I’ll start off by saying I’m a fan of Treme, David Simon’s series about post-Katrina New Orleans. I think the show is ambitious in its scope and courageous in its assessment of the problems faced by a devastated city and the people who inhabit it. Simon’s newsman background serves him well here, as it did on The Wire, as he isn’t only able to see the individual stories but he can connect the dots to show how all of the small problems compound each other and the solutions undercut each other, adding up to one insurmountable mess. The word “Dickensian” gets used frequently to describe Simon’s shows, and a lot of very smart people consider The Wire to be the greatest television series ever made. Having him helm the series that would dissect this great American tragedy seems like a match made in heaven. Why, then, is the show so…meh?
Obviously, the music is incredible. There are performances from anyone who’s anyone in all aspects of New Orleans music. The show could stand as a sort of Icons Among Us: NOLA. Treme does a good job of digging past Dr John and Kermit Ruffins, both icons who are prominently featured, to give hat-tips to lesser known legends like Coco Robicheaux. Some have suggested that the show is more enjoyable if you fast-forward through the music. If forced to choose, I’d say it’s the other way around.
Treme moves slowly, meandering along at a pace that feels more like real life than the sex-and-violence laden, It’s-Not-TV-It’s-HBO template hammered out by True Blood or Boardwalk Empire. It nudges you, coaxes you into seeing things Simon’s way. He isn’t telling a story, he’s painting a picture.
Treme features no less than 12 separate-but-linked plot lines at once, focusing on different characters and their varied problems. While none of the characters are one-dimensional, they all serve a higher purpose in representing a tried and true New Orleans archetype. There are the stubborn, Won’t-Bow-Don’t-Know-How traditionalists (Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters), the hustlers trying to make their way through the city’s entanglements (Wendell Pierce, Jon Seda), the idealists who believe the place can be better (Melissa Leo, Steve Zahn) and the ex-pats who know what it means to miss New Orleans (Kim Dickens, Rob Brown). All of these cliches are familiar, and a bit predictable, but that’s OK because none of them is the main character. They all support the story, which is really about the city itself.
When something as tangled and corrupt as New Orleans is broken, it can only become more tangled and corrupt. To understand the complete systemic failure of an entire city we have to see every piece of the system, how everything rubs its dirt all over everything else. The problem with telling a story about this type of failure is the same thing that allows it to happen at all. It doesn’t happen in big, defining moments, at least not ones you’re aware of at the time. It happens over years, standards and expectations eroding away bit by bit, with no fanfare until after it’s too late. The stories on Treme unfold the same way. There are very few overpowering moments in this show. There are no episode-ending cliff hangers, no huge waves of “Oh my God, I can’t believe that just happened!” Instead, the problems just sort of accumulate, rising up around you like flood waters, until before you know it you’re up to your neck and you don’t really know when it started or how it all went wrong.
While Simon and Co. do a masterful job of painting their big picture of the quagmire that is post-Katrina New Orleans, they don’t try to offer any solutions. It may be that they just haven’t gotten to that part of their story yet (The Wire didn’t offer any big ideas until the Hamsterdam arc in season 3), but it may be that, while the city as a whole returns to a level of functionality, the individual problems never really get any better. Life in New Orleans was always a trade off: a broken, corrupt system was the price you had to pay to live in the richest culture the country has to offer. The city can never get back to normal, because it never was normal. Most people who call it home would never want it to be like Houston or Jackson or Mobile.
The question then becomes whether or not a show about everyday life in New Orleans, without the storm recovery drama, will have enough to sustain a series. It will always be great as a love letter to The City That Care Forgot, and maybe that’s all they want it to be, but at some point it will need to become more or risk devolving into a very accurate, very entertaining travel show.