Why “Wire” Fans Will Love “Treme” (Spoilers)
I wish more fans of The Wire would watch Treme, David Simon's endlessly engaging ensemble piece about a group of New Orleanians rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Katrina. The Wire had the trappings of a police procedural, but at bottom it was a portrait of a city and its institutions, with the drug trade tying the police, the docks, City Hall, the schools, and the press together.
Treme is a similar type of story about post-Katrina New Orleans with music substituting for drugs as the unifying thread. In The Wire, the drug trade was Simon's opening to tell gripping stories about race, class, globalization, and corruption. Treme grapples with many of the above, plus questions about renewal, reinvention, authenticity, and innovation. When you've lost almost everything, how do you decide what's worth keeping and what you're better off without? When should you move on, and when should you stand and fight? When do you demand accountability, and when do you let go and start fresh? Many of the characters on Treme are musicians or chefs, so the questions are creative as well as personal and political. At what point does respect for tradition shade into nostalgia or harden into cliche? How do you reach back into tradition to find something that's vital rather than rote?
As the third season opens, Andy Greenwald of Grantland is dismissive of Treme:
More than 20 hours in, Treme remains the same admirable, well-intentioned, and even better-acted chore it’s been since the beginning. Its commitment to detail is unparalleled, its soundtrack is immaculate, and its drama is inert.
The drama of Treme is gut-wrenching, in part because the pacing is slow. David Simon takes his time and lets us get attached to the characters. He’s a master of the slow burn. If you're not haunted by Creigh’s inscrutable suicide, LaDonna's brutal rape, Harley's senseless murder, or Toni and Terry's misbegotten search for justice, I don't know what to tell you. If your heart didn't leap when LaDonna finally landed a hard kick to her rapist's ribcage, what the hell is wrong with you?
If you don't know who all these characters are yet, stay with me, I'll explain as we go along. I'm going to be recapping the third season.
Greenwald thinks there’s too much music on Treme. I disagree. Treme without music would be like The Wire without drugs. Music is woven into the plot the way music is woven into the fabric of life in the eponymous New Orleans neighborhood. It’s a plot element that ties the show’s diverse cast characters together. The music conveys the ineffable visceral bond that these otherwise loosely connected people feel for their city, their traditions, and each other.
Lawyer Toni Bernette fights for marching permits for the Mardi Gras Indians and retrieves musicians’ horns when they fall into police hands. Black musicians skirmish with the NOPD over their right to play in the streets. Political fortunes rise and fall based on a politician’s ability navigate city bureaucracy to keep Mardi Gras traditions alive. Spots on parade floats are political currency. Even the unscrupulous real estate developer is scheming to build a massive jazz performance center that will “monetize the culture.” Through a series performances, we see Annie, a transplanted young fiddle player, step out from the shadow of her abusive boyfriend and blossom as an artist.
Greenwald thinks that Treme fails to convey the pleasure that its characters take in life. How can he say that? The show combines beautiful cinematography and first-rate actors singing, dancing, fucking, eating, hanging out, and generally sucking the marrow out of life. I can't watch an episode without wishing I was there. You can practically smell Kermit Ruffins' barbecue and DJ Davis's spliffs. Treme is one of the most sensual shows on TV.
Greenwald also complains that the characters of Antoine Baptiste, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, and Toni Bernette struggle “against the restrictive nobility of their characters” in an effort that’s “ultimately more doomed than the levees.” I wonder if we're watching the same show.
Jazz trombonist Antoine is a charming and gifted musician, but his character is a womanizing ne'er do well who stiffs cab drivers and neglects his long-suffering girlfriend.
Albert can be stifling, but he’s not stiflingly noble. He's a righteous champion of Mardi Gras Indian tradtion, but he's also stubborn, angry, and casually cruel to his children.
Of the three, Toni Bernette is the closest to a "restrictively noble" character. She's a bleeding heart civil rights lawyer who forges unlikely, but wholly believable bonds with police officers who share her love for the city. In the hands of an actress less talented than Melissa Leo, her character might be a two-dimensional do-gooder. But Leo imbues Toni with so much warmth and grace that you can’t help but empathize with her soft-spoken but steely determination to hold New Orleans institutions accountable.
You wouldn't think a woman of Toni's background could form such a warm and easy rapport with redneck cops, black musicians, white hipsters, and city hall players, but Leo sells it. Toni is fascinating to watch because the character's uncanny ability to connect flows so naturally from the character Leo has created.
Treme is one of the most important shows on TV today. It combines Simon's knack for memorable characters with a visual sensibility that far surpasses the rough-and-ready camerawork of the The Wire. I hope Wire fans will give the show a chance. It asks a lot of the viewer, but the payoff is worth it.