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by Aymar Jean Christian
January 9, 2014 12:20 PM
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Why 'Treme' Is Better Than 'The Wire'

Steve Zahn in 'Treme' HBO

I'll confess, I hated the first season of "Treme." I didn't know what I was watching and didn't care to find out. I found the show plotless and plodding. I found Steve Zahn's Davis McAlary annoying. I thought it inevitable "Treme," a drama about how individuals and communities survived Hurricane Katrina, would pale in comparison to David Simon's masterpiece, "The Wire."

I was wrong. But I wasn't wrong at the time. The first season of "Treme" ranks among the slowest I've ever endured. But after the series finale in the last days of 2013, I'm retracting everything I wrote. Moreover, I'll offer a provocation: "Treme" is better than "The Wire."

I've been asking myself what my favorite television and digital series were in the past year (see my write-ups of my favorite comedy and drama web series for Indiewire). In general, it was a good year for television drama, particularly those featuring underrepresented peoples. Women-led series, as Alison Willmore has noted, had a particularly great year. My favorite series showed women trying preserve a sense of self while reforming and surviving institutions, from hospitals to police and prisons, including: Danish political dramas “The Bridge” and "Borgen" (which you can watch for a limited time free on Link TV), "The Good Wife," "Enlightened," "Getting On," "Nurse Jackie," "Top of the Lake," "Orange Is The New Black" and "Orphan Black." That's a lot of stellar shows.

The year's most surprising dramas, including "American Horror Story: Coven" and "Scandal," have had great fun with moral ambiguity. (Cable's white/macho dramas, on the other hand, while strong, aren't maturing creatively as well as they should be: see "Sons of Anarchy," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Walking Dead" and arguably "Mad Men," the exception of course being "Breaking Bad"). And amid this flurry of great, diverse drama was "Treme," throwing a fabulous party only the most disciplined TV watchers care to attend.

Maybe you tried to watch "Treme." Like any sophisticated viewer, you loved "The Wire," and you were excited about a great work of historical fiction set in one of America's most interesting but least represented cities, New Orleans.

You were bored.

It's not your fault. In "Treme," Eric Overmeyer and David Simon abandoned the case-of-the-season plot device of "The Wire," one that made it a little easier for viewers to jump into a show that took its time unspooling a violent, if intimately realized, dramatic yarn. Instead, "Treme" is all character, little plot. As such, there's no perceivable reason why we're supposed to care about the people populating the series and their varying struggles. While the characters are connected, it's not clear how, at first, and many of them never even meet.

What the heck was going on? Well, Overmeyer and Simon didn't want to make another "Wire." For one, "The Wire" is fiction, so a writer can easily construct a plot that leaves viewers hungry for resolution. In fiction, there's always the possibility of a climax, however temporary -- that's why people tune in every week. It's why the ratings for "Scandal" keep going up when other broadcast dramas are faltering: it's a series of perfectly constructed climaxes. "Treme" dismisses the need for weekly, even season, climaxes, and doesn't make up for it by filling the script with jokes.

The climax of "Treme" was really the third season finale, "Tipitina," which was originally the series finale. In it, LaDonna (aka #MamaPope Khandi Alexander) mobilizes the community to throw a fundraiser after her business, a bar, burns down. For a brief moment, all these disparate characters come together to help a black woman resuscitate her enterprise.

It was the most moving episode of television I saw in 2012, and ranks among my favorite ever. New York's Matt Zoller Seitz summed up the episode nicely: "If there’s a heaven, it’s wired for HBO, and Robert Altman saw this episode while smoking a giant blunt and grinning ear-to-ear." 

Why would the writers dismiss plot, the cornerstone of good dramatic storytelling? I think it's because "Treme," as it's title suggests, is a story about a place -- a black neighborhood in New Orleans -- and New Orleans is The Big Easy, the city of characters who wander through life. If New York is the place for ambition and Portland is where young people go to retire, New Orleans is where people go to live, in the freest sense. In this way, Overmeyer and Simon wanted to free themselves from the demands of narrative closure and simply allow viewers to live with these characters for a little bit each week.

