Written by David Simon, the person behind the acclaimed series, The Wire, Treme is a 10-part HBO series that dramatises the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the people of New Orleans — specifically in that district known as the Treme — and it is so good that it bears repeated viewing. (Please note, there are spoilers in what follows.)
Like many contemporary television dramas, the story slowly unwinds by following disparate characters doing their thing, so that it is fair to say that it is more a show of subplots than a central narrative, a series of intertwining stories where the lives of the characters crisscross, sometimes meaningfully, sometimes tangentially, as they get on with rebuilding their homes, their city, their lives after the disaster of Katrina.
It is a wonderful form of storytelling that is perfect for this sort of long-form drama.
From the opening theme — a snappy tune by New Orleans’ local, John Boutté(who sounds inordinatley like Stephen Stills) — it had me hooked.
The show is broadly political, commenting through the stories on the New Orleans police department, the (mal)administration of George W. Bush and the local New Orleans government. But the politics is not the point and is never allowed to dominate.
Which I think is fair enough, though I must admit I agree with criticisms of the show that suggest there is also no sense of where the blame ultimately lay for the disaster that befell the city. The idea that this in itself might be a political statement, that the impossibility of assigning blame and therefore responding to effectively is itself a political statement, has some merit too. But as Nicholas Lehmann points out:
Simon traffics a bit, especially in the later episodes of Treme, in another, less externalized theory of the disastrousness of Katrina, but it amounts to a general cultural, rather than a specific institutional, explanation. The idea is that New Orleans’s lack of Babbitry may be deeply appealing, but that it comes at a price: in exchange for being free of the standard all-consuming American preoccupation with progress, you get an excess of lassitude and inefficiency. LaDonna struggles for months to have the roof of her tavern repaired; finally a young guy appears, announces “I’m from Texas, and y’all got a deficient work ethic around here,” and completes the job in a couple of days. Janette, the chef, loses her restaurant and decides to move to New York and pursue her career ambitions there. “This town beat me,” she says. Davis, in the course of a day spent fruitlessly trying to persuade Janette to change her mind because life outside New Orleans is always unpardonably pallid and routinized, says, “Which would you rather have, a healthy economy or a four-hour lunch?” Exactly! I’ve had that conversation myself, back when I was in my early twenties and was spending a lot of time deciding whether to wrest myself away from New Orleans.
Neither form of generalized blame—of unsympathetic outsiders like Bush or unreliable insiders like Davis—is as useful as the story of what actually happened would be.
What the series does brilliantly is represent the broad range of cultures that make New Orleans the place of legend that it is. Whether it is black jazz musicians, the Cajuns, the Mardi Gras Indians, the endless buskers, the long-time white residents, whomever, the sheer diversity of the place seeps into the fabric of the show so that you are left with this very satisfying representation of a city loosely united by a shared tragedy.
The ensemble cast are stunningly good and some faces will be familiar from Simon’s other productions.
Of course, the thread that stitches it all together is the music. Like a walk around New Orleans itself, you cannot go far in the show without hearing people play. Never over-used, the music is deployed with skill and always with a fine regard to the needs of the narrative.
This is aided and abetted by the fact that many of the key characters are in fact musicians, so we see them jamming and busking, scamming for work, recording, or just belting out a tune for the hell of it. Several well-known musicians show up in the program, too, and it is fun to spot an Elvis Costello, a Steve Earle or a Allen Toussaint, for instance.
In fact, one of the joys of the series is hearing the musos talk to each other about the music. The clip below is a rehearsal involving Allen Toussaint, though I wish I could find the start of the sequence where he explains to the band how he wants them to play. That sort of interaction adds a whole other dimension to the show, especially for music fans.
I should also mention that another aspect of New Orleans life that comes through is the food. This is chiefly through the story of Janette Desautel, a local chef and friend-with-benefits to key character Davis McAlary. There’s a lovely scene where four big-time New York chefs (played by four actual big-time New York chefs, including Tom Colicchio) show up in her restaurant and she impresses them with the food she serves, improvising on the spot for their benefit. The fact that her business is collapsing around her in the aftermath of the storm adds poignancy, not to mention tragedy, to the moment.
I love that scene, though that clip only shows the first half of it.
There are many scenes of exquisite beauty in this epic production, individual moments that, even by themselves, make the hairs on your arms stand up. The moment when Big Chief Lambreaux gives his jazz-musician son a lesson in how to play swing is a classic, but I couldn’t find a clip.
There is an exchange between trombone player Antoine Batiste and another musician as they discuss “who’s going home” as they prepare to play a funeral parade that looks so natural that you’d think it was a doco.
And watch that parade! Talk about a funeral to die for.
Another brilliant moment is when Antoine’s ex-wife, LaDonna, finally lets go as she marches in the second line of a different funeral:
And there is the confrontation between two Indian tribes as they perform in the night-darkened streets. On the subject of which, I must admit the whole Mardi Gras Indian subculture was one I knew little about and I found the whole thing mesmerising, the unexpected combination of native American culture and African, as you can see in this clip:
But really, all such selections are arbitrary. The series is peppered with fine moments.
If there is a better more enjoyable television drama than this, David Simon hasn’t made it yet.
The show ends as Steve Earle sings his song ‘This City’ over the final credits. Best thing Earle has ever done, I reckon.