Saturday, 23 April 2011

On 23.4.11 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments
Those who regularly follow my blog (all two of you) will know that my favourite TV series of all time is David Simon’s critically acclaimed The Wire. For this reason, I was of course excited to watch Simon’s new HBO series Treme, with the focus shifted from life on the crime-addled streets of Baltimore to the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans.Many features reminiscent of The Wire are present in Treme, which follows a similar structure. The pre-credits scene, the title montage, the dismissal of conventional storytelling devices (save for the opening caption “Three months after” and one flashback in the finale) – they’re all present. Like The Wire, the series follows an ensemble cast of characters that occasionally interact and are all in their own ways dealing with the same issues. The inadequacy of governments returns as one of Simon’s favourite themes; many blame the government for the fall of the levees, one character’s brother has been lost by the prison system and the re-opening of a group of housing projects is put off while many live homeless.

Nevertheless, Treme’s heroes – the citizens of New Orleans – are determined to fight this incompetence. Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman, grumpier and obese-ier than ever) uses the media and the internet to draw attention to the flooding being “not a natural disaster but a man-made fucking catastrophe of epic proportions". Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) records a series of political protest songs after losing his job as a radio DJ. LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) with her lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo, on fine form after her Oscar for The Fighter) fights the legal system in search of clues as to her brother’s fate. Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), a Mardi Gras Indian chief, stages a sit-in protest in the projects. These characters are determined to rebuild their city and not to give up against adversity from nature and from politics. (Interestingly, (SPOILERS!) the one who does give up and throw himself into a river is the middle-class white academic – possibly a comment on the determination of the black working classes, it’s hard to imagine Big Chief Lambreaux, who faces much worse destruction, doing the same. He was one of the less likable characters anyway.)

Thus, while Treme has the realism of The Wire, it is a much less gritty and depressing realism. From comparing these two series, the impression is given that New Orleans is a happier place than Baltimore. An enormous part of this is the music. Music is to Treme what crime is to The Wire, diegetically pervading pretty much every scene. The street performers, the Indians’ traditional a capello songs, the club trombonist, McAlary with his political protest songs, even a few cameos from Elvis Costello: it seems that everyone in Treme is a musician and indeed, maybe in New Orleans, it’s impossible not to be. Even grumpy Professor Bernette joins in at the Mardi Gras parades. New Orleans is united by its music; unlike in the gangs of The Wire, race is rarely an issue as white and black musicians play together. The celebration of this musical joie de vivre makes Treme a delight. In fact, this is the only show I can think of where I don’t want the title sequence to end, because of the marvellous "Treme Song" by John BouttĂ© with the beautifully edited montage juxtaposing scenes of destruction with those of happiness and culture.

While some viewers may find the plot slow paced (maybe that’s an understatement; one character’s entire nine-episode storyline is “she plays music with her boyfriend and then leaves him because he’s a dick”), I feel that the pleasure of Treme is not in the plot but in the characters and the culture. The majority of the characters are indeed likeable, involving and believable; by the end of the first episode I’d already stopped thinking of Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce’s characters as Freamon and Bunk (plus, by the end of the second episode I’d stopped finding it funny when Pierce’s Antoine Batiste refers to his trombone as “my bone”).

The season ended with a funeral, New Orleans style, with a black-clad brass band and mourners being joined by passers-by as they parade the street. A sombre, yet optimistic and beautiful ending. I’ll be interested to see where season two goes; although I’m a bit nervous that there’s not much more that can be done with some of the characters who didn’t have much of a plot anyway, the Wire-style introduction of new regular characters with each season should sustain interest. Plus, the musical scenes will always be enjoyable.Overall, while Treme has not yet reached the peaks of David Simon’s more pessimistic magnum opus in terms of the mixture of social criticism, compelling character studies and the way The Wire actually had a sort of plot (ish), many of my favourite elements of The Wire are still present. Combined with a much more optimistic sense of a vibrant culture fighting against adversity, this makes Treme a joy to watch.

I wouldn’t mind visiting New Orleans sometime. As long as I don’t go via Baltimore.


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