I realize how weird it is to be thinking about Glee and Treme together at all, but their shared focus on music as well as their status as “event” premieres in the same week made me see them as a pair—each other’s kind of Bizarro twin.
Why, you ask? Both are committed, but not fully, to diegetic music (more on this later), and both give music center stage (as it were) in the narrative. In a way, they’re both versions of the “let’s put on a show!” musical trope, with obstacles either historical (in the case of Treme) or psychic (which is the only way I can really characterize the conflicts in Glee, since they’re so divorced from reality). But more than anything, I think both these shows force us to rethink what a serial should do--the musical element short-circuits the insistent forward momentum we've come to expect from heavily serialized shows like LOST.
The moment that seems to express Treme’s attitude about plot comes at the end of the pilot episode. Elvis Costello has just appeared to listen to some of the central characters play at a recently reopened New Orleans jazz bar, and local DJ Steve Zahn starts harassing his friend Kermit to follow Costello and introduce himself. He makes his argument for following Costello in plot-related terms, asking him: “Don’t you want to be famous? You could open for him on his national tour! What, you just want to sit around New Orleans barbecuing and playing music and getting high for the rest of your life?” In the pause that follows, we see the potential for a very different kind of story—we might follow Kermit and the rest of his band, whom we’ve spent just seen try to scrape together enough money to survive in the ruined city, as they try to make it in the “big time,” beyond the New Orleans city limits. Instead, they all burst out laughing, saying that sitting around and playing music and getting high sounds pretty good. And it does—part of the show’s general argument, I think, is that stasis is a kind of plot—that these people can stay in New Orleans and keep doing what they’ve always done—that this is a viable structure for a narrative.
I find this embrace of stasis particularly interesting when you compare the non-plot of Treme with the non-plot of Glee. It sounds strange, I know, to describe Glee’s plot in negative terms since there are so many narrative twists and turns throughout, each more sensational than the last. But the thing that struck me while watching the premiere is how none of the plot twists in Glee seem to have any staying power. The mid-season finale promised all these game-changers: Sue Sylvester has been suspended indefinitely, Will and Emma finally smooch, Finn and Rachel are finally in a relationship, etc etc. But by the end of the episode, things are back where they began: all the characters are separated, and the possibility for endless soapy pairings and re-pairings remains. All the characters desperately want to get out of their town, but when you think about most of their arcs (Will’s thwarted desire to get out of exurban Ohio and Quinn’s diagnosis of Puck as a “Lima Loser” are particularly good examples), they’re “sitting around playing music” just as much as Kermit and his crew are—only with (weirdly!) less power of choice than the people in Treme. Obviously, the real-world limitations facing the characters in fictional NOLA are much more significant than the ones facing the residents of fictional Lima, OH, but you do get a sense that the characters in Treme have decided to stay in New Orleans and rebuild the city. In Glee, most of the characters--even the adults--seem trapped.
I think this conflicted relationship between forward narrative momentum and closure might have something to do with the narrative structure of musicals, and particularly the relationship between music and plot. There’s something about a song that stops you dead in your tracks, whether or not the music is related to the plot. It was Treme that started a super-geeky argument between fellow Parabser Ben Owen and me about the difference between extradiegetic and diegetic music. For the record, Ben was right—diegetic music is acknowledged within the story as part of the story (unlike the soundtrack or show-stopping musical numbers that interrupt the flow of the narrative). So the scene when Rachel and Jesse are singing at the library is diegetic, since you can see the band, but the scene when Finn is singing the Doors song walking down the hall is extradiegetic.
The distinction is clear enough, but I think I got confused because on some level all musical performances are both diegetic and extradiegetic—even if the characters know they’re singing and the music is related to the action of the plot, the viewer stops for a second when the song starts, shifting gears in terms of the kind of pleasure that the text is offering up. Music is related to plot, for sure, but the stalled seriality of both these shows suggests that there’s something either episodic or atmospheric about musical performance. The pleasure of music is about stopping--marking an event (like the funeral march at the very end of the Treme premiere), lapsing into fantasy (Finn's Doors-inspired hallway strut), or expressing overpowering emotion (Eponine's siren song of desperation in Les Miserables). Serials, on the other hand, are about figuring out what will come next, and rushing headlong toward the next plot point (the heady speed of LOST and 24 are particularly good examples). Musical serials seem to necessarily offer up a different kind of pleasure--one that's more rooted in the moment than pitched toward an endgame. Part of what makes Glee so great is its schizophrenic lurching among different genres and tones--the contrast between the static demands of the musical and the momentum of the serial is one of the places where these seams really show. Treme, like The Wire before it, seems more interested in "redeeming" the serial from its focus on the payoff promised by the next episode, but they both show how the question of seriality on television is heading in new and ever-expanding directions.