I realized this on a plane. By season two I'd all but given up on "Treme." I thought it was boring. But an episode from the first season was free, so I started rewatching. Revisiting "Treme" is the key to understanding it. Once you know what's going to (not) happen, you're free to notice the details. I noticed how different characters changed, subtly, and how others didn't. I got a better sense of the pace of storytelling. It was refreshing, like stopping in New Orleans for a road trip -- not on Mardi Gras, which I'd just done. I watch a lot of dramatic television, and for me "Treme" is a respite from the aggressive turn dramas have taken in the competitive cable landscape.

"Treme" weaves a rich tapestry of the most diverse set of characters I've ever seen on the small screen. Not just in terms of race, though it must be noted "Treme" is one of the few black dramas in existence not propelled by weekly installments of violence.

The main characters are mostly artists -- a violinist, DJ, chef, trombonist, trumpeter -- but include a lawyer, police officer, Indian chief, bar owner, student and city contractor. With these characters Overmeyer and Simon manage to tell a range of stories about people going through varied, creative, professional and life journeys. Some progress, some digress, most stay where they are.

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13 Comments

  • ej | January 21, 2014 4:16 PMReply

    this article title is clearly trolling....treme was good, but far from the wire which has over time come to be widely recognized as the best television show ever..

  • justicejaXson | January 11, 2014 10:29 AMReply

    The music in Treme is, just like in New Orleans itself, a character. You can't really understand the culture or people of NOLA without the music. Certainly I understand that the way music was used was unconventional so you thought they were interludes, but they weren't, they were the story. Treme was an amazing blend of fact & fiction with locals playing themselves even when they were sitting in jail (Oliver Thomas).

    As for Davis, the "real" Davis, Davis Rogan, is nowhere near as annoying as his fictional counterpart. But he is a "real" character. By the way he was the keyboard player in the fictional Davis' band.

  • Baltimoron | January 11, 2014 1:47 AMReply

    I'm going to miss fast-forwarding through all those tedious musical interludes to watch generic characters accomplish almost nothing. 36 minutes of content jam-packed into every hour. Saw every episode hoping it would get better. Never did. Lacked the dirt-under-the-fingernails specificity and ironic cruelty of "The Wire". Much closer to the weakest, film-school-indulgent episodes of "Homicide: Life on the Streets". I applaud the intention, but New Orleans does deserve better.

  • Tayo | January 10, 2014 11:39 PMReply

    I, like many , watched bits of the first season with little interest initially, not really connecting with the plot. I had my Treme epiphany watching Ladonna second line at Daymo's funeral in the season 1 finale. The intensity and conflicting emotions - Ladonna's cathartic dancing juxtaposed with Toni Bernette's visible pain and grief for her husband- the sequence was devastatingly well acted with an incredible sophistication, subtlety and realism. I went back and watched the season from the first episode and haven't looked back. This show has pulled me in in a way tv rarely does - the cooking, the people, the music Katrina, the neighbourhoods - I find inspired to read more and more about this city after every episode. Treme and Madmen are the only TV shows where I've gone on to purchase bluray DVDs of every season. I hope others go on this journey of discovery too. It's been a great ride.

  • Phil the Tremolo King | January 10, 2014 3:11 PMReply

    It's worth noting that there is currently a noise ordinance in front of the New Orleans City council with decibel limits low enough to have a devastating effect on our legendary music scene...
    offbeat.com/2014/01/08/all-hell-breaking-loose/?utm_source=WB+01+09+14&utm_campaign=WB+01+09+14&utm_medium=email

  • Jason Mullins | January 10, 2014 2:32 PMReply

    It's because New Orleans is the main character of the show. The city, her issues, her foibles, her unique character -- good and bad -- are the one thing that interconnect all the characters. I honestly don't think someone has ever produced a television show where the city was as much of a character than the actors in it! But I have to disagree. I think the show's first season was its absolute best. The show hasn't been the same since Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) committed suicide. I understand the need for it in regards to the plot, but his character was the intellectual advocate for his city. Unlike Davis' self-righteous act that sometimes can grow weary, Creigh brought a passion and an intellectual understanding of why New Orleans is important. I'm not from NOLA, but having admired this beautiful "lady" from afar since I heard my first jazz album over 20 years ago, I fell in love with her the moment we met in person. New Orleans is MY city. She's anyone's who has ever admired her flavor, her sound, her unique persona that is one of the truly great -- if flawed -- cities in America. NOLA has to be put up there with cities like Charleston and Savannah and for the same reasons. The realness of these cities. New York? Pfft. Maybe before Giuliani cleaned up Times Square and turned the city into Disney World.

