Show of the Day: Treme

2 Dec

I just finished watching the second and most recent season of Treme.  I don’t know anybody else who is interested in watching it and while I can’t say I blame them for not knowing better, I feel the need to do a little bit of proselytizing.

Treme is about a variety of characters in post-Katrina New Orleans, picking up a few months after the storm.  I ironically watched the majority of the episodes as Hurricane Irene swept through New York which hopefully made the show more poignant.  I have never met anyone who watches Treme, and I honestly had no interest in the show except for the outstanding reviews it was getting and the fact it was created by David Simon who created one of my favorite shows of all time, The Wire.

If you think The Wire was rather unsubtle about pointing out the dysfunction of the police and the media in Baltimore (which it was), you’ll have to deal with just as much and more of that unsubtlety regarding the mishandling of government money and the obstacles in the struggle to rebuild in New Orleans.

In most shows the main characters are connected by some combination of three bonds.  The characters are usually co-workers, friends or family (co-workers in particular I am stretching to mean a lot – people stuck together in the same physical location, like prisoners in Oz).  In Treme, many of the characters are not related at all to other characters, or at most come into contact with one another once or twice at chance times during the course of the show.  In theory, this approach means there’s a concern about a lack of cohesion in the show and a worry that there won’t be enough time to tell complex and interesting stories about the number of characters that Simon tends to cram in, even with full hour episodes.

In spite of all these potential problems, creators Simon and Eric Overmyer have a gift for storytelling which transcends all the challenges laid out before them.  Even though there’s plenty of relatively heavy handed lessons about the troubles of New Orleans, Simon and Overmyer generally do a good job of letting the characters show these issues rather than lecturing at us.  Even more importantly, via the excellent writing and acting the characters come to life before us and are three dimensional, interesting, and cause the viewer to actually care about them.  The plots continue to take interesting turns.  There’s nothing sudden and exciting like in Breaking Bad, but these characters’ arcs weave in ways that hit the sweet spot of being not always predictable but feeling consistent with the characters.

Like The Wire in Baltimore, Treme examines a number of different facets of New Orleans culture, but instead of the police, the drug trade, the schools, dock workers and the media, it’s the music world, the restaurant industry, real estate development and well, the police and the schools.  Like The Wire, depression is all around at various times, but there’s just enough hope to keep you from getting too down at any one point.  I might even dare to say Treme is more hopeful than The Wire.  Music is extremely important in Treme; almost half the characters are involved with music professionally one way or another.  The roll call of characters include Davis, a goofy DJ, Annie and Sonny, a pair of street musicians, LaDonna, a bar owner, Antoine, a trombone player, Toni, a civil rights lawyer, Janette, a chef, Albert, a Mardi Gras Indian Chief, and his son Delmond, an esteemed jazz trumpeter, Terry, a police officer, and Nelson, a developer.  I know the list of characters is long, but I wanted to give a sense of the occupations.  I’d love to expand, but talking about the characters in any more depth is going to require additional entries.

As much as anything, Treme is a paean to the city of New Orleans.  I was concerned I wouldn’t care for that.  Not because I don’t care for New Orleans, but because I really don’t understand any of the extremely distinctive bits of New Orleans culture which represent major moments in Treme.  I don’t know anything about Mardi Gras or the Feast of St. Joseph or Jazz Fest or anything about the New Orleans music scene outside of Lil Wayne and I thought that would affect my enjoyment of the show.  I was wrong.  The show is very much about New Orleans, but even more than enjoying the show without knowing anything about New Orleans, you can enjoy the show without caring anything about New Orleans.  Simon’s shows are so successful because no matter how important the messaging is to him, all of this comes in second to strong story.

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