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.
Around these artists is the real, under-told political history of New Orleans after Katrina, a story of federal neglect, local malfeasance and entrenched corruption. “Treme” rarely takes you to the halls of power like “The Wire.” Instead, following this cast of spirited New Orleanians throughout their everyday lives gives texture and context to the violence that is the inevitable aftermath of a broken system and environmental catastrophe.
This is what’s truly marvelous about “Treme.” It is both fiction and reality, with all the fantasy and horror therein. The show is so encyclopedic that The Times-Picayune catalogued, in recaps, all the references to real events, artists, locales and political controversies. There are a lot. In “Treme,” not only do viewers get some of the most sophisticated character-driven storytelling on television, they also get a by turns romantic and terrifying introduction of the cultural and political life of New Orleans, and, by extension, the nation.
“Treme” has all the operatic political heft of “The Wire,” but it embraced the warmth of community and spiritual depth of the arts. Any episode of “Treme” will be part melodrama, part political thriller and part concert. At first, I thought the emphasis on music was snobbish, part of the show’s complicated quest for authenticity.
But I soon realized the point was much simpler: New Orleans’ contribution to American music is not as widely understood as, say, Nashville, Detroit or New York’s, and music is how people survive the violence of capitalism and the state. Music was as much at the heart of “Treme” as it is of New Orleans. “Treme” showcased a lot of jazz and folk, but we also hear plenty of rock, hip-hop, soul and R&B.
What I realized after the series finale was that “Treme” made me fall in love with all its characters and the city. I cheered when one caught a break, cried when they fell and sneered when politics foreclosed justice. In short, “Treme” elegantly guided viewers through the post-industrial American city with unparalleled maturity: a city where violence could be both senseless tragedy and a call to action; where you root for those without power while understanding the constraints on their progress; where strangers are valued for their flaws (I still don’t really like Davis) but also for their capacity for goodness and love; where everyone is your neighbor because we’re all in the same quagmire that is American capitalism; and where even in tragedy there is comedy, and vice versa.
The final season starts with Obama’s triumphant 2008 election and Davis McAlary stuck in the biggest pothole I’ve ever seen. Davis fills the pothole with a bunch of junk, constructing a makeshift sculpture so future drivers won’t get stuck. In the series’ final shot, that sculpture has been festooned with Mardi Gras beads and feathers, a work of community art. Politics in “Treme,” like in “The Wire,” are a cruel joke, where we get spectacular signs of progress but so little real work gets done. Everyday people create beauty from whatever people in power give them, even from nothing.
Nobody cared about “Treme.” Maybe that’s the way it should be. After all, the show presumes most of America doesn’t care about the fate of New Orleans, a black city without an industry seen as critical to the national economy (like Detroit). “Treme” isn’t so much a series as an experience, and most TV viewers won’t care for lilting, post-traumatic stories about a city and nation in decline.
So while I don’t expect “Treme” to get the post-broadcast surge in critical attention and popularity that “The Wire” experienced, I’m holding out hope a few more people will watch it again and experience the death and life of a great American city.