Where ‘Treme’ went astray
If any TV show deserves not just ratings but love, it’s Treme. The HBO show (which concluded its first season Sunday night; a second has been greenlit) has interesting characters, an epic overarching storyline, a fascinating setting and great music. And the themes it treats – the frayed yet unbroken civic bonds of New Orleans society, and America, in the face of disaster – are very important. Not just because south Louisiana now confronts another catastrophe, but because of our crumbling infrastructure, dirty energy economy, institutional rot, and climate change, there are going to be a lot more of them.
And yet, to me anyway, Treme has not lived up to expectations. (I will pause here to ask my New Orleans friends for forgiveness.) It’s had some great moments, but just as often it’s been erratic and self-indulgent. Compared to the awesome mastery of The Wire, Treme still feels like a minor work in the David Simon oeuvre, yet to find its focus.
Maybe it’s an unfair comparison. The Wire focused on an urban community as exploited and distorted by an indifferent, inexorable system of political bureaucracy – its Big Idea was the corruption of American democracy itself. With Treme, there is a similar and even grander backdrop of social and institutional failure, but the focus has shifted to culture and individual expression, where there’s more potential to defeat the system, or at least win some small victories. The Mardi Gras Indian storyline anchored by the great Clarke Peters (a Wire vet) played on these themes compellingly.
But still. I wonder if Simon and his stable of crack writers have fallen victim to the last thing I thought they would: sentimentality. Treme spent an awful lot of time revisiting this basic idea: “New Orleans is a wonderful and unique place. The people there love it. Tourists and visitors initiated into its mysteries love it. Our characters love it too. They never want to leave, and those who do leave are inevitably pulled back into its embrace. Because (did we tell you?) New Orleans is wonderful.”
This is a perfectly fine point as far as it goes. If you present it with some wry charm, great. If you use it as an entry point for a character’s individual drama, fine. But in a 10-hour season, it too often became the predominant point, and when it did the show slipped from drama into self-congratulation.
This is, interestingly, a feature of New Orleans itself – something the show obviously gets. New Orleans’s outsized self-esteem, given its many problems, is charming but dangerous: the city can be self-absorbed, dissolute, corrupt. And determined to stay that way. Treme characters struggle with their own self-destructive tendencies, and sometimes lose.
But here too Treme also stumbled. Its mixture of comedy, character-driven drama, and social commentary never quite found its ideal balance. Many characters weren’t quite complex or interesting enough to deliver the dramatic or comedic punches they were assigned, at least never in a way approaching the patient, devastating dramatic arcs of The Wire or other great HBO shows like Deadwood or The Sopranos. How many uninteresting fights were there between street musicians Annie and her annoying, less talented boyfriend, Sonny? How many grating, quirky things could gadfly Davis McAlary do in a single episode? How many scenes did we need of chef Janette Desautel pouring a swirl of sauce on freshly-grilled fish? And entertaining as they sometimes were, the multiple cameos by New Orleans musicians and other local celebrities at times gave the show the feeling of a huge in-joke.
This tendency reached an apex in the Mardi Gras episode, in which most of the characters – who inhabit various New Orleans social strata – repeatedly encountered each other during carnival parades and parties. You could almost see the bullet points on the writing room white board: Mardi Gras is a great equalizer; New Orleans is fundamentally a small town; Mardi Gras is when New Orleans most becomes New Orleans. But it reminded me of the sideways-universe in the final season of Lost, where all the passengers from Oceanic 815 also kept improbably bumping into one another in Los Angeles. In that case it was a sign that their lives there were not real, something they had to wake up from. Maybe New Orleans is heaven’s anteroom?
Perhaps the biggest, most unexpected dramatic moment of the series came when John Goodman’s character, Tulane professor Creighton Bernette, commits suicide by jumping off a ferry (n.b.: this was also the way monologist Spalding Gray killed himself). This was distressing, but more because it was Goodman than because it was Bernette. So in season 2 we’ll get less John Goodman, more Steve Zahn? Nooooo!
Dramatically, though, this could have been a moment of climactic insight into the plight of New Orleans and its citizens. The ubiquitous post-traumatic stress of living in post-K New Orleans led many people to become depressed (including some of my own friends and colleagues) and some to kill themselves. It could happen to anybody – another, more perverse “great equalizer.” But was that the only point? Because it’s an awfully statistical one for a high-end drama. It was never clear exactly why we were watching Creighton Bernette go through the textbook stages of depression, as opposed to any other character. Stringer Bell’s death, by contrast, was Shakespearean.
I don’t mean to carp, because I share at least some of Simon’s perspective as a journalist-outsider documenting this great city. I worked for The Times-Picayune and spent many years writing about New Orleans. I love the place. It is, indeed, wonderful. New Orleans is fascinating and complex, and does not fit the stereotypes the rest of America assigns it. It is self-destructive, yet worthy of redemption. But if you make it your purpose to explain to America why that is, or simply that it is, it will only take you so far. The challenge is in taking a step back and (while being true to the city’s character) showing why New Orleans really isn’t all that different from the rest of America. That’s the essence of its predicament. That’s why New Orleans is screwed. And why we all are.