his character was written in that intent. I find him more amusing than irritating, in his never-ending quest for authenticity. But that might be because I’m myself a American-authenticity-seeking ignoramus from white, suburban Norway. And yes, Davis is self-righteous and pretentious. But the same goes for lots of characters in television, for example Jimmy McNulty. I’m probably easily manipulated by David Simon and his writers, because I find Sonny to be the least likeable character in the show. What a pathetic douchebag. You kind of have some sympathy for him, since he can never reach up to his girlfriend’s level when it comes to playing music. But his insecurities turn him into a hypocritical douche. He ignores all his own mistakes the minute Annie’s attempts to be slightly independent of his inferior musicianship comes up. But that’s too obvious to even mention. And Clarke Peter’s character, the chief. Now HE is self-righteous. He’s a tough man, but he’s to bound up in principles to have the casual, smartass coolness of The Wire’s Lester Freamon. At least Davis has some humour.

  15. isabella May 2, 2011 at 7:04 am

    you are a self involved naive sheltered racist neophyte that doesn’t deserve the small bit of cyberspace you are occupying. that’s it.

  16. melissa May 30, 2011 at 11:57 am

    born and raised in Mobile, alabama (which is one of new orleans “sister cities”) the true birthplace of mardi gras and home of Joe Cain, makes this show near and dear to my heart. speaking about the the self love these characters have for their city is one of the main reasons this show rings true to me. that pride is completely authentic and just one of the things that i love about the south. davis is likely my favorite character, he represents to me the new southern man who is ashamed and ambarrassed by his “old southern money” “garden district” status. opting to live in the ghetto as a way of showing how “un-white” he is. i believe we will see him grow as a person and become more tolerant of main-stream whiteys who cant quote every obscure jazz one hit wonder thaat ever graced the quarter, once he comes to terms with himself. i love that he means well and believes that he alone can save his famous crumbling city, thats the type of arrogance that always leads to a big fall. i love the richness of every scene and character, and the traditions of our region are portrayed in a way i’ve never seen before. also pay close attention to the restaurant references, if you ever get down this way, you’d do well to take them to heart. your tummy will thank you (:

  17. Ben June 8, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    Wow totally disagree with so much here. hard to find a place to start. Maybe you should watch the entire show before passing judgement.

    “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.”

    This is a terribly ignorant statement. For me, a non NO’r, I love seeing this culture of life in AMerica I never knew existed. Well I knew of some but nothing of indians and second lines and all the parades that go with Mardi Graw.

    “THE MUSIC IS A CHARACTER” David Simon

    “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.”

    DIFFERENT SHOWS, NOT ACCURATE TO COMPARE THEM. Big elephant?!?! how so?

    AUTHENTICITY WAS UNNECESSARY!?!?! THATS WHAT MADE THE WIRE> IT WAS AUTHENTIC>

    I will never ever ever read your blog again. Maybe watch the whole season before commenting on it. So you dont have to have 15 updates saying, “oops im wrong”

  18. elle June 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    I LOVE Davis! He’s hilarious. He’s supposed to be flawed. He’s one of those people whose enthusiasm vastly outweighs their talent. He has such a love and knowledge of the music, but he himself isn’t very talented. But he’s creative and resourceful and tenacious. He’ll put his heart and soul into something he is passionate about. He’s a good guy, but he’s flawed. He can be annoying. I think he’s supposed to be. Someone like that would be exhausting. But he’s eccentric and interesting and unique. I know someone kind of like him. I really love this character because he is just so funny and interesting, and for all his foibles and annoying aspects, he is fundamentally a really decent guy. Just goes to show you how people respond differently to different types of people – but in the end, I think that’s a credit to the writing and the actor, because like him or hate Davis, you are responding to him because the character feels like a real person.

  19. Mb July 6, 2011 at 4:43 am

    WOW! So much passion about TV show based on real tragedy. First, I think that Steve Zahn’s character, Davis, is a great portrayal of folks I known in NOLA. He’s a garden district kid but is attached by the folks purse strings while trying to play music for a living, tho he thinks he can do more.

    It seems that there is a lot of resentment about his breezing through the hurricane (she who shall not be named ever again). I have spent a lot of time in NOLA over the last few years and have spoken with those who have loved ones.

    God bless

  20. MaxZmyth February 2, 2012 at 1:47 am

    I’d just like to say that Davis was one of the primary reasons why I got sick of this show and stopped watching. In a way, he sort of sums up everything I hated about this show in one character. Treme is so obsessed with authenticity, and is so occupied with this saccharine, over sentimental love for the city of New Orleans and it’s music scene, that it comes off as contrived. It’s the television equivalent of a pretentious hipster who scoffs at you and insists you don’t know what’s really “hip” and can never be a part of the “scene”. It just got so tiresome. And Davis really is the pinacle of that, but not only that, he’s also a goofy, adolescent dumb ass. His “stripper song” was possibly the lamest, most juvenile piece of idiocy I’ve seen in a while, and yet the writers wanted us to think that was funny, cool, and witty. In reality, it was like something a 14 year old kid would come up with and his little shit friends would sit around giggling at.

    I get that we’re supposed to see Davis as a guy that’s full of shit, but nonetheless lovable. I did not feel this way. If I knew Davis in real life I would constantly be running in the opposite direction because I HATED his character with a passion.

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