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Has a TV show ever arrived with greater expectations than Treme? It was, after all, David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, a saga of crime and punishment in Baltimore that was so dense and rich that it was often compared to an epic novel while at the same time proclaimed the greatest serialized television show ever. Would this new series (co-created with Wire writer Eric Overmyer) essentially be The Wire: Part 2, a searing indictment of contemporary America, only transposed to Orleans Parish?
It’s a middle finger to anything that would attempt to diminish New Orleans
The answer is both yes and no. While Treme does share much of The Wire’s DNA (including a healthy indignation towards institutionalized racism and corrupt power structures), what develops over 35 episodes feels more like a grand and colorful anthology of interlocking short stories that show the quixotic struggle of people stitched together by circumstance and bound together by their love for a city. It’s a galvanizing chronicle of celebration and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, a raucous and sometimes tragic cinematic middle finger to anybody or anything that would attempt to diminish New Orleans.
The central narrative is a rambling tale of post-Katrina New Orleans’s ups-and-downs as experienced by a cast of characters from various strata of New Orleans society. From that basic setup, Simon and his creative team construct a digressive and fascinating character study woven from the desires and ambitions of a disparate bunch; there are musicians of all stripes, a Mardi Gras Indian chief, a crusading lawyer, a bar owner, a cop, a chef, a real estate hustler, and more, and each person you encounter feels like they’re an equal and integral piece of a larger puzzle. Their lives sometimes intersect and entwine, and they all share one crucial thing: a complicated relationship with a city that can break you, and sometimes even kill you, but also a place that can exalt you like no other and touch parts of your soul that speech struggles to describe.
Treme is seductive, and once you fall into its distinctive rhythm, it becomes compulsive
Perhaps this is why the show struggled for viewers—it spent as much time on world building as it did on everyday people. It doesn’t push must-see-TV buttons; but it’s seductive, and once you fall into its distinctive rhythm, it becomes compulsive. Like New Orleans, Treme tends to ramble and take its time, but also like New Orleans, when you get it, you GET it; it wallops you over the head with the sublime. It’s not afraid to linger on details that are non-essential to the propulsion of the story—extended musical sequences, cameos featuring everybody from Dr. John to local characters like Uncle Lionel (rest in peace), “pointless” discussions of cultural minutiae, and so on—to establish mood, atmosphere, and a true sense of place.
And the main players give a master class in evoking the desperation, humor and humanity of their characters: John Goodman’s profanely apoplectic professor is a highlight of Season 1; Wire vet Wendell Pierce takes trombone player Antoine Batiste movingly from fecklessness to a rough sort of responsibility; and strangely enough, Steve Zahn’s Davis McAlary, a loud-of-mouth holy fool of middling talent musician/gadfly, goes from being a charming-bordering-on-annoying presence to a bittersweet, gray knight. All of them convey a feeling that New Orleans, for better or for worse, is at once a harsh mistress and a life-giving mother, and that wonderful, true-to-life complexity suffuses every episode.
And I know that feeling. I first set foot in New Orleans in 1993, and it’s been my home off and on (currently on) for a very long time. I can’t claim native status and by no means am I an expert, but it is my home and one of the loves of my life. Like a lot of folks, the way the city is depicted on page and screen is a fascination for me—there is a vast archive of creative work expressly about New Orleans. You could fill a small library (or Netflix queue) with film and television works about us, and an even smaller one of the same that FEEL right. For every sublime work like Les Blank’s documentary Always for Pleasure or Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, there are several missed opportunities.
The Wire was a portrait of a city that should work but doesn’t, Treme is a portrait of a city that shouldn’t work, but does
So no, Treme isn’t The Wire, or The Wire Lite; it’s its own thing entirely, a cautious yet reckless love letter to a city that’s unknowable, frustrating, dangerous and sublimely wonderful all at the same time, a bittersweet monument to the clash and commingling of cultures and desires that make it, as one character says, “a city that lives in the imagination of the world.” When I think about it, one of the reasons that Treme is so compelling is because of the critical way in which it departs from The Wire: If The Wire was a portrait of a city that should work but doesn’t, Treme is a portrait of a city that shouldn’t work, but somehow does.