One day, maybe, I will have it in me to write something about The Wire. Though to be honest, there’s nothing my blunt little intellect could add to the discourse on what is in all likelihood the greatest television drama ever put to film. So obviously whatever the crew moved onto next was going to be of interest to me. When the trailers for their new project hit the web and it was clear they were doing a show about New Orleans, my expectations raised significantly. Having recently bought and read most of the massive print companion to The Wire, “Truth Be Told,” it was clear creator David Simon was appalled, if not surprised by what happened in New Orleans during the storm. FEMA’s reaction to seemed rife with storytelling opportunities on the institutional failures that left the city stranded. And while Treme [pr. Truh-may] does have some of that polemicizing, given form in a Tulane professor played by John Goodman, this is not what the show’s about. It’s about music, and culture, and how a people find themselves in the aftermath of tragedy.
The series follows people returning to the city and [mostly] people who never left. “How’s your house?” has become a standard greeting. A trumpet player pounding the pavement looking for gigs; a restauranteur trying to satisfy packed house every night with and undersupplied and understaffed kitchen; a disc jockey [Steve Zahn in the show’s most McNulty-like role] with a sense of entitlement trying to preserve the musical legacy of the city; a Mardi Gras Indian Chief trying to put his tribe back together; a barowner looking for her brother, who may have been in jail when he storm hit…as with most Simon shows, the cast is large and there’s not exposition for first time viewers. You get tossed in and left to fend for yourself. And the challenge is so satisfying, if a tad daunting.
I remember when we first started watching The Wire, I was taken aback but impressed that there was clearly a back story to all these characters and the viewer was never really told how they met or knew each other. Some things revealed as the show progressed, others never were. You put it together for yourself or you didn’t. Knowing that about Simon’s style makes Treme a bit of an easier go from the outset, but if you have no experience with his work or style [called the ‘fuck you approach’ to episodic television on Slate’s Culture Gabfest this week] you’ll be more than a little lost, and likely won’t enjoy the show, even if you enjoy some of the set pieces.
And those set pieces are many, and awesome to watch, from the ‘second line’ parade that starts the show; to a montage set to a Louis Prima soundtrack; to the sight of Clarke Peters [Lester on The Wire] in full Indian costume, using his authority as chief to convince a fellow tribe member to help him clear out an abandoned bar so they can practice for that year’s Carnival. You just don’t see this stuff on regular television.
Still, there are problems. Goodman’s character seems to clearly be a stand-in for Simon and the other writer’s thoughts on the disaster; he’s a kind of straw man right now. Also, the cast might be too large this early. There’s a lot to keep track of in the pilot, and I hope they get the time to develop everyone properly [news this week that the show’s already been picked up for a second season would bode well for that]. As well, the quest for authenticity in this show is teetering dangerously close to feeling forced. The Baltimore of The Wire was an immersive experience, because Simon and crew lived in that city their whole lives, they knew it inside and out before shooting a frame of film. The authenticity came organically, you never questioned why cops referred to themselves as ‘poh-lice’ or why Snoop made that weird birdsquawk noise. It was just what people did. Treme sometimes feels like it’s trying to provide a cultural seminar [I’m thinking here of Zahn’s character, who as that music snob you want to punch in the face is spot-on in his portrayal, but that’s just it, you want to punch him in the face]. Plainly, I don’t know who Dave Batholomew is, and I doubt this show is going to make my hunt down his catalog.
But the first season of The Wire was not without hiccups as well, and while it’s unfair to keep comparing, it’s necessary as a reminder that these people know how to do television, and I’m confident they’re not going to let me down. They’ve earned that much.