'Treme' season premiere: In defense of HBO's little-watched Katrina drama
Quite a bit happened on the third season premiere of Treme. Antoine Batiste and a large group of musicians tried to honor the death of a renowned tuba player with a street parade, but the event was broken up by the New Orleans police. When Antoine mouthed off, he was arrested, only to be released by crusading lawyer Toni. Meanwhile, musical gadabout Davis watched his girlfriend Annie debut her new band, “Annie T. And the Bayou St. John Playboys,” thus continuing her rise to music stardom. We saw New Orleans expat Janette hard at work in David Chang’s restaurant, being stalked by a regular customer who loves her cooking. We saw Delmond celebrating the release of his new album, which is getting great reviews by a critical establishment that still refuses to understand New Orleans. We saw that LaDonna and her sons had moved in with Colson’s elitist relatives. We saw Nelson visit the imprisoned Councilman Thomas.
Some of this was based on true events. All of it happened in the first fifteen minutes of the episode, before the re-introduction of incorruptible cop Terry and emergent hipster Sofia and a host of other characters and subplots and musical performances. The show was not much-watched in its first two seasons, and I can imagine that anyone who tuned in was instantly dizzy with the array of people and places and events. Heck, I’ve watched every single minute of Treme, and I still couldn’t have told you half of those names without Wikipedia. (Treme is one of those HBO dramas where you mentally label characters instead of learning their names: “the shady Texas guy,” “the chef,” “the Dutch guy who’s always on drugs,” “Steve Zahn.”)
But I’m guessing that there weren’t too many “new” viewers for last night’s episode. Treme was always going to live in the shadow of The Wire, the HBO series generally regarded as one of the great achievements in the history of television — if not one of the flat-out best narrative sequences in the history of storytelling. Like The Wire, Treme was the brainchild of TV auteur David Simon; like The Wire, Treme featured a big sprawling cast spread across a modern American metropolis; like The Wire, Treme has a clear edge of Upton Sinclair-esque muckraking, making a raft of cogent points about the corrosiveness of contemporary American power.
Of course, The Wire was never a ratings success — it wound down its final season averaging less than a million viewers. But the show developed a big following an a massive amount of cultural cachet as it wound down. Treme has no such cachet. That might just be because the symphony-of-the-city style is no longer unique: Treme currently shares a night with Boardwalk Empire, which is equally sprawling and has way more boobs.
It might also be because Simon himself has developed a bit of a reputation. Earlier this year, Simon gave an interview to the New York Times where he seemed to launch a broadside against online TV criticism, and even though he immediately clarified his position to Alan Sepinwall, the basic narrative — Beloved Low-Rated TV Producer Attacks His Own Constituency! — was already set in stone. Indeed, there’s a sense that the Myth of David Simon — the Crank With A Purpose — has overwhelmed the ambitions of Treme. Over at Grantland, Andy Greenwald accurately sums up the general view of Treme: It’s a well-intentioned and well-made show composed with a self-importance that ruins any of the drama.
The problem that I have with this reading of Treme is that it assumes that the show itself is filled with talking-head David Simon dolls — that it is essentially a modern version of Our Town, with a cast of two hundred people standing on a blank stage declaiming “America is broken!” in a million variations. But Treme isn’t like that at all. It’s a loose and eerily casual series, filled with frequent tangents that seem to serve no greater purpose than perusing another corner of New Orleans. The corruption of the New Orleans police department gets roughly as much screen time as Delmond’s ongoing attempt to make jazz music cool, which is treated with the same seriousness as Antoine’s struggle to make enough money to provide for his family, which jockeys for screen time with regular non sequitur appearances by real-life celebrity chefs.
If The Wire was fundamentally a show about Investigation, then Treme is far more interested in Exploration. In a lot of ways, Treme feels more like a show by David Milch — the other HBO David, who specializes in stream-of-consciousness community tales like Deadwood and Luck. You could call it “atmospheric,” that damning-with-faint-phrase word so often used when describing aesthetically pleasing empty-headed cable shows. Treme, however, has a lot on its mind. Perhaps too much: How else to explain the fact that a show nominally about New Orleans seems to spend a quarter of its running time in New York? But the show is generous enough to let just about all its subplots play out as far as possible. This means that — even though not much ever seems to happen — individual episodes move weirdly fast, with scenes that barely last a couple minutes flying by at a fast pace.
One thing that was made clear by Simon’s comments earlier this year is that he is ambivalent not about the success of The Wire but about the nature of that success. He made a show that was specifically intended to portray the breakdown of our society; he now has to look on as his learned viewers debate whether Omar was cooler than Avon. Just because he’s a curmudgeon doesn’t mean he’s wrong. And despite The Wire‘s famous complexity, the show was always fundamentally a cop show — each season arranged around a hyper-specific investigation, with the cops slowly uncovering the drug dealer’s newest scheme. All the praise for The Wire‘s veracity tends to obscure the fact that the show had a florid and fantastical side: The legalized-drug zone Hamsterdam, the murders in the vacant buildings, the nowhere man Marlo and the super-criminal Omar. It was filled with characters who could give speeches composed with gutter poetry: “We used to build things in America,” “No paper bag for drugs,” “The king stay the king.”
In this sense, Treme marks an even greater break from TV tradition than The Wire. There is no overarching narrative except the slow passage of time. There aren’t really any speeches. It feels like an attempt at absolute verisimilitude, and in its own start-stop way, it has a rhythm unlike any other show on television. And it’s the rare show on television that focuses almost entirely on people who don’t have any money, trying to hustle for cash even as they pursue basic human dreams of success and personal satisfaction.
I’m not sure Treme is a great TV show, and I’m not sure that it wants to be. But at a moment when the shows nominated for the Best Drama Emmy are set in faraway places (’60s New York, ’20s Atlantic City, England in the servant days, Westeros) or in psychologically heightened genre territory (the noir Inferno of Breaking Bad, the 24-on-medication espionage of Homeland), Treme is the rare show which consistently strives to do little more than present the way we live now.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich
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