Reviews Too Late: Treme

by wjw on September 13, 2011

I would most likely have a deeply embarrassing fanboy moment if I ever met David Simon.  I’d babble and drop whatever I had in my hand and maybe do a Snoopy Dance.  I would almost certainly drool.  And the reason is that David Simon is such a damn good writer.

And of course David Simon created The Wire, which is the Best Dramatic Television Series Ever, and which ran for five whole years and only got more brilliant from one season to the next.

Because I don’t have HBO I wasn’t able to watch Simon’s new series, Treme, when it first appeared, but I did have the disks in my Netflix queue, and as soon as they were available, and my life settled down, I watched Season One.

Like The Wire, Treme has a large ensemble cast trying to tell the story of an entire city— in this case the story of New Orleans, just after Katrina.  It’s packed with genuine New Orleanians, like John Goodman, Wendell Pierce (‘Bunk’ on The Wire), Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, and Lance Nichols, and the music of New Orleans informs almost every scene.   Local musicians like Kermit Ruffins, John Boutte, Dr. John, Alan Toussaint, and Trombone Shorty appear as themselves.  The guitarist Coco Robicheaux even sacrifices a chicken in the first episode, something that’s bound to catch the viewer’s attention.

Simons is deeply respectful of New Orleans culture.  He’s not a local, and he’s careful where he puts his footprints.  He does an exemplary job of revealing the history and culture of his subjects.   It’s maybe his greatest strength as a writer.

The opening episodes do a very fine job of building character and situation.  Janette is trying to keep her restaurant going with no money, no electricity, no gas, and no tourist dollars.  Sonny and Annie are street musicians trying to scrape by.  Antoine is a trombone player trying to juggle two many relationships and too many offspring on too little money.  Albert, played by Clarke Peters of The Wire, is Big Chief of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, and he’s working hard to keep his culture alive.  He’s a crusader, not only trying to reassemble the scattered members of his tribe to parade on Mardi Gras, but trying to get the government to re-open the projects to refugees.  Both his projects meet with the disapproval of NOPD, whose idea of tradition is simply to beat the shit out of him.  (And the Big Chief himself beats the crap out of a looter in a way that makes the viewer wonder if he’s not righteous, but actually crazy.)

Another crusader is attorney Toni Bernette, who is determined to find a missing youth who was arrested on the eve of Katrina and has since disappeared into Louisiana’s labyrinth of lockups, prisons, and camps.  She is married to John Goodman’s character, a foul-mouthed literature professor whose love for New Orleans pretty much trumps any middle-class sense of decency.

Toni’s quest for Damo and Chief Lambreaux’s principled stands in the face of history and authority provide much of the tension in the early episodes.  But then Damo is finally located and the Big Chief has to get down to the job of sewing his Indian outfit, and the tension slowly ebbs out of the series.  Having built some great characters, the series asks nothing more of them than to behave characteristically.  I kept asking myself what was at stake, exactly, and often there wasn’t an answer.

Simon is working at a disadvantage here.  The Wire was a crime drama, and it was the crime that held its variegated cast together: all the criminals and the cops and the lawyers.  Treme‘s cast is a lot more diverse and there’s no common thread but survival, and the business of day-to-day survival just isn’t very dramatic. No one’s life is in danger; they’re just trying to get by.

I’m inclined to wish Simon had been a little less respectful with regard to his material.  I wanted him to pump up the melodrama, just a bit, just so that I could stop admiring and start to care.

Still, Season One of Treme is better than practically anything else you’re likely to find on TV, and it’s full of absolutely wonderful moments.  The first Second Line after Katrina is just inspired— I wanted to jump up and march along.  And the arc for J0hn Goodman’s character is  lovely and elegiac and just about perfect.

I’ll be standing in line for Season Two, once it’s available on DVD.

Barbara Webb September 13, 2011 at 3:57 pm

I had this same problem with Treme. It didn’t engage me the way the Wire did, which I think had a lot more to do with the lower-keyness of the show.

The Wire, I agree, was possibly the best thing ever written for television.

Dave Bishop September 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm

“I would most likely have a deeply embarrassing fanboy moment if I ever met David Simon.”

That’s what always happens to me when I meet my favourite writers!

It’s probably just as well that you’re in New Mexico, Walter – and I’m in Manchester.

TC/The Writer Underground September 13, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Hello, we may be experiencing the real “Golden Age of Television” what with dramas like The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights and a few others floating by.

In fact, I can find more good reasons to stay home and watch TV instead of going to the movies, most of which haven’t impressed. That assumes I can dodge all the horrifying reality TV stuff, but that’s why god made remote controls and DVRs…

wjw September 13, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Barbara, I only said the Wire was the Best =Dramatic= Series Ever.

The Best Series Ever remains Revolutionary Girl Utena.

wjw September 14, 2011 at 12:50 am

TC, you’re right. This is a Golden Age of television.

In large part it’s because you can tell the truth now. You can write realistically about sex, you can show cops being brutal and politicians being dishonorable and baseball players being unchaste.

And you can say “fuck,” at least on cable. How cool is it to say “fuck” on TV? Pretty awesome, I’d say.

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