End of Series Report: Treme

8 Jan

The sounds of Treme

You are about to read a nearly unabashed review for Treme, but before I get to the praise I’ll dismiss with the one caveat I believe it’s important to note.

David Simon’s first masterpiece, The Wire, was rich with occasionally heavy-handed political commentary, particularly in the fifth season, mostly along the lines of power corrupts, bureaucracy is broken, the system no longer works. Treme lays this on fairly thick as well; not quite fifth season thick, but at least as much as the rest of The Wire. It’s not a problem for me, but I can imagine some eye-rolling from those who found that aspect of The Wire irritating after a while. Now, moving on.

Nobody, and I mean Nobody, writes real, honest characters, better than David Simon, and proof is located throughout Treme.  All of our best recent television shows explore humanity in a deep and interesting way, but none of them since maybe Six Feet Under explores just regular everyday people in such an honest and authentic fashion.

Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones are all true to themselves but none of them show real people; they’re exaggerated by their circumstances and place and time; truth through something other everyday life.

Treme deals with characters who are real people facing real problems; on the job, with their relationships, with occasional death and disease (and one pretty big hurricane) struggling to make a difference and just to make it at all. It’s not as grand as all that though. It’s not made out to be more than it is, but you get to know and love the characters that you invest yourself in their lives.

Simon is always putting his characters in difficult situations; when there’s an enemy it’s often some version of the system, which could have been seen as a cheap out but instead just feels true to the reality of the lives that New Orleans residents but even all city dwellers deal with on a daily basis.  Conflict in Treme is authentic rather than forced. Sure, things feel easy compared to The Wire, but not every show needs to have an equally bleak outlook. Like The Wire, Treme celebrates its characters, but unlike the Wire it seems like a couple of them end up in a better place than they started.

A few of the lesser characters don’t really get the screen time to be developed  and stand in more for their roles in other people’s and generla New Orleans stories (Chris Coy’s journalist may be the best example) but even they feel like people, and not stock characters, even with the lack of storyline that they get. A vast majority of the main characters have real in depth character arcs and personalities that resonate strongly whether you like them or hate them, or anywhere in between. There aren’t obvious favorite characters, and when characters get together or break up, the conflicts are complex and not simply one person’s fault or the other (usually). Characters grow, but it doesn’t feel forced. Antoine Baptiste’s ride from occasionally working trombonist to bona fide school band teacher and mentor is tirumpant and feels absolutely earned and true to the character, while Davis more or less ends up right where he started, and that isn’t seen as failure either.

Treme is a love letter to New Orleans in the best possible way. It feels authentic; it’s hard for me to say that with any authority, as a New Yorker who has been to New Orleans once in my life over a decade ago, but everything I’ve read seems to support it. Aside from the authenticity (which I do think matters somewhat in the way Simon is attempting to portray the show but is impossible for me to judge) the show makes me, who has only been to New Orleans once in his life with his family over a decade ago, absolutely fall in love with New Orleans. I don’t particularly care about jazz; it’s one of the music forms I’ve never been able to get into, and many of the forms of pop music featured in Treme aren’t strictly to my taste. Treme is filled with this; music is a huge theme in the show; and if you had described this to me ahead of time, I’d think I’d have no to little interest in the show or at least be bored by the music scenes. But I wasn’t. Instead of my lack of interest in that music turning me off of the show, the show’s sheer love and appreciation of the music won me over. It’s like contagious laughter; the appreciation and love for the music and the rest of New Orleans culture is contagious.

When it comes down to it, the only thing that ties every character in Treme together is their pull and their tie to New Orleans. These aren’t people who are living lives that could just be replicated in any other city. From the musicians, to the culinary world, to the super local Indian culture (that I’ve read about on the internet, watched four seasons of this show and still don’t really get), they spoke to the love-hate relationship of New Orleans residents to their city. They are constantly frustrated about the disappointments of their city, but for most of them (though not all) there’s no other place they’d rather live.

I’m a huge proponent of on-site filming. I admit it’s not always practical or necessary – it wouldn’t make sense or matter for Parks & Recreation to be filmed in Indiana – but it really does make a difference for shows like Treme. Of course, without David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s writing and characters, the setting doesn’t make a whit of difference. But as I’m sure they’d agree, the setting (while not a character – anyone who says the setting is a character should be shot on sight) really places the viewer there into these people’s lives in a way that sets just wouldn’t.

 I’ve made the claim before that people who love Friday Night Lights should love Treme, as they’re both shows that deal with real people helping real people, the good that lies deep inside most people no matter what screwed up things they do, and the strength of the bonds of families, friends, and other relationships to withstand difficulties. I’m unquestionably a big Friday Night Lights fan but sometimes plots felt forced, as if there had to be, say, a steroids arc, because it’s football. Treme does hit on all the obvious big New Orleans post-Katrina subjects, but it never feels forced. The world, one of my favorite parts of The Wire as well, feels so large, as characters fly around in the background; minor characters who would be ignored in other shows get lines that don’t matter for the plot but just make Treme’s world feel bigger. Treme doesn’t feel contained; it feels like the real world, which is one of the highest compliments I can give.

It’s too late, unfortunately for Treme. It’s never coming back, and we’ll never learn more about Antoine and Janette and Ladonna and Annie. Still, I’m thankful I got three and a half seasons of a show absolutely nobody watched.  Please, tell someone you love to watch this show and have the pleasure of enjoying it for the first time..



2 Responses to “End of Series Report: Treme”

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  1. Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 28-25 | Television, the Drug of the Nation - February 6, 2014

    […] and their battles and conflicts often feel authentic (which I complimented in my article about Treme as a place that’s surprisingly hard to reach). I didn’t like the last episode which […]

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