DVD/Movie/TV review

Sep 28, 2010

Treme-intertitleWritten by David Simon, the person behind the acclaimed series, The WireTreme 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.

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6 thoughts on “Down in the Treme

  1. Tim Dunlop

    Ben, I think there is something in that about it being a loving homage and probably lacks the edge of The Wire and maybe that in turn can be seen as making Treme a lesser production than The Wire. Certainly that piece I linked to (and quoted) suggests something along those lines.

    Still, I wonder about the efficacy of even comparing the two. In fact, I often wonder this about about music too, comparing an artist’s albums one to the other. I wonder how useful that is as a critiquing tool.

    So I guess I’m glad I haven’t seen The Wire and therefore didn’t feel the need to compare Treme with it (or rather, couldn’t). I mean, it’s just the luck of the draw, just a fluke that I saw Treme first, but there you go!

    Regardless, it’s nice to be discussing this stuff in terms of levels of greatness. As I said above, the quality of American television drama of this sort in the last 15-odd years has just been extraordinary.

    (And I’m really excited that I have 5 whole series of The Wire ahead of me!)

  2. joni

    I am just watching The Wire on my iPad (used it on my Qantas flight). Loving it. Some tremendous acting and the story keeps you wondering what is going to happen. Will check out Treme next.

  3. Ben Harris-Roxas

    Treme’s a loving, and seemingly faithful homage to New Orleans. Whilst I don’t disagree with any aspect of your review Tim the show left me cold when I saw it in the US. The music, the characters, are all engaging at first glance. Yet somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

    If the Wire had a central identity it was the city of Baltimore itself. Whilst its characters were capable of kindness and callousness it was the institutions and circumstances they found themselves in that betrayed them most. New Orleans looms large in Treme, full of colour and character, but somehow still a stranger. Comparisons may be unfair though; Treme is its own show, different from The Wire in many ways.

    Has Simon’s genuine desire to pay tribute to New Orleans and its people hamstrung him here? I think so. If he was as damning of NOLA as he is loving of it, Treme would be an impressive show indeed.

    (The scene with Colicchio and Ripert was a bit of a thrill though.)

  4. Tim Dunlop

    Take your point about best drama. My view is more that I enjoyed it more than any series I can think of, though I must say, American television drama is so unbelievably good that even that might be overstating it. Shows like Breaking Bad, Big Love, Sopranos etc etc etc make choosing a best or a favourite pretty difficult.

    Funnily enough, although I know all the hype, I haven’t watched The Wire. Or rather, I watched the first episode last night. Yes, very late to the party, but I have all that wonderfulness ahead of me!

    I haven’t been to NO post Katrina, but would love to get back some time.

  5. Katielou

    Just before you linked this, I was searching for the CD of the soundtrack of this great show. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but after watching Treme, I really want to go. I loved how the music was weaved into the everyday life – New Orleans certainly seemed like an intoxicating place.

    You might get some argument as to whether this is the best drama ever. I think The Wire was a TV masterpiece and Treme is not as challenging to the viewer as that series – I didn’t need the subtitles to understand the dialogue in Treme, for example. Not that that should be the measure of which is better – The Wire was more complex and almost unrelentingly dark in tone. I don’t have the same desire to visit Baltimore. Treme still requires a decent investment by the viewer but was easier to watch, imo. Bravo to David Simon, and I understand there’s a second series on the horizon.

    (aka pudgyfeet in Twitter)

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