  • J Hardy Carroll | January 10, 2014 2:13 PMReply

    I loved Treme from the outset. Who knew Kermit Ruffins could act? And, while I agree that it didn't have much of a plot, it was so true to life in the way television almost never is. Instead, it reminded me of Walker Percy's or John Kennedy Toole's elegiac New Orleans novels: rich, detailed and full. It was also, hands down, the best representation of the restaurant business I have seen in TV or film (including Ratatouille) . The music was always incredible, and I liked Steve Earle's contribution to the show a great deal.

  • Rudy Matthew Vorkapic | January 10, 2014 12:23 PMReply

    This writer truly nailed it. From the slow beginning to the end of a brilliant Season 3 and so on. Whether "Treme" is better than "The Wire" is a great debate and the fact that it truly is debatable should speak volumes about the richness and reality of "Treme." From the corruption on every level to the concerts covering so many genres that entertain here nightly to the beautiful maturity and authenticity of a working musician in Wendell Pierce's bone player Antoine Batiste, "Treme" tells an American that, like "The Wire," can be anywhere. Plus, it was tremendous to be actually be proud of a portrayal of New Orleans, the most interesting city in America. Who Dat!

  • David McBurnett | January 10, 2014 12:13 PMReply

    Love New Orleans, it is my second home.
    Great series.

  • dmso | January 10, 2014 11:40 AMReply

    I loved TREME, but I think THE WIRE is better and more significant. I still think TREME is a great show. Definitely a slow burn, but worth the effort. I also loved Season 2.

  • Jug | January 9, 2014 3:48 PMReply

    I agree and disagree. I think TREME is a more IMPORTANT show than THE WIRE, but not a better show. Or maybe that is the point you're getting at, we just went about it differently. THE WIRE is a fully realized journey into the systemic death of an American city. It's like watching those time elapse pictures of grass growing, an animal comes, then dies, then is devoured by parasitic organisms and turned into fertilizer back into the earth. As amazing it is, you can't help but be stunned by its awesomeness and precision but humbled at the same time. Just as the characters in THE WIRE are humbled by the systems we've created for ourselves. TREME follows no such plan, as you stated. It's more of archival footage of life, as it happens, to a an richly cultured and historied American city that is definitely represented. The characters are extremely nuanced and colorful, but the SHOW is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Not that it has to have shoot ups and explosions but SOMETHING has to happen. This show eschewed that in favor of saying "Hey Look America! Here's one of your most vibrant cities that you don't give a shit about because its populated by your economically and cultural underside" Of course that's an oversimplification, but I think in 10 years TREME will be regarded not as an amazing piece of Television, but an amazing piece of documentary footage, done as a scripted piece. As the seasons progressed, I realized that the characters of the show were not who we were really supposed to pay attention to. We were supposed to pay attention to the Musicians and Artists who were given speaking roles and most definitely showcased on stage. I didn't recognize 99% of them and that is a travesty, because they choose to be artists not part of the Larger American Musical Mainstream but still producing Soul arresting music. David Simon said "HEY, you SHOULD know who these people are and before this way of life is gone due to gentrification, deaths and hurricanes, I'm gonna school you". And so I stayed. Because sometimes you really should drink your Ovaltine, even if it sucks going down.

  • Armak | January 9, 2014 2:39 PMReply

    LOL. Keep digging. NOLA deserves better, and will get it soon enough. ;-)

  • Chris | January 9, 2014 12:41 PMReply

    Hahahahahahaha