End of Season Report: Treme

10 Dec

Father and Son Lambreaux

The Wire, my favorite hour long program of all time, is what David Simon’s legacy will always be tied up with, and on balance, The Wire, though it has its share of happy stories, is more soul-crushing than optimistic, especially in the last couple of seasons, with a ballpark ratio of maybe 65% soul crushing to 35% optimistic (note to self:  make a ledger of major season ending events in The Wire and come up with an actual ratio).   The point here is that it’s a great show, but it’s also a depressing show, and David Simon made his mark because of many of the great aspects of The Wire, one of which is that he took on a city, Baltimore, warts, and all, and wasn’t afraid to paint a pretty bleak picture.

Treme isn’t that.  Treme is probably the flip of Wire, optimism-wise, with the results being 65% positive.  There’s plenty of negative, particularly with David Simon’s two favorite areas to hammer on, the police department and politics and government, but there’s far more stories about regular people overcoming adversity, facing down difficult obstacles, and more often than not coming together and triumphing at least slightly more than they fail in the end.

When searching for something or other regarding the show, I came across an Atlantic Wire article bashing Treme.  There were a number of complaints in article, but they ultimately boiled down to the central complaint that Treme is boring and the reason for is this is because it is too much of a love letter to the city of New Orleans; that Simon should have given the The Wire treatment to the city, the way he did to Baltimore.  I think his argument is both wrong and misses the point.  You know what?  Treme isn’t the Wire, and it shouldn’t have to be.

What Treme is is just about everything that’s right with this type of long term serial show, a serial show not based on action or tension or adventure, but built around the everyday lives of an ensemble of largely unrelated characters in a number of professions.  In fact, Treme could easily be boring; and the writer tries to make that point here by using the HBO online plot synopses, which sound like, “Antoine Batiste is doing right by the young people” and “Janette Desautel has found her groove at Lucky Peach” or “Sonny is moving forward on all fronts.”  He’s right as far as these descriptions absolutely do sound boring.  But that’s as far as it goes; it really is the genius of the show, that these boring sound events add up to a full hour episode every week that’s absolutely not boring at all.  About half the plots revolve around New Orleans music, a scene I could not care less about, and yet, it’s still not boring at all.

It’s because the characters are so rich.  There’s lots of emotion and feel-good moments, but it’s earned over the course of getting to know the characters for three seasons; it never feels manipulative.  It’s okay to be happy for characters.  I love The Wire and it’s soul-crushingness, and I like when some things don’t all end well and everything doesn’t work out perfectly but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like for things to work out for characters sometimes.  What I don’t like is when it’s cheap, and when it’s easy or when it happens to characters that I don’t care about at all.

David Simon knows how to make characters that are deep, compelling, and interesting.  It’s a true ensemble show in the sense that there’s really no main character, and most of the major characters get approximately equal screen time.  All of them are treated with care, as are many of the slightly more minor characters and seem like real living people.

Does David Simon have his peccadilloes?  Sure.  Treme too preachy and sanctimonious sometimes, but honestly, far less than The Newsroom in my opinion (obviously, that’s not saying a whole lot).  His characters do tend towards being too good and redeemable maybe sometimes, but that’s a minor sin at best.  He obviously loves New Orleans a lot more than I ever could or ever will but even though I don’t, the infectiousness and enthusiasm rubs off.  I don’t think it means he loves the city too much or that the people within are faultless, and if he romanticizes a little bit, that’s okay by me.  It’s a love letter, but one that’s built on fantastic writing and strong characterization.  If real life New Orleans isn’t really this great, that’s fine; I’m willing to watch a show through the filter of someone who genuinely loves it and I don’t think that takes away from the show’s quality at all.

There’s plenty of great shows on television now, but nobody else right now is making long form TV that invests in regular people real-life type characters in a not overly stylized way as well as Simon (and his partner on this endeavor, Eric Overmeyer) does on Treme (for example, some of the other current best hour longs:  Breaking Bad, science teacher-turned-meth-overlord, Homeland, CIA, Mad Men, crazily stylized ’60s advertising office, Game of Thrones, fantasy kingdom).  I loved Friday Night Lights along with everyone else, but in my mind, distilled to its essence, Treme is a similar show done even better.  Plenty of people loved Friday Night Lights who couldn’t care a whit about football, because it was really about the characters and their relationships and personalities, and the same is true for Treme, but with New Orleans instead of football.  Treme has the touching moments that anchored Friday Night Lights but feels like a full world instead of one with 12 people in it.  Anyway, I don’t really want to get into a full blown comparison, though that’s an idea for another entry.  What I wanted to get at is that fans of Friday Night Lights should give Treme a try.  Treme is the story of a city, sure, but it’s also the story of families and relationships that feel realer than anything else out there and if more than 10 people would ever watch it they’d find that out.

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