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‘Treme’ Returns; How It’s Not Just ‘The Wire’ with Music

'Treme' Returns; How It's Not Just 'The Wire' with Music

Now that “Treme” is starting its third season, you would think people would realize this is not “The Wire” with music.

Yes, there are a lot of black people in this show, just like in “The Wire.” And, as in the earlier show, some of those black people have rich and rewarding friendships with whites while others have equally rich and varied lives within their own cultures. (In “Treme,” everyone belongs to a sub-culture, only some of which are defined by race.)

It’s also true that some of those black people — most notably Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce — have appeared in both series. Peters’ cranky, obstinate, Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux is sufficiently different from his indelible incarnation of “The Wire”‘s Lester Freamon that this should not be a problem. Pierce’s Antoine Batiste is, admittedly, more problematic. [Spoiler alert ahead.]

Pierce is a New Orleans native, and Batiste is as central to “Treme” as McNulty was to “The Wire.”  More to the point, until this season, there’s more than a little of Bunk Morehead (Pierce’s Wire character) in Batiste. Like Bunk, Batiste is a talented man and a natural philanderer, a man with a cynic’s disposition who is wiser when dealing with others than himself.

Season three begins with that prototypical Nola ritual, a musical send-off to the recently departed. In this episode (written by David Simon from a story by Simon and Anthony Bourdain), the cops arrive with a noise complaint. Batiste, who was arrested last season with disastrous results, tries to separate himself from the confrontation. But his reputation follows him as he walks away (literally, in this instance, in the person of several officers) and, in the end, Batiste’s nature wins out over his reason: he shoots one of the officers the finger and is arrested yet again.

In that opening sequence, Simon sets out two of the major struggles of the current season: the unremitting tension between the NOPD and the city’s citizens as well as Batiste’s inner battle to control his behavior, both as a man and as a musician.

Note that music is central, not peripheral, to this sequence — central to both the sequence’s drama and to the culture of the participants. Music is not a matter of self-expression or even art at this moment: it is the culture that permits the characters to survive in a decaying world.

“The Wire” was a systematic examination of how American institutions were failing a city. Its direct literary antecedent was Anthony Trollope, who wrote two series of novels which could be appreciated individually but were far richer when read sequentially.

While the first and current season have stories that begin and end within their confines, “Treme” is structured as a single, very long, narrative, much closer to Dickens or Eliot than Trollope.

“The Wire” chronicled, in painful detail, how the police, unions, politics, schools, and journalism were failing.

In “Treme,” those institutions have failed.  The New Orleans of this show is not merely a city battered by Karina (as if that were not bad enough). It is a city with no governance. Regional in its specifics, it is national in its implications — the tragedy of this city is the direct result of the abandonment of government.

In “Treme,” Simon and his co-creator Eric Overmeyer, have proven to be terrifyingly prescient: with no functional government, we are all living in New Orleans now. We just may not have the culture to keep us alive.